Ethics and Church-State Issues

By Heimbach-Steins, Marianne | Theological Studies, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Church-State Issues

Heimbach-Steins, Marianne, Theological Studies


BISHOPS, MORAL THEOLOGIANS, AND LAY MOVEMENTS in Germany articulate Catholic and Christian ethical positions on a broad variety of matters that affect the common good. Before pointing out some relevant issues, I must mention two important points.

(1) The Christian churches, namely Roman Catholic and Lutheran, are still influential voices in the public arena in Germany. Yet, as in most modern societies, they can no longer claim an exclusive status as "moral agents," finding themselves within a wide plurality of religious and worldview-oriented public agents. To describe the churches' role in society and their influence on the political sphere properly, it would be necessary to focus on the special relationship between state and church in Germany, which is very different from the U.S. model. Though based on institutional separation and on the precept of religious neutrality of the state, Germans face a long history of law-based cooperation between state and church in fields that affect the common good such as childcare institutions, schools, social welfare, and health care. In any evaluation of the political or social interventions of church representatives, this context of institutional cooperation and the resulting expectations on both sides have to be kept in mind. Moreover, the process of European unification and institution-building and its consequences on the level of the member states concerning the (legal) relationship between state and church would have to be considered as well. (1)

(2) Interventions are made on social, political, and legal levels. On the one hand, Catholic agents enter into public discussions, be it in social, family, economic, or environmental politics. Bishops, lay leaders, and theologians contribute to the way the wider public perceives human dignity and social justice. On the other hand, there are interventions that refer more directly to legislative procedures. Controversial positions among the wider public as well as among Catholics have been articulated concerning the legislation on, for example, the urgent issue of embryonic stem cell research. (2) Another urgent issue is the further development of the legal framework of the church-state relationship itself and the legal status of non-Christian religious organizations, especially of Muslim communities in Germany. Church leaders, Christian organizations, and theologians offer criteria for making decisions, often with regard to very practical issues such as building mosques or establishing Islamic religious education in schools and the related training of teachers in German universities.

A precise description of these issues, however, cannot be given without treating the details of the German state-church system. Such a task is beyond the scope of this contribution. Therefore, in the following sections, I will confine myself to sketching some social justice issues highlighted in recent Catholic interventions.


Whenever issues of the development of the welfare state are at stake, the Christian churches in Germany still raise a powerful voice. Within the last decade, the Central Committee of German Catholics and the Catholic Bishops' Conference, together with the Evangelical Church in Germany, published several sociopolitical interventions. The most important of these is probably the ecumenical statement For a Future Founded on Solidarity and Justice: A Statement on the Economic and Social Situation in Germany (1997). (3) This document was based on a consultation process involving both church members and a broad range of societal agents. Grounded on an analysis of the socioeconomic situation after the reunification of the two German states (1989/90), the document formulated a consensus of ecumenical social ethics that focuses on basic elements of biblical anthropology as well as on the main principles of Catholic social teaching, and sets out an agenda of social politics and social responsibility on both local and global levels. …

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