Wednesday, May 30, 2007
These final three days of May mark the (73rd) anniversary of the meeting that produced the Barmen Declaration. In that statement, much of it written by Karl Barth, the Confessing Church wing of the German Protestant churches condemned the "German Christian" movement under which so many German Protestants embraced Nazism -- with its early appeals to discipline and national purpose as well as racial prejudice -- as a new revelation of God. (More background here.) The stirring first section of the Declaration directly attacks that claim of revelation:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God's revelation.
Later the Declaration rejects
the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day[,]
the false doctrine that beyond its special commission [to maintain justice and peace through actual or threatened force] the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.
Although the Barmen Declaration is a Protestant document, I expect that Catholics would embrace much of it as part of our great shared tradition about the proper roles of the church and the state -- just as Protestants, for example, should embrace the Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council. But are there aspects of the Barmen Declaration toward which Catholics should maintain reservations or make critiques? I imagine one common Catholic reaction reaction might be that Jesus, the only Word of God, is attested to in the authoritative teaching of the Church as well as in Scripture. Indeed, one can argue -- as I think Rick suggested here (with my rejoinder here) -- that only a strong institutional Church can successfully counter the pretensions of the nation-state. I readily agree that Protestants, who tend to lack such an empirical form of authority and unity, historically have had a bad tendency to simply mirror the attitudes of the local or national community even when those were un-Christian. (See, e.g., not only the German Christians, but also Southern segregation, which was challenged locally much more by Catholic clergy than by Protestants.) On the other hand, it seems to me that the historic temptation in Catholicism is to identify too simply or easily the institutional Church's interests with the living of the Gospel -- see, e.g., bishops' mishandling of sexual abuse by priests -- and that this tendency can lead to compromises with the state on issues of justice so long as the state defers to the Church on matters affecting it as an institution. See, e.g., concordats with fascist Italy, Germany, and Spain.
At any rate, the Barmen Declaration is worth including in anyone's canon of great Christian statements on church and state.