20 YEARS LATER. From the collapse of the Wall to the global crisis
1989 according to Marx
Believing that faith would be reborn out of it was an illusion. And messianic free market ideology has increased poverty. An interview with Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, who says of his famous namesake...
Interview with Reinhard Marx by Gianni Valente
Twenty years ago the fall of the Berlin Wall was hailed by many as the advent of a new era. Even in the Church, that passage of worldly power was given a mystical interpretation as the prelude to a time of spiritual and material rebirth for the peoples of Europe.
In the light of what came later, perhaps it would have been better to be more restrained. The view of Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Monaco and Freising.
Archbishop Reinhard Marx welcomed by the children of the Saint Joseph kindergarden, in the parish of Saints Peter and Paul, Munich, 30 January 2008 [© Katharina Ebel/KNA-Bild]
REINHARD MARX: I remember that day very well. We had made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with the students. We were holding an evening meeting at the Sozialinstitut to discuss those splendid days. We saw images on television of what was happening in Berlin. I understood immediately that it was an historic event. I was excited, because I had traveled many times through the GDR. At that time, the diocese of Paderborn, to which I belonged, stretched as far as the area of Magdeburg in East Germany. So we had close ties with the clergy there, I myself had gone back and forth, even with a little fear, because more than a few times I had smuggled books for distribution. A few days after the fall of the Wall, some priests from the East came and asked political and social questions. They wanted to know whether with what had happened the reunification of Germany would soon come about. I said yes. It was long time augured, but I never thought it would come so quickly.
After the collapse of communism, in the nineties the theories of free marketeers began to circulate. They heralded the coming of progressive, irreversible and universal prosperity and consumerism for all peoples and nations. Fukuyama predicted the end of history. Then, how did it go?
MARX: I remember Bush senior saying that after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism there was the possibility of building a new world order. John Paul II, back in 1991, in Centesimus Annus, warned that radical capitalist ideology would not open the path to the future. And that what was wanted was a morally alert market economy, oriented towards global welfare. In fact, that radical capitalist ideology has become the social model. The narrow view has prevailed that leaves to the market the monopoly on all human relationships. And this has led the world into a dead end. If you look back now, at the thinking, and slogans of twenty years ago, that stressed the emergence of a new social order after the end of communism, one can say with certainty that the first attempt has failed.
As a pastor, in practice where did you see and register for the first time that the free market utopia was a deception?
MARX: I had seen with my own eyes even earlier, a long time before, the social problems of real people, such as unemployment. Already when I was a bishop in Trier, along with the great charitable agencies, we had taken steps to help families curb the effects of soaring unemployment. But now there’s a radicalization, with the number of workers on precarious short-term contracts continuing to grow, or with what is happening for example in health care, where dogmatic application of deregulation and privatization has increased the insecurity of families, their real difficulty in remaining above the line of mere subsistence. In the canteens operated by the charities even in Germany whole families are arriving that previously belonged to the middle class. And everything that has been said and done since 2000 has given only illusory and seeming answers, without really trying to find solutions to real problems. There will never be a perfect world. A bishop knows that well. But certainly this global “turbo-capitalism” has led to a deterioration in the daily situation of millions of people.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall marked the historical failure of communism. Yet in your book Capital you point out that the global situation that we have under our eyes today confirms various predictions of Karl Marx on the dynamics of capitalism.
MARX: In the analysis of liberalism and capitalism Karl Marx recognized some things for what they were. And some of his analyses also serve for grasping the dynamics of the present moment. For example, the globalization of capital, the reduction of labor to commodity on a global scale. The remedy he proposed was wrong. His materialist conception of man, rather than being at odds with the vision of Christian anthropology, does not correspond with the datum of reality. On the other hand, that also applies to the other materialistic image, the triumphant one conveyed by capitalist ideology, whereby the only real man in terms of the existent is homo oeconomicus, man as a function of economic processes, and the rest is an incidental and redundant trifle.
So Karl Marx wasn’t altogether wrong. Without getting into the game of fake rehabilitations, can his analytical tools help us take a realistic and concrete look of the capitalist economy in the present?
MARX: Maybe there was no need of Karl Marx to understand these dynamics. His originality doesn’t lie there. In the same period there were also representatives of Christian social doctrine who reached the same level of critical examination of the mechanisms of capitalism, and where these mechanisms would lead, if left uncurbed. But certainly, where Marx is right, we must acknowledge it.
Hundreds of Berliners climbing over the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]
MARX: That is a criterion already taken into account by more traditional Catholic social teaching. I’m in favor of testing the various models of workers’ participation, but they need to be defined in precise terms. Because in a global economy, where there is tremendous flexibility, it’s not easy to determine the manner in which the worker can share in the profits of a company. For example, if the worker must also share in the losses, it could jeopardize his very existence. This means that wages can hardly be totally absorbed by sharing. Sharing must be defined as a surplus to the basic guaranteed wage, so that there is no danger of workers being thrown onto the street, losing the wage they need to live. Of course, every possible thing should be done so that the worker feels involved in the potential development of a company, that he feels its success and also the risks and difficulties as his own. But there is no ready-made model, and we must have the courage to experiment and find ways to field-test these hypotheses.
The German model of the welfare state, innervated by the social thinking of the German Church, is considered obsolete by many people. And the Liberals, who won the last election, are in the forefront of the criticism. Will there be further cuts to the welfare state in Germany?
MARX: In Germany all the political forces claim to base themselves on the free market economic model. But recently we have seen that there are different interpretations of this model. And certainly, as compared to earlier, the welfare state has been weakened. Now it seems almost to have become an embarrassment and a problem, and instead it’s part of the solution to the problem. It was quite clear at the moment of acute crisis that Germany held up thanks to a welfare state that works: insurance for the unemployed, benefits for those laid off, support for those with odd jobs, public health care. Through these means the setbacks suffered by people in countries that have minimized or completely dismantled the network of social guarantees were avoided. And I’m in no way persuaded by those who say that spending on the welfare state can be cut because “here no one goes hungry”. I find it primitive. In a situation where there is a total absence of social justice, assuring food for all might have been a minimum target to aim at, but definitely, that is not a life worthy of a human being. So I would say that for those who believe that Germany should abolish the welfare state, the chances of putting it through are gone, for the moment. Let’s wait.
Is there nothing to revise, to change? One is exposed to the criticism of espousing wishful out-of-date welfare state thinking.
MARX: Of course, in political and social matters everything is dynamic and can be improved and adapted to new needs, so God forbid. Even the German Bishops’ Conference has suggested the benefits of a renewal of the welfare state. For example, investing in training and professionalskills. It’s not just a matter of transferring money from here to there, but of giving everyone a chance to update their training and therefore of not being excluded from social life. Or really addressing the issue of immigrants. It’s a huge social problem. In Germany as in Italy people have shut their eyes a bit on this. The fact that the major factors of integration are work and school has not been focused on. We must say clearly that we are a country of new immigrants and we are happy to be so, we are happy that people come here, rather than closing the door to these people. Let’s face it: in a country with these demographic rates, we are glad to see immigrants who have children. And the welfare state plays a decisive role in the processes of integration.
The Church emphasized the leadership of figures related to various Church communities in the events of 1989. And that historical transition, that change of historico-political scenario, was experienced and described by many as the premise for a revival of faith and of the Church as social force.
MARX: That was an illusion. The fact of thinking: let’s commit ourselves to the change, and then people, to thank us, will become Christians and return to the churches, was an illusion. Because becoming Christian is a gift. I can’t buy the faith, I can’t even think of catching someone’s interest for the faith through political performance, as some seem to believe. I remember that still in the days of communism, I spoke with some Polish priests, who wondered what would happen if life in Poland were as it was with us? I replied that they would have had the same problems as us. In a free society such as the one in which we live, one becomes Christian only through grace. And that is the situation that we should wish for ourselves. But some in the Church don’t understand. They don’t want to understand that in the situation we find ourselves in one becomes Christian only in this way: by people looking at Christians and seeing that faith is a gift, a richness that goes far beyond anything we can do ourselves, and by asking to enjoy the same riches. That is why the liturgy is so important.
Some circles, especially among American neo-cons, saw how to exploit the euphoria of 1989 in political terms (ecclesiastical politics also)...
MARX: One must always repeat it clearly: the Church is not against the modern world, freedom, democracy, pluralism. As if it were better for those things not to exist. But that has nothing to do with reducing Christianity to religious ideology propping the market economy. On some issues such as the defense of life and the family the so-called neo-cons, are fully in line with the Church. But I don’t understand how one can define oneself neo-conservative and put all one’s trust in the capitalist model. Capitalism is dynamic, it’s not conservative, it’s very progressive. It doesn’t conserve social and cultural situations as it found them, it changes them and often distorts them by introducing new paradigms and clichés. Whereas one often sees this kind of pact linking those who nurture traditional values of conservation with capitalism. But the two things don’t go well together.
Munich Cathedral [© Katharina Ebel/KNA-Bild]
MARX: Consider, for example, the early 19th century. In Europe all ecclesiastical structures were felt to have collapsed. The public opinion of the educated classes and also the great working-class movements seemed guided by philosophies and views hostile toward the Church. And the Church reacted, in the face of a situation of a general hostility, with rejection and condemnation also of the new phenomena related to the growth of the democratic basis of society. It took some time before accepting the modern criteria of democracy, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship. There was a progressive change on these points. And this can happen on social and political issues. For example, on what welfare state means, on relations between Church and State, on relations between labor and capital, on trade unions... Even the Church learns over time. It learns to have a little humility also. Ecclesia audiens, not only docens.
I’d like to ask you various questions about the Church in Germany. About the moment it’s living through. And in what terms its situation was described at the recent Assembly of Bishops in Fulda.
MARX: Over the last thirty years we have experienced a great change. Not so much in the sense that everybody is now competing to claim in parrot fashion that Germany is no longer Christian. On this matter of faith, for example, there is a large difference between East and West. Much has been standardized at all levels between the Eastern and Western länder, but not on this point. In the East the non-baptized are eighty percent of the population, in the West more than eighty percent are baptized. We are facing a society similar to those in which all the Churches in Europe are absorbed today: liberal, pluralist, open societies. We have never had a situation like this. All levels of society can choose what they want, what religion to profess, how often to get married, even five or six times. It’s an unknown, dizzying path, and for the individual involved, even bishops, it can be wearisome and painful. But we won’t get through it with catchwords about the wickedness of society, or the alleged errors made by the Pope, or priestly celibacy and other secondary issues. All these things serve only to hide and evade the only important question. That is, what does it mean to be Christians today. What does it mean that following Jesus today is an incredible gain, a huge gain for one’s life.
There is regular criticism, from various quarters, of the unwieldy structure of the German Church, for the number of lay people who work in it, on the payroll and with positions of responsibility in the dioceses, for its structural links with the state and civil institutions. The emblem of this model is the tax on the Church. In the last year 120,000 people asked to leave the Church so as not to pay it. In your opinion, is this model in crisis? Is this modus essendi of the Church the cause of secularization?
MARX: It’s a sensitive issue. Much has been said and there are many opinions on the reasons for the crisis. For example the Lefebvrian Fraternity of Saint Pius X tells us: there is de-Christianization because the Church is not as we would like, that is why everyone is leaving. If you were like us everything would fall back into place. The “We Are Church” Movement says exactly the opposite: there is a crisis because you do not abolish the celibacy of the clergy, if you were more modern things would not go wrong. A third group says: all you have to do is abolish the tax on the Church, and no one will leave so as not to pay the levy. In short, there is no homogeneous diagnosis. Personally I don’t think it’s wrong that people are called upon to decide, to say, “Yes, I belong to the Church, and am willing to pay to support its work”. Of course much can be improved, but I don’t think that this system is a bygone. And I don’t understand the foreign observers who judge these things without considering what tradition and in what historical way this model developed. Every Church has its particular features, its particular history, and it should be taken into account and respected. The Church is not an idea, it’s a visible community. And then the levy is paid only by those who enjoy an income from work, that is, one third of the population, and it’s proportionate to income.
What developments have there been in Munich to the Lefebvrian business?
MARX: I’m of the view that we must be magnanimous even in conceding the extraordinary rite. I find that what the Pope did was very wise. Now nobody any longer needs to go to the Lefebvrians to attend Mass in the old rite. I must say that in our diocese the numbers of those who attend Mass in the old rite are very few. Anyway, I’m keen that our Sunday services are celebrated in a liturgically correct fashion. As the Pope once said, the liturgy will decide the fate of the Church. If the Mass is not celebrated well, all our talk, our pronouncements, our encyclicals are of no use.
Reinhard Marx with Lutheran Bishop Johannes Friedrich, during the ecumenic Kirchentag regional meeting in Germering, Bavaria, 3 July 2009 [© Katharina Ebel/KNA-Bild]
MARX: In a few weeks we shall mark the tenth anniversary of the Joint Declaration on Justification. And also in ecumenism one must have patience. When I think of what has been achieved in Germany during the last fifty years, one can’t say it’s little. I like Cardinal Lehmann’s metaphor for ecumenism: when you climb a mountain, the last stretch before the top is always the toughest. It takes patience, and sometimes one may even have to spend the night on the mountain.
Do you fear, as on other occasions, controversy or rhetorical gestures on the matter of intercommunion?
MARX: I’m already in agreement with the Protestant bishop. He recognizes with me that if we celebrated the Eucharist together we would already be in perfect communion and there would be no need of ecumenism. Until we are truly united, intercommunion would be a mistaken signal, without foundation, done for television, pursuing the logic of the spectacular. And in the end it would cause new divisions and irritation among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. I hope instead that the ecumenic Kirchentag is a signal to society that we Christians are united in faith. Together we confess faith in the Triune God, in whose name we receive baptism. That doesn’t seem a little thing to me. Before the world we must confess together this shared faith, and not put our quarrels on show.
You spoke earlier about the integration of immigrants. In Germany, the Turkish minority is considerable. But the Church hasn’t raised barricades against mosques.
MARX: The German Bishops’ Conference issued a document on the construction of mosques that has attracted criticism. The main line is this: if we have among us many people of Muslim faith, these people have the right to live their religion in dignity, in compliance with State law. Of course, we are careful to ensure that a mosque isn’t built next to a cathedral, and maybe a hundred meters taller. But the people in charge of the cultural heritage see to that.
Your motto is Ubi Spiritus Domini, ibi libertas. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
MARX: I’ve always been annoyed by the fact that freedom is considered counter to the preaching of the Church. And that many people think Church and freedom are incompatible. It’s a key phrase of St Paul’s. The question of what freedom means will be crucial in the time ahead.
Is the equation in your motto to be kept in mind even as regards happenings in the Church today?
MARX: Freedom means choosing good in freedom. And the same thing is valid in the Church. The freest phrase that a man can utter is “I love you”. And when one says it, one depends in some way on the object of one’s love. This is true in marriage, in the priestly life, it’s true for every baptized person who answers Jesus’ question: “Do you love me?” with “Lord, you know that I love you”. And even in the Church, it is through that love that one can live in freedom.