Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Catholicism of Werther

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Catholicism of Werther

Article excerpt

Critics have long noted various religious aspects of Goethe's Werther, from its Pietist language to the protagonist's identification with Christ.1 What has not been discussed, but what serves as an important subtext to the novel, is its Catholic elements.2 Whereas scholars like Kowalik have studied the consequences of Pietist doctrines upon Werther 's psychology, no one, to my knowledge, has examined how the novel's Catholic symbols inform Werther's psychic development. The Catholic references, however, provide the necessary historical context to the novel's complicated portrayals of Pietism and religion, and by examining the novel in light of Catholicism, we gain insight into Goethe's anthropological understanding of religion, i.e., his understanding of how religious customs, in this case Catholic ones, influence society and culture. To fully understand the novel's stance towards religion, one must take its Catholic references as well as its Protestant ones into account. In other words, whereas I agree with Reiss that Werther's relationship to religious tradition "allows us to gauge the extent of Werther's disease," I would argue that the Catholic in addition to the Pietist or general Christian references allow us to glimpse the societal causes that lead to the development of his pathological individuality.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to emphasize that I am not arguing that Goethe was in some way a supporter of the Catholic Church. Rather, I contend that as an astute observer of society, he recognized the long-lasting influences of Catholic traditions and wrote about the consequences of the philosophical shift from the patriarchal hierarchy of the Church to the individualism of Protestantism.3 Such a reading focuses not upon the narrative progression of the novel, but rather upon the intellectual and social background that fostered the creation of a Werther character-type. Whereas Schöf fier views Werther as the tragedy of a new era because there is no guilt, I would argue, in stark contrast, that it is a tragedy because guilt has no outlet in the modern world. Werther shoots himself because he no longer has recourse to the sacraments, especially to that of confession. He represents a modern man who is living in a society that is growing ever more secular. He tries to find divinity first through nature and then through his love of Lotte, but this search fails. Although he deeply desires forgiveness, he ultimately can find no outlet for his feelings of guilt. Thus, whereas Reiss finds society to be healthy and Werther to be sick, I argue that Goethe's novel also points to the shortcomings of a secularizing, Protestant society. As a consequence, it is not only Werther's "neurotic personality" that is particularly modern (Reiss 45), but also the society that brings such a personality about. Werther can be read not simply as an individual's "rebellion against established standards in religion, morality, and art" (Reiss 59), but rather as an illustration of what could happen to a character-type who is already living in a time that has largely rejected the traditions of Catholicism - of the more hierarchical form of Western religion.4

When Goethe recalls his youth in Dichtung und Wahrheit, he examines some of the consequences of the rise of Protestantism. Notably, he comments upon how individualized the Protestants have become because they lack ritual to hold them together:

Der protestantische Gottesthenst hat zu wenig Fülle und Konsequenz, als daß er die Gemeine zusammenhalten könnte; daher geschieht es leicht, daß Glieder sich von ihr absondern und entweder kleine Gemeinen bilden, oder, ohne kirchlichen Zusammenhang, neben einander geruhig ihr bürgerliches Wesen treiben. (FA 1, 14:315)

In this context, Goethe specifically focuses upon the paucity of Protestant sacraments. For him, the fact that Protestants only have two sacraments has a profound impact on their sense of community and on their psychic health:

Fehlt es dem protestantischen Kultus im ganzen an Fülle, so untersuche man das Einzelne, und man wird finden, der Protestant hat zu wenig Sakramente. …

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