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Germany

The political responsibility of the church

Martin Luther was a priest, but he was also a passionate reformer and loved to get involved in politics. Almost 500 years later, both the Protestant and Catholic Churches are again looking for their political footing.

The nailing of his 95 reformist theses onto a church door almost 500 years ago turned Catholic priest Martin Luther into a political activist - no matter what his intentions may have been at the time.

The changes he initiated led to wars of faith and to a new balance of power between the church and the state. Today, Luther is often regarded - by Protestants at least - as a hero who dared to speak up in times when others remained silent. He criticized the rulers of the day and demanded that individuals take on more responsibility.

Is the church entitled to take action in a politically motivated way? Or, perhaps even obligated to do so? The question is still an issue today.

Political responsibility as a Christian virtue

Johannes zu Eltz, Photo: Fredrik von Erichsen/dpa

Clergy need to be socially active, said zu Eltz

For the dean of the city of Frankfurt's Catholic community, Johannes zu Eltz, there's no question about it: "I think, the Church by itself is something political." In an interview with DW, zu Eltz said he believes political responsibility and initiative are part of being Christian.

For Christianity to be removed from or even deprived of politics is not a option: "The core responsibility of the Church - that is: the community of believers - is not to sit in a petting zoo behind high walls and play with glass marbles, but to stand with both feet on the ground and - according to the Bible - get involved in any way one can to make this world a better place."

Just how someone chooses to get involved is up to the individual. In any case, it's not up to the Church as an organization to take center stage, according to zu Eltz, but rather, the social aspect as defined by church members.

In fact, zu Eltz doesn't see political involvement as something merely to strive for, but to actively pursue. He is a member of the Frankfurt Römerberg group, a coalition of local Christian communities, the Jewish community and social organizations. "The group has the declared goal to use peaceful means to make it very difficult or even impossible for the NPD and other neo-nationalistic organizations in Frankfurt to stage public appearances."

Assuming a regular political office, however, is forbidden for Catholic clergy by Church law. That is why Protestant priests and theologians can fill out positions in German governments, while their Catholic counterparts cannot. Political activity, on the other hand, is something Catholics are entitled - and, according to zu Eltz - even obligated to.

Stronger action on behalf of Germany's poor

According to Ulrich Kasparick, a Protestant priest from Hetzdorf in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the Church should focus more on important social issues. As an example he names the celebrations for Reformation Day - calling them often superficial and influenced by temporary trends.

Ulrich Kasparick Photo: Personal collection

Asylum policies, xenophobia and poverty are key issues for the Church, Kasparick said

From 2005 to 2009, for example, Kasparick was appointed state secretary in Germany's Ministry of Education and Science. In 2009, however, the theologian turned his back on the Social Democratic Party which he had been a member of, and took on a position as a local priest in the Uckermark region.

Core issues for him to tackle, he said, are asylum policies, xenophobia and the effects of the Hartz IV welfare scheme on Germany.

"We can't just stand by and watch whole parts of society fall into poverty," Kasparick told DW, calling for religious leaders to speak out clearly on issues of concern. "What I miss is a public discourse about the consequences of Hartz IV, especially in eastern Germany and the industrial centers of the west. A unified voice of the Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, calling for the improvement of the situation these people are in."

Criticizing the German mission in Afghanistan

Margot Käßmann Photo: EKD Archive

Käßmann caused a furor when she argued against Germany's military's role in Afghanistan

But, according to Margot Käßmann, the political responsibility of the church should extend further than that. A former bishop of the German Lutheran Church of Hanover, she is currently Luther-ambassador for the 2017 Reformation jubilee. In an interview with DW, she said of the reformer who lived half a millennium ago: "Luther had an ideal image of equal education and participation. He said: 'Every child should learn how to read and write to boost its awareness and not have to rely on what others tell him.'"

In 2010 when Käßmann caused a considerable political discussion, saying that "nothing is good in Afghanistan," criticizing the German military mission in the country. "In Germany, we pretended to send a technical aid mission to Afghanistan, building wells and schools for girls. In America, I once told them that we were wondering whether that, too, is war. The Americans had only laughed and replied: Of course it's war - what else is it? That's a truth the Germans long refused to accept."

No party politics

And where is the Church to hold back? On this point, Käßmann, Kasparick and zu Eltz agreed: It is not to make any statements regarding party politics - something that was still customary in the years following the Second World War. Back then, speaking from their pulpit, priests actively endorsed certain political parties.

"That's no job for the Church. Responsible citizens must know on their own whom to give their voice," said Käßmann. She has spoken out for a society more open to debates: "Maybe the Church and politics need to learn that again - those passionate discussions, that wrestling with issues and solutions. And this debate about the truth can happen inside the Church, too - without anyone claiming this to be unchristian!"

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