Interview: Hans Goas on the Church’s Crisis: ‘It’s a Disaster for the Institution’

Sociologist and Catholic Hans Goas talks about the influence of the church as an obstacle to religiosity. However, he still considers it necessary.

Mr. Jawas, why is it still the church? Why still debt?

Hans Joas: It is interesting that the word still appears in both questions, as is often the case when talking about religion. Years ago, on a trip from Berlin, the center of my life, to Munich, my home country, I was sitting next to someone who was reading a travel guide to Munich. She said that in Munich one can still see Christians in Corpus Christi procession. The American Travel Guide seems to say: You can still try the Sioux rain dance. Strange thing, go there! Who knows for how long … this “persistence” often found in this context seems understandable in Germany as if Christianity is on the verge of disappearing. Globally, however, there can be no doubt as to whether one finds it good or bad. The question of whether people need religion at all or whether all religions will gradually disappear is actually a question that goes back twenty years.

But their condition in Germany is relatively disastrous, at least in general perception, isn’t it?

Jawas: Yes, and hence the more substantive argument: Can you not be religious or spiritual without the institution? Because of course this is the result of the fact that people do not view the church as an opportunity to condemn them, but as an obstacle. This is just a sobering discovery – and of course a disaster from the point of view of the establishment. I don’t think this situation is really justified, but I can certainly understand that the scale of the sexual assault cases, and more than that, the extent of the cover-up bothers a lot of people to the core and drives them to identify with this establishment.

and now?

Read also about this

Jawas: I would counter that with the old Catholic metaphor of the Mother Church – which of course seems a bit silly and seems out of place today. But this is only true if you have a perfect image of mothers and motherhood, according to which mothers are always in great shape and always want the best for their children. But if you have a realistic picture, then this means: the mother is a person with her own needs, which can also have a distorting effect on the relationship with children, and also gives advice that it is better not to follow, she can. Until you do just that to fail. But she remains a mother through it all. The explanation that I no longer want to do anything with my mother doesn’t really remove contact with my mother, it’s me. And when you think of church, you can also think of a mother in the sense that you say: Yes, I know where to stay away from my mother – but she remains my mother. For in order not to become morally self-right, or to distance oneself from one’s parents or from the institution of the Church, the tone of love must remain in spite of all hopelessness.

What else does the church have to offer people?

Jawas: The Christian faith cannot be limited to offering something like solace or stability – although of course it is fun when it does. But faith should not be used as a quasi-therapeutic method, that is, attempt only because it is beneficial to us, even if only through self-suggestion. I think you have to defend yourself against that and present a more demanding image. This sees the Christian in a faith with a cosmic morality. It not only serves self-stability and self-improvement – it also places high demands on myself. I can’t be morally straight, for example. In this context, I really appreciate Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee in the synagogue: Lord, I thank you that I am not like the others. I come here every day, keep all your commandments… – Not like the tax collector over there. The point, of course, is that Jesus much prefers the humility of a publican who hardly dares to enter his house. Morally yes, but against moral self-righteousness.

In an interview with our editors, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk said that this particular institution has gone beyond its role in society. For the future on a larger scale, and perhaps even union on a global scale, he would rather anticipate the emergence of an ecological debt…

Jawas: Members of the various religious denominations and laymen will meet at best in their attitude to such questions, in the common moral responsibility of all for all. In the global community’s perception of responsibility in the global processes of climate change, a global coalition of ethicists who can be left to diverse traditions can establish itself. But I don’t think it makes sense to think that this might lead to the replacement of religions.

There is also a description that, as an alternative to the Church, human rights as the core of the faith can give rise to a kind of universal civil religion…

Jawas: In a book on human rights, the American historian Samuel Moen described this as the last utopia – the “last utopia”: because here all people can find themselves as part of the whole, even after the disappearance of all political utopias, especially those who have left. I do not share this opinion. For me, talking about human dignity means talking about a moral minimum. This is not a utopia, but a transnational attempt to ensure that certain standards are not undermined. As in the history of human rights, it is about the concrete abolition of torture and slavery – with a condition: everything can be left to political debate, but what violates human rights must not happen. No political goal can justify torture and slavery, for example. From this point of view it is not a question of utopia or civil religion. But undoubtedly there are actors who want to separate all kinds of political regulations from human rights. In this way, these demands would not be politically contested, but rather are set out fairly clearly through quotations from the Declarations of Human Rights.

for example?

Jawas: Recently, someone held a banner that read “Abortion is a human right” in protest of abortion rights in the United States. Without going into the question of abortion now: This is not at all true in the sense that it is found in any declaration of human rights. Instead, the people here just want to give their positions the highest level of legitimacy by saying: it is a human right. But this illustrates the problem. Denn natürlich gibt es in den Menschenrechten eine Expansionstendenz – weil es ja Fragen gibt, an die Autoren seinerzeit nicht gedacht haben, die zu stellen aber legitim ist, zum Beispiel zu den Rechort de ren der ren schwante Bechun d’Or d’Or he is. But this expansion should not be arbitrary.

But to what extent can the Church itself “remain” the authority, especially in matters of morality?

Jawas: It is inevitable that believers frame their beliefs in accordance with their morals. This does not mean that they ask the pastor how they should build their married life or that the pastor steps in on his own. But the Christian connects his daily life with the message of Jesus Christ and cannot simply say that he does not care about it in his daily conduct. In this respect, faith cannot be something I have for myself—otherwise I am not interested in moral issues, nor am I interested in how moral concepts are passed on to future generations. But it is much more complicated than having a list of rules that Christians must follow in Christianity. Thus individual religions will continue to play a role in moral debates in pluralistic societies, but today as one position among several groups.

But why the institution then?

Jawas: Because I can’t stick to being so focused on all of the people alone. We want to pass this on to other people and future generations together – and in a society we already have prior experience of what could become.

Hans Guas, 73 years old, one of the most important sociologists of our time. Born in Munich, he teaches at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and is the author of several books. He has recently published a book called “Why the Church? – Self-improvement or Religious Community” (Herder, 240 pages, €22)

Leave a Comment