Anton Koch, S. J. – Criticism of the Church (1947) [Excerpts]

Anton Koch

[“Anton Koch (born April 19, 1859 in Pfronstetten ; † May 24, 1915 in Tübingen) was a German Roman Catholic theologian , professor and rector of the University of Tübingen. […] As a member of the liberal section of the Tübingen faculty and a supporter of reform Catholicism , he repeatedly clashed with the Bishop of Rottenburg Paul Wilhelm von Keppler” (Source). ]

[Originally published: A. Koch, “Kritik an der Kirche,” Stimmen der Zeit 141 (1947-48):169-84.]

[Translation found in Where the Spirit Breathes: Prophetic Dissent in the Church by Jose I. Gonzales-Faus, published by Orbis Books (1989).]


The justification for a criticism of the human element in the church, in its representatives and institutions, resides in the very essence of that church. Here, in most intimate fashion, the divine and the human cross paths. And so only one question remains. What characteristics must criticism have in order to be genuinely constructive—truly “edifying,” upbuilding, with respect to the church? … What conditions are necessary in order for a criticism of the church to be genuinely fruitful and enhancing for its life? This article will be concerned with a response to these questions.

1. The first and indispensable condition for the legitimacy of criticism in the church is an authentic love of the church. … Are not love and criticism incompatible? How can we love something, and then attack and fight it? The answer is very simple. A mother correcting her child knows very well that love and reprimand go hand in hand. The one springs precisely from the other. A zealous love can be manifested in reprimand. The picture of her child that the mother bears in her heart — the picture of what the child ought to be— conflicts with the image the child presents in reality. … And the mother’s perception of the distance between the “ought to be” and the “is” of the child is the occasion of the reprimand, whose only purpose is to bring the “is” up to the “ought to be.”

Something similar occurs in the case of the believer and the church. Of course, this time the relationship is reversed. The loving child stands before his mother. His faith tells him “how the church should be” in the intention and will of Christ. At the same time he contemplates the weakness of so many of its members, so many dried-up wellsprings of life, the devastation of so many “holy places’ — all the things that have filled the history: of the church for two thousand years. Then love lifts its voice, in behalf of the divine element in the church and against what is “too human” in the same, and seeks to heal its ailing members, rescue the wellsprings, and halt the corruption. Such a love may permit itself all the accents of zeal: anger, accusation, cry and castigation, storming and imprecation. One thing alone is forbidden. It may not reject the church. It may not forget the divine element in the church, transcending the human aspect. It may not withdraw from the church in a spirit of self-justification and scandal-taking. In the midst of all their criticism of the church, the Catholic faithful hold mordicus to their posture as its children: a posture of respect and gratitude, devotion and obedience, unquestioned loyalty come what may. This was the attitude of the saints and the true reformers. This is the attitude of those who take their profession of Catholic faith seriously. …

2. The second requisite for the legitimacy of a criticism of the church is a courageous, authentic liberty. It is not only the church hierarchy who must demonstrate this liberty, this freedom. Anyone may voice his or her criticism in the church of God, provided the difficult, but indispensable conditions we are listing be observed. If the hierarchy is in some manner central to the church, the majority of the great reformers were truly “marginal” elements, whose activity flowed not from the charge of their ministry, but from the force of their personality. …

But all of this is in precious little evidence today. So much criticism of the church has little or nothing of the liberty, the freedom of which we are speaking. First there is anonymous criticism, which lacks the courage of a personal commitment — a commitment of one’s own person —in behalf of its claims. Obviously such a procedure is condemned to failure. And yet experience teaches us that anonymous criticism is as deathless in the church as the spiritual attitude from which it springs. Second, and along with the first, comes another sort of criticism that can scarcely pride itself on its daring of spirit: rumor and whispering — criticism mumbled from ear to ear, and to every ear but that of its object. … It was a consummation devoutly to be wished that all critics would swear never to say behind the back of others what they would not dare say to their face. At least this would eliminate that revolting brand of criticism that consists in censuring in victims’ absence what one praises in their presence! …

3. Even more important is a third requirement: justice. … Criticism can easily fall prey to the temptation to exempt itself from the demands of justice. After all, it springs from a zeal for good, and the critic can unconsciously feel that the end justifies the means. Rarely will a mighty zeal for good be sufficiently even-tempered and lucid not to fire at least somewhat sporadically, despite all good intentions. What is desired, then, is a healthy dose of self-control and sense of responsibility. This would avoid the harm that can befall when would-be constructive criticism offends against justice. … The most typical failing in this area consists in an invalid generalization from a particular set of observations and facts … or hasty conclusions concerning a given state of affairs without the benefit of familiarity with the overall context and background.

4. But in addition to justice, criticism must have another quality if it is to have the best chance of reaching its objective: good sense. … [This is a matter of talent.] What we mean when we say that a person has a talent for doing something is that he or she has the ability, taking all circumstances into account, to find the means most readily conducive to the desired end. In the ~ case before us, the desired end is the elimination of defects and failings. If our sole concern is the manifestation of our annoyance or disenchantment in some particular matter, then, of course, we need have no talent. But anyone who takes the holiness of the church very seriously will have many questions that only an authentically Christian sagacity will be able to answer.

Far from having no bearing on the practical outcome, the moment chosen for the criticism, the person who is to voice it, its audience, its object, the manner in which it is expressed, and its degree or intensity, may actually be decisive for that outcome. In a matter of such delicacy, one small detail neglected, one piece of carelessness and unconcern, may spoil a great undertaking. The same detail, well managed, can work miracles. Care and tact never harmed anyone. Neither have they ever worked to the detriment of justifiable criticism. But the absence of tact, the neglect of politeness and amenity, just as other failings of respect and sensitivity, are pernicious in the extreme. …

Does this mean that criticism must be smothered in an overdose of prudence and precaution? Not at all. It merely means that our criticism must conform to the advice given us by St. Ambrose — that we “seek not to be a victor, but a physician.” A good physician will consider very carefully whether, and where, the scalpel should be applied, or whether, instead, some other therapy is indicated.

5. Accordingly, any authentically Catholic criticism of the church must meet a final, absolutely indispensable requirement: that of humility.

Wherever criticism is expressed, the opportunity for a practice of humility will be abundant. The very resistance almost surely to be offered, rightly or wrongly —more likely, both rightly and wrongly—to any effort of reform or renewal will be a call to humility. We need only recall the celebrated struggles waged by the reformers of religious orders throughout history. How protracted these struggles, and how uncertain their outcome! Add to this the fact that criticism will have its own shortcomings, as it will rarely meet all the requirements of our ideal picture, and we can scarcely doubt that criticism will stir up storms of internal oppression such as only a sincere humility will be able to weather. But the sacrifices that the critic will have to make may be as useful for the end in view as the criticism itself. …


In the second place, we must now ask: what is required of the addressee of criticism? What precautions must be taken lest the critical utterance fall by the wayside, and lie stifled and fruitless?

1. The first requirement will be that of openness to criticism. The object or addressee of the criticism must be possessed of a receptivity proper to that same Christian humility that we demand as the last condition of criticism itself. … The more lively that spirit of humility in the church—the humility of its Founder—the better off the church will be. And a great deal more humility is needed for an honest acknowledgment of public faults, or faults that become common knowledge by way of criticism, than is needed to admit them to oneself privately. By way of compensation, however, an acknowledgment of the truth is the most powerful response to exaggerated accusations.

In the second place, especially in the Catholic case, a certain security and tranquility is required in the face of criticism, both general criticism of the church and criticism of particular aspects. Not a few Catholics—often enough the best of them— regard all criticism, especially public criticism, with insecurity and anxiety. They reject it out of hand. They close their minds to it, as if all criticism were necessarily an attack on the very holiness of the church. Surely there are instances of vitriolic, totally baseless criticism that calls for outright rejection by Catholics—criticism that does indeed impugn the very essence and sanctity of the church. But not even in these cases need a Catholic tremble for that church. We ought to know that the church is indestructible by the will of Christ, and we have abundant evidence of this down through all the two thousand years of its history, a history that continues today. … Castles in the air are of cloud, and will pass with the clouds. And no cloud lasts two thousand years. … For four centuries now, the demise of the church has been reported by serious observers at least once each century. And yet the church lives. …

Accordingly, we need not regard criticism as automatically unthinkable in the church of God, or that criticism is necessarily harmful to the healthy development of that church. The worst times for the church were not those of a lively activity of minds anxious for its reform, bitter though the struggle might be. The worst times for the church were those in which—as at the waning of the Middle Ages —none any longer dared mount an effective criticism of unbridled corruption. Potential critics had all succumbed to a sense of helplessness in the face of a seemingly overwhelming reality. Criticism made in all seriousness was received in a cavalier or mocking way, so that long-repressed dissatisfaction was bottled up, to explode all at once in the Reformation, in the form of criticism that had gone beyond all bounds.

The Third Reich has given us a flagrant example of how. destructive the absence of criticism—and concretely, of public criticism—can be for any community entity. And may this example suffice for a long time to come. … May the day never dawn for the Catholic Church when persons filled with an authentic desire for reform will find even the slightest pretext for having recourse to anonymous criticism on the grounds that there was simply no other way to voice their anxiety. …

But is not all of this a dangerous game? Can criticism not injure the image of the church in the eyes of “outsiders”? The question is an honest one. But we do not think it has a great deal of importance. The time is past when real shortcomings might possibly be concealed by way of a system of deceit and fraud (as, once more, in the classic instance of the events and conditions during the time of the Third Reich). The case is just the other way about. Where there are believers who make a serious, responsible effort in behalf of the purity of their church and its assimilation to Christ, such behavior will always be taken seriously by serious persons, as experience attests. As for the voices of those whose intent is scandal at any cost, the church need pay them no heed in any case.

3. Last, we must maintain the greatest possible objectivity, and justice, cost what it may, vis-à-vis all criticism. The greater our willingness to leave personal considerations out of account and attend solely to the question at hand, the more the tone of our response will be one of self-control and justice, instead of agitation and lust for victory. And there will be far more hope of actually settling the matters under dispute, of actually correcting any defects that may be present, without injuring the image of the church either in the eyes of its members or in those of “outsiders.”

We sincerely believe that if discussions on the life of the church were pursued on the terrain we have outlined, the church could only emerge from them enriched and blessed.