“NO!” – Political Christianity and the Social Responsibilities of Theologians

“NO!” – Political Christianity and the Social Responsibilities of Theologians

In July 2019 the Diocese of Dubrovnik in Croatia organised a Theology Summer School on the theme of “Theology and Plurality”. They invited four tutors to give lectures and run workshops during the week—Professor Željko Tanjić of the University of Zagreb, Professor Carmelo Dotolo of the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome, Professor Pantelis Kalaitzidis of the Volos Academy in Greece, and Professor Tina Beattie of the University of Roehampton in London. Tina’s involvement with Catherine of Siena College and Catholic Women Speak suggested to the organizers that she would be well-qualified to speak on the topic of challenges and opportunities facing Catholic women in contemporary plural societies.

Her invitation attracted widespread publicity owing to a social media campaign objecting to her presence because of her positions on controversial issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and women’s ordination. The bishop of Dubrovnik, Bishop Mate Uziniç, resisted calls for her to be excluded and she wrote an article in The Tablet describing how positive an experience the summer school turned out to be.

The controversy inspired four Croatian theologians to publish a reflection on the responsibilities and challenges of doing theology in the public sphere. This was published by the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji Vijesti on 28th July 2019. This is the English translation. Please feel free to share it through your networks.

What do Croatian theologians say when they are silent?

This letter had a simple aim—to stimulate responsible theological engagement in the public sphere. It was written in less than optimal circumstances in the context of a heated debate that arose around the organization of a theological summer school in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The school was announced as a week-long set of lectures, discussions and workshops on the role of theology in plural contemporary societies. Somewhat surprisingly, it soon attracted harsh criticisms that challenged not only the dialogical orientation of the school but also its organizers and lecturers. One of these, Professor Tina Beattie, was on multiple occasions (unjustly) accused of promoting abortion and even characterized as a “notorious heretic”. These reactions, seen as a symptom of a larger problem of ‘theological silence’ in Croatia, were the immediate precursors of this letter.

Starting with the premise that Croatian theological space is too often marked with missed opportunities for responsible theological engagement, the letter aspired to remind theologians of their ecclesial and social mission, especially their duties to respond to public abuses of power and the unjust suffering of people.

At the same time, the letter wanted to underline the difference between religiously inspired engagement in the political sphere and political religion. While the first concept represents a necessary commitment to the common good, based on the actualization and rereading of theological tradition, the latter is understood as an ideological discourse concealed within theological vocabulary that ultimately results in real or symbolic violence. The danger of transforming religion into political religion is all too common nowadays. It is our hope that the letter will point to a Kairos, an opportune moment for starting renewed theological self-reflection and engagement in Croatia and further.

OUR ‘NO!’—Silent Theologians Allowing the Abuse of Christianity:

Open Letter from Croatian Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant Theologians

There are moments in the life of every person and community that are called Kairos. Kairos calls for courageous action, whether it be a sequence of events during which we need to do something to make our own lives better, or bold moves with the potential to redirect the course of events. There are few such moments in life but they have the power to influence the direction of a life in terms of the ideas and customs of a person or a community. If we miss them, we miss something extremely important. Biblical terms that use the term Kairos (eg Ex 13,10) also bear witness to this.

With reference to theology, history reminds us of several such important moments: Kairos for example was the moment when Cyril of Alexandria led a bold theological debate with Nestorius, when Bartolomé de las Casas defended the rights of indigenous people against the colonizers. Kairos was the moment that the great German Protestant theologian Karl Barth recognized and said a loud and clear “Nein!” to the German Lutheran Church’s support for Hitler’s regime and drew up the famous 1933 Barmen Declaration. Another such moment was the loud and clear “No!” of the Latin American Jesuits against the oppression of the poor which began the Theology of Liberation. Such a moment was the loud and clear “No!” to the racial and sexual marginalization of members of the black community and women in the Church and theology, through which Black and Feminist theologies were formed.

In all these examples and in many more throughout history, it is evident that being a theologian is not only a profession that a person engages in in his or her office but above all and before everything—a vocation. Theologians are called, beside their academic work, to prophesy and encourage inter-church discussions to clearly point out the various injustices in the societies they live in. A theologian is a person who, like a prophet, must bring his or her knowledge and vocation out of the privacy and warmth of an office into the public square and recognize the Kairos that cries out for theological interpretation. A theologian is a person characterized by humble thinking and courageous speech, not by silence and fear of public engagement. History has shown many times that thoughtful and reasoned theology dialogically structures the search for and preaching of truth in a particular Kairos.

There are communities that live in a permanent state of Kairos—in a permanent state of the opportunity and necessity of reading the signs of the times. One of these communities is the Croatian theological scientific community from the 1990s to the present. Many valuable things have happened in that communityvarious translations, scientific engagements in journals, conferences and public scientific engagement. But also, that community is characterized by systematic passivity in the public square. After the fall of Communism we have seen the establishment of Croatian independence with all its positive and negative consequences. Much has been said during those years but the question remains: what was everybody silent about?

There was a plundering of social property and privatization characterized by criminal actsacademic theologians were largely silent. There were crimes after the wartheologians, with rare exceptions, were silent (we don’t find examples in our theology of “confronting the past”). We have also witnessed a very close bond between Christian and ethno-national identity which has lately become a powerful fuel for the growth of populist movements which draw heavily upon Christian identity.

Academic theologians, with rare exceptions, are simply silent about this trend and about the abuse of Christianity in these movements. Also, one of the events that called for public theological debate happened a few years ago when the newly founded Croatian edition of the International Journal of Theology Concilium experienced harsh criticism. That journal, whose initiators and editors were Karl Rahner, J. B. Metz, Hans Küng, Yves Congar and others, inspired many Croatian theologians in their studies. But again, theologians were silent about attacks on the journal of their “fathers”.

If theologians are silent then sooner or later theology itself becomes a victim of that silence. Also, when they remain silent their very few colleagues who raise their voices against theological silence and the misuse and banalization of Christianity become marginalized, silenced and often punished by their communities.

In the last few years in Croatia we have seen the growing strength of lay movements and initiatives that rely strongly upon Christian values. These appeals to Christian roots and Christian values have featured in several concrete initiatives, in constitutional and legal changes, and they have created a deeply polarized society. While the fact that individuals and communities inspired by Christian values enter the public square is not in any way negative, what has been conspicuous by its absence in this whole process is any discussion about the principles and modes of Christian engagementnamely, the often fine line between religion in the political sphere and political religion.

While the first term signifies the inclusion of religious voices in public debate, which should above all be based on basic respect for different views, political religion is a kind of mimicry of political struggle, the struggle for power clothed in religious attire. Christianity in the political sphere, as was the case in the examples mentioned above, does not neglect social crises but proposes responses that are rooted in non-violence. Political Christianity, on the other hand, sooner or later reaches for the lever of domination to establish its principles.

The difference between Barth’s resistance to National Socialism on the one hand and the acceptance of anti-Semitism by supporters of the German Christian movement on the other is neither public engagement nor a call for Christian valuesthe difference is in principles. While the former was based on the idea that Christianity, which was “politically” defeated at the outset, could not be led by force but by the Spirit, the latter heavily drew on the idea that “Christianity” could be established through the state. In our context, the issue of Christian engagement in the public sphere has remained virtually unchallenged or has been left to a small number of initiatives and internet portals, often with a sub-optimal level of discussion and appreciation. During this time academic theologians, cloaked in the garment of invisibility, have looked elsewhere.

The politicization of Christianity is not unique to the Croatian context, but it has been characterized by the entry of these movements into a wide open space empty of discussion about what is and is not Christian engagement in the public sphere. In this process which we witnessing today, Christian identity in the public realm is in danger of becoming a political religion – a religion of domination synonymous with exclusivity, a word that “others” are afraid of.

One of the latest events in which the theological academic community was called to speak was when the Summer School of Theology in Dubrovnik sparked a fiery “debate”. It is not our intention to speak on behalf of the bishop who organized the school or on behalf of the lecturers. Bishop Uziniç presented his programme himself in a speech at the opening of the school and the lecturers are more than capable of speaking for themselves. But on this occasion we want to point out the need for serious theological debate which never happened because academic theologians weresilent. This public debate was triggered by an attack on one Summer School lecturer, Tina Beattie,  an internationally renowned theologian who was publicly called heretical with a call for her public exclusion (if not excommunication).

Apart from the blatant public bullying that academic theologians remained silent about, even though the attacks were directed towards their colleague, the problem is that Tina Beattie’s views never received the attention and careful reading they deserve. The author, well experienced in the public trashing of her ideas, has repeatedly and clearly clarified her positions, including her position on abortion.  One may or may not agree with these but decency calls for respect for the author. Tina does not think that the solution to something that she thinks is a moral wrong should be regulated by secular law. Why is that difference important? Simply because not all religions (let alone all members of society) agree with the Catholic position on the sacredness of human life from its conception. In this case, should secular law be used to impose Catholic moral doctrine on everyone, including those who do not follow it? If yes, are we speaking about Christianity in the political sphere or about political Christianity? Other elements of her “controversial” positions point to the need for serious theological discussion which was completely absent because academic theologians weresilent.

As is clear from the above, theological debates involve attention to detail which requires expertise and careful study.  In this whole discussion however, there has been no response from academic theologiansnot even when one bishop accused another of wasting money on the heretical education of young theologians.

What do Croatian theologians say when they remain silent? They say that theology has become an irrelevant vocation and a socially irrelevant academic discipline. They tell us about their fear of engagement in the public sphere. Their silence speaks of church structures that make them afraid to speak.  But above all, they tell us that they want to narrow the space of public engagement and to leave it to almost completely incompetent actors in the public arena, to various movements, persons and internet portals, to determine the normativity of what is and what is not the Christian faith in contemporary society.

Due to their silence and the lack of awareness of their vocation, the space of activity for theologians is rapidly narrowing and will narrow more and more. The lack of support, as well as the problematization of this one theological event in Dubrovnik, suggest that words such as dialogue, encountering different theological perspectives, education and the development of critical thinking have become either superfluous or undesirable aspects of theological studies in Croatia. When academic theologians are silent, readers and consumers of their knowledge are quick to embrace the rhetoric offered to them in the public square.

Kairos has been here again and again and it hasn’t been recognised. As we know, more than 30 professors and doctoral students of theology in Croatia signed a petition supporting theological dialogue but it was decided that their “No!” would remain private to themselves. We fear that the consequences of this negligence of Kairos will be felt in the increasing transformation of the public square into a wide open space in which Christianity will be the target, or it will be used as ammunition between warring parties who cannot or will not listen to one other. This letter is our “NO!” to the silence of the theologians—a silence that enables the abuse of Christianity. It is a small “No!”, but written with a capital letter, not for grammatical reasons but in the hope of a new Kairos.

Münster – Cambridge – New York – München, July 2019.

Signatories:

  • Dr Zoran Grozdanov, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Protestant Theology Matthias Flacius Illyricus, University of Zagreb
  • Srećko Koralija, OP, doctoral student, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University
  • Dr Stipe Odak, Catholic University in Louvain
  • Branko Sekulić, doctoral student at Evangelische Theologie, Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich
2019-08-19T16:49:54+01:00

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