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Freedom of Expression in the Catholic Church
Prof. Dr. Michael Böhnke / Systematic Theology
Photo: Private

There is a crack going through the church

Theologian Michael Böhnke on Freedom of Expression in the Catholic Church

"A basic remark beforehand; study, research and teaching form a unity for me," says Michael Böhnke, Professor of Systematic Theology in the School of Humanities. That's why current topics are always reflected in his courses. "The discussion of human rights in my courses is experienced by many students as relatively liberating because they can talk openly. This has now been confirmed to me once again in the winter semester by numerous feedbacks."  The teaching content of two main seminars included the history of human rights and human rights declarations from the 5th century B.C. to the present day, as well as the historical changes that have shaped the popes' positions on human rights over the past two centuries. Böhnke wants to understand the foundations on which a critical formation of opinion is possible. From the 19th-century condemnation in the so-called Syllabus errorum, a list of 80 "errors" of modernity in which Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1864 rejected almost everything that was then considered modern, namely liberalism, rationalism and human rights, to the approval by John XXIII and his successors. "There was a radical change there," the scholar explains. "I think it's essential for the communication of the Gospel to know these developments, to critically research and discuss on a scientific basis the justification of human rights and the current human rights practice of the Church, in order to form one's own judgment; for example, on issues of gender or even children's rights."

Critically accompany the communication of the Gospel

Böhnke, a dogmatist, heads the Systematic Theology Department in Catholic Theology at the School of Humanities at University of Wuppertal. The contents of his chair include philosophy of religion, fundamental theology, dogmatics, theological ethics as well as Christian social sciences and sometimes even canon law. Systematic theology is one of four disciplinary groups within Catholic theology. The other three then include Biblical, Historical and Practical Theology. "Systematic theology is, and this may come as a surprise, a practical science" explains the Ratingen native. "The object of study of fundamental theology and dogmatics is the practice of Christian faith. Systematically working theologians study and research this practice, which on the one hand is standardized by the church in terms of content, but on the other hand is also shaped by the individual's act of faith." In this way, he said, he wants to critically accompany with his students, following a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's successor Ernst Lange, 'the communication of the Gospel.' "We want to open up reliable paths for it and, of course, on a scientific basis, we want to give the Christian practice of faith new possibilities for understanding itself." In the preface of his just published new book 'Geistbewegte Gottesrede' he also makes this clear once again.

The universal claim of human rights

In 2017, Böhnke and other actors organized an international symposium on "Human Rights in the Catholic Church" at the German Historical Institute in Rome, sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG). "The universal claim of human rights to apply everywhere and without restriction," he says, "thereby posed a challenge to ecclesiology, to the teachings of the Church, which also affects Catholic Church law. It is true that the church and inner-church groups such as Misereor or Adveniat are often emphatically committed to respecting and enforcing human rights, for example in refugee issues," he continues, "but canon law itself to this day contributes only to a very limited extent to the recognition and enforcement of human rights. And here I see a great need to catch up. Human rights, just like state law, would have to underpin ecclesiastical law," because they function equally as a basis for state law and ecclesiastical law.

The Catholic Church has a democratic deficit

A contradiction in terms seems to be the fact that the Catholic Church both supports dictatorships and defends human rights, especially in Latin American countries. "From a human rights perspective, I would say the Catholic Church certainly has a democratic deficit. The subject of the separation of powers, which is so important for the peaceful coexistence of people, has hardly been adequately addressed in theological terms. We can also see this in the church here in Germany." Here, the theological discourse must show the popes and the church's magisterium ways that lead out of these ambivalences, Böhnke believes. "These ambivalences are caused, among other things, by the fact that Pope John Paul II felt committed to the fight against communism. In Poland, it was the rulers he fought against. In doing so, he invoked human rights. But in South America, it was precisely not the rulers, but the followers of the theological movement of the Theology of Liberation, who themselves fought for the implementation of human rights," he says, and that, in his opinion, was not appreciated by John Paul II. "Building a peaceful society, that's the crazy thing, is actually a common goal of church and human rights."

Without freedom there is no peace

There are plenty of internal conflicts with Rome. On freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, the positions are far apart. Among students, Böhnke notices that freedom rights are not in the foreground. "Equality rights, such as gender issues and issues of inclusion etc., dominate public discourse and determine the consciousness of our students. You have to introduce the majority of students to the issue of freedom." For this reason, he is not surprised that populism, especially fueled by Donald Trump, has had such an easy time vilifying the press, and that the church also has a hard time with freedom of speech and freedom of the press. "Sometimes I have the impression, this now affects state action as well as church action, that in terms of freedom rights, the wheel of history is to be pushed back with power by the powerful. At the same time, I find it difficult to see the church as an advocate of civil rights, even though its basic message is that it wants to be." In Jesus Christ, God freely decided that he did not want to be God without human beings. And in doing so, he placed his faith in the freedom of people. "From that point of view, the church should be an advocate of freedom. And without freedom there can be no peace," says Böhnke firmly.

The appreciation of gender

In the gender debate, the Auxiliary Bishop of Essen, Ludger Schepers, recently called for an 'appreciation of the genders that can be read off in speech and action.' He said the church wants to 'act in a gender-sensitive way at all levels.' "Whether the church wants that," Böhnke muses, "I don't know." At the Roman human rights symposium, scholars even spoke of a Catholic anti-gender strategy or cast doubt on the free choice of life status. "The question of marriage for same-sex couples must be considered here, as well as the question of access to church ordination offices. So far, neither a blessing of same-sex couples, nor an ordination of women or persons who are diverse to deacons, bishops or priests is possible in the Catholic Church. And I think what's missing here is a reflection on the dignity of the person, which is added regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation."  According to Böhnke, this could be based on Immanuel Kant's Metaphysics of Morals, for example, because personal dignity belongs to people regardless of their gender etc., because the human being is to be regarded and recognized as a moral being with an unconditional value. The view of the person is important, and this also applies to Jesus Christ, whom the Church venerates as a person through whom and in whom God became man, the theologian argues and concludes: "With regard to the question of office, the Church should discuss whether, from the aspect of personhood and personal dignity, women cannot represent the person of Jesus Christ in their actions in the same way as men."

Power and interpretive authority in the Archdiocese of Cologne

When talking about human rights in the Catholic Church, one also involuntarily comes to the topic of homosexuality and abuse. Cardinal Woelki withholds an expert opinion he commissioned from the law firm Westphal Spilker Wastl on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Cologne and commissioned a new expert opinion. He was sharply criticized for this. Can a clarification of misconduct in the Catholic Church therefore only take place according to one-sided conditions? Böhnke follows the public discourse very closely and has noticed a strong sense of uncertainty among his students in this context. "We therefore held two discussion evenings last semester together with the Catholic university community, which met with a very strong response," Böhnke tells us, because students are afraid. The public discourse of the last few days is about the question of power and sovereignty of interpretation, and anyone who has ever worked with communications agencies knows how professional the approach is. "For me personally, it is more important to speak in such a way that I can signal to possible victims of sexualized abuse that they will be heard and they will also find an advocacy voice. It's more important for me to help reduce fear among students." On the current, political dimension, he says, "In my opinion, we are miles away in the Archdiocese of Cologne from an independent criminological, legal and historical as well as theological reappraisal of sexualized violence in the church."

Is the church losing touch with the faithful?

Very recently, one reads titles in the media such as 'Cologne is stocking up on dates for church resignations' and renowned historians even see the existence of the Catholic Church threatened in the foreseeable future. This quickly raises the question of whether the church could lose contact with its faithful. Böhnke comments: "The Cologne church leadership sometimes gives the impression that it has already lost contact. Church departures are one issue. We are at a university where more than 400 students are preparing to teach Catholic religion as teachers in public schools. And many students are currently asking, "Did I choose the wrong subject?" It's not just about a loss of church members, he said, but to some extent about the future of the church, and that was evident even before the abuse allegations. "The official church is reaching fewer and fewer people," the researcher emphasizes, "it was first those on the margins who were no longer reached, and then even under Pope Benedict XVI, one no longer reached one's own core congregation. There was something like talk of a vertical schism, between the top and the bottom, and that has intensified to some extent because the Cologne diocese leadership has already said goodbye to some of its pastors and priests. It's not just about membership numbers. It's about a rift going through the church that could have unforeseeable consequences."

Human rights should play a more decisive role in the Church's commitment to the future of humanity

According to political scientist Hans Maier, human rights may have reached the church in the 20th and 21st centuries, but he also doubts whether they have really penetrated its very core. "Hans Meier is not only a political scientist. He is also a politician, was a minister in Munich for a long time until he fell out with Franz Joseph Strauß, and was also president of the Central Committee of German Catholics for a long time, i.e. the highest lay representation in German Catholicism," Böhnke explains, "and Hans Maier already dealt with the question of human rights in the church in the 1960s. So he has an overview of developments both as a scientist and as a responsible politician. I appreciate his judgment and his very clear language, and I think he's simply right in what he said there." At the same time, he said, one should not underestimate the fact that the church has benefited not insignificantly from the politically-driven discourse on human rights in recent decades. "So without Helsinki (The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IFH) was an international non-governmental organization that existed from 1982 to 2007 and had the mission of protecting respect for human rights in OSCE states. It included 46 national organizations and was based in Vienna - editor's note) even John Paul II could not have brought the human rights discourse to Eastern Europe. Human rights were a crucial reference point for him at the beginning of his pontificate in the fight against communism in his native Poland." They should play a more decisive role in the Church-sponsored North-South dialogue, he said, and in Böhnke's opinion, they should likewise play a more decisive role in the Church's commitment to the future of humanity. This would concern both a more just world economic order and ecological issues. "For both, the church would also have to show a little more willingness to reform within itself."    
At least, the theologian sees a first approach to such a willingness to reform already implemented by a remarkable church decision: Pope Francis has changed the church teaching regarding the death penalty due to the human rights discourse.

Uwe Blass  (interview on February 17, 2021)



Michael Böhnke studied Catholic theology, philosophy and modern history at the universities of Bonn and Tübingen. In 1983, he received his doctorate from the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Bonn. After working in Trier and Aachen, he habilitated in Münster in 2000. Since 2004 he has been a university professor of Catholic Theology: Systematic Theology at the University of Wuppertal.