Conference Report: Catholicism in Germany: Contemporary History and the Present

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 1 (March 2013)

Conference Report: Catholicism in Germany: Contemporary History and the Present (Katholizismus in Deutschland – Zeitgeschichte und Gegenwart), October 26 – 27, 2012, Katholische Akademie in Bayern

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University, and Christoph Kösters, Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, Bonn

On September 17, 1962, a new Catholic historical association was called into existence – the Association for Contemporary History, or as it was known in German at the time, die Kommission für Zeitgeschichte bei der Katholischen Akademie in Bayern. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, nearly 200 researchers from various academic disciplines, journalists, clergymen, contemporaries and interested laity gathered at the birthplace of the Kommission at the Catholic Academy in Bavaria. From their meeting-place on the edge of the English Garden in Munich, they discussed its origins and steps for future research into German Catholicism.

The dozen panelists took up three major questions:  What historical context led to the founding of this historical association?  How did its subjects for research and its historical methodologies change over five decades?  What can a historical retrospective of this association tell us about future directions for research into German Catholicism?  The conference focused on three distinct eras – the Nazi era, the “long sixties,” in which scholarly work into the church’s past under National Socialism received a decisive impetus, and finally the present.  In some of its panels, scholars from the latter two eras were paired up.  Younger historians offered a look back at the debates, controversies and trends that shaped the Association’s founding and activities in the 1960s; they were immediately followed by commentaries from historians, theologians and sociologists whose work began in earnest from the late 1950s through the early1970s.  A closing podium discussion allowed the audience to pose questions directly to a group of five scholars of contemporary religion and debate the state of the field.

The founding of the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte served as the point of departure for the conference. Mark Edward Ruff (St. Louis) placed this seminal event within the context of the historical controversies over the Roman Catholic Church’s past during the Nazi era. It was the battles of the legal status of the Reichskonkordat from 1933 and the controversies over unflattering reinterpretations of the Catholic past from critics like the legal scholar and historian, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, and the American Catholic sociologist, Gordon Zahn, that helped catalyze its founding between 1959 and 1962. Ruff was followed by Hans Maier, the CSU politician and scholar, who discussed the limitations of Catholic resistance during the Third Reich.

Antonius Liedhegener (Luzern) argued that organized lay-Catholicism helped consolidate the church’s acceptance of democracy in the “long sixties.” These lay organizations accepted the increasingly pluralistic society of the Federal Republic of Germany and played a powerful role in solidifying German civil society.  Presenting an array of statistical data from public opinion polls, Liedhegener criticized those interpretations which focused on the role of protest movements in 1968 in securing support for a “second founding of the Federal Republic.” The ensuing discussion made clear that his mental shift was facilitated by new understandings of religious freedom that emerged out of the Second Vatican Council and of the new role for the “church in the world.”

In the second section, “The Future of Research into Catholicism,”  Frank Bösch (Potsdam) focused on the relationship between the media and German Catholicism.  Bösch argued that the media itself underwent a process of fundamental transformation during the long sixties. It was not an impartial commentator summarizing events as they occurred but an independent actor with its own agenda.  In providing its own interpretation of religious messages and calling for different forms of spirituality, the new media world helped pluralize the world of German Catholicism. It gave a loudspeaker to alternative voices that in the preceding decades had scarcely been heard.  Franziska Metzger (Fribourg), in turn, focused on the transformation of religious and theological semantics.

In the ensuing discussion, some in the audience questioned the extent to which transformations in religious vocabulary were specific to the domain of Catholicism: were they part of a larger societal transformation? Others were troubled by the methodologies derived from cultural history and linguistics. Is it no longer possible to speak of “Catholicism” as a coherent subject for inquiry, particularly as it became increasingly pluralized by the late 1960s and old forms of political Catholicism became a relic of the past? This discussion was intensified by Matthias Sellmann’s (Bochum) analyses of present-day Catholicism. He laid out a picture of the transformation into which the church had been forced by modern society.  Since the late 1990s, the Roman Catholic church has gone from being perceived as an “institution” with a specific religious mission to fulfill to an “organization” with no homogenous and controllable social form.

On the second day of the conference, five young scholars — Thomas Brechenmacher (Potsdam), Franziska Metzger, Ferdinand Kramer (Munich), Thomas Großbölting (Münster), Olaf Blaschke (Heidelberg) and Harry Oelke (Munich) — took to the podium to discuss perspectives for future research. They all agreed that comparative religious history that crossed denominational and national borders was necessary, so long as scholars did not lose sight of the peculiarities of Catholicism. They also called for further work into the history of gender and religion.

The conference closed with a dialogue between the two chairmen of the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, Wilhelm Damberg (Bochum) and Michael Kißener (Mainz) over what the panels and discussions about new methodologies and research subjects could signify for the future of their institution as it enters into its next half-century of life.  Both concluded that questions about religious and ecclesiastical change from the 1960s through the 1970s will move to the center of historical research into Catholicism, the need to further pursue the history of the church and of Catholicism under the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century notwithstanding. Damberg and Kißener accordingly noted that questions about the Catholic milieu and its formation in the 19th century will recede in importance.  In light of these changes, they insisted that it will remain necessary for the Kommission to continue publishing the many volumes of church documents, for which it gained a strong reputation already in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Rather remarkably, there was little to hear about the Second Vatican Council itself, which began just a few weeks after the Kommission was founded in September, 1962. One might also speculate how differently the discussions and panels might have unfolded had Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in October 2012 rather than in February 2013. All in all, however, the conference provided a valuable opportunity to take stock of the state of the field at what seems to be a moment of transition.