Kuno Füssel – The Socio-economic Conditioning of the Church (1981)

Kuno Füssel

[Kunibert “Kuno” Füssel (born September 23, 1941 in Trier) is a German Catholic liberation theologian. Wiki.]

[Originally published in Concilium: Tensions between the churches of the First world and the Third world, 1981.]

1. The Theoretical Framework

1. If, following the Second Vatican Council, we take the Church’s historical nature and involvement in the world seriously, [1] we may use analytical terminology to express that historicity and mundane reference as follows: the structure, characteristics and mode of articulation of the Church are shaped, limited and orientated in accordance with the particular mode of production (MP) that predominates in a specific society. According to Althusser, [2] MP comprises the social production and reproduction process which is defined by at once the relative autonomy and complex unity of its components so that the economic base is ultimately determining; in other words, economic factors decide the point at which the other factors of politics and ideology reach the limit of their specific practices and functions.

Though the Church does not see its purpose (leading people to eternal salvation) as directly social and its forms of action as derived directly from socio-economic circumstances, even if there is a legitimate distinction to be made between the Church’s nature and manifestation, nevertheless its necessarily social composition and the class allegiance of its members mean that it is determined by MP antagonisms and the resulting asymmetrical social relations and conflicts between rulers and ruled. Class divisions do not pass the Church by; therefore the ecclesiastical apparatus always consciously or unconsciously assumes certain functions in class conflicts, so that historically the Church has acted both as a guarantor of domination and as a subversive and system-erosive force.

If we accept Engels’ view [3] that the superstructure is relatively autonomous and exerts its own influence on the basis, it is not permissible to interpret every ideologico-religious configuration as also being a direct expression of socio-economic conjunctures. In the case of the Church there is always a complicated interaction between specific transformation processes within it and processes of change in other superstructural institutions and the basis of society.

Hypothesis 1: Precisely because the Church has assimilated elements (rites, offices, dogmas) from the most varied social formations, it always retains a relative autonomy in relation to other societal factors, and maintains an ambivalent, non-simultaneous relationship to them, with the aim of its own (extended) reproduction having absolute precedence.

The life of the Church is lived on (a) the level of needs and practices, (b) that of the institutional apparatus, and (c) that of the interpretative system, of values and ideal relations.

Hypothesis 2: Accordingly the Church is a structured whole consisting of actors, practices, rules, dogmas and discourses, in which however the ideological level is dominant. Even the drive of the clerical apparatus to possessions, power and knowledge serves these ideological functions and is not, as revolutionary analyses so often assert, an end in itself.

We understand ideology in general as comprising a system of directives on action and explanations which are constitutive of all historical social formations. Ideology does not exist only in the head of the individual but also has a material existence, in so far as the ideas in which the individual believes are ‘material actions which become an integral part of material practices controlled by material rituals. These rituals in their turn are determined by the material ideological apparatus on which the ideas of the individual in question depend’ [4]. The ideological aspect is dominant in the Church in so far as it makes possible and justifies the functioning in particular of the clerico-political apparatus and its functionaries (bishops and priests) by affording ideal relations of the actors to God/Jesus Christ, and thus primarily constituting these actors as believers and binding them to agreement on all decisive questions.

3. This explains why the ruling classes and the State authority have always shown profound interest in recruiting the Church to confirm or extend their power.

Hypothesis 3: Because the Church conceives society as conducted in accordance with general principles and concepts, and therefore tries to inculcate them as behavioural norms in members of society, it is allowed a special ideological competence; its effect is all the more supportive of domination in that it does not openly acknowledge any direct class interest but appears to represent universally valid principles, so that social antitheses tend to be transformed into a struggle between such principles.

It would therefore seem to be advisable for the Church critically to investigate the responsibility for fundamentals which it is accorded by many parties because it is largely redundant. But even if the Church were able successfully to resist the danger of this kind of manipulation, it would still not escape the other danger of indirectly reproducing within itself the asymetrical structure of social conditions, because it conceives itself as an entity in competition with the existing power bloc, and therefore directs religious production, the circulation of symbolic products (vestments and so on, rites, rubrics and texts) and their consumption in accordance with that bloc’s strategies.

Nevertheless the Church does not have a function which is obviously of service or analogous to the existing power bloc; instead, by reason of its origin in Jesus’ messianic practice, [5] its effect is properly much more subversive. This, however, presupposes both an epistemological and political severance from the principles of the ruling group. Here lies the function of the theologian as ‘an organic intellectual’, [6] between the basis and the superstructure, who not only helps the ‘culture of silence’ of the oppressed to win through, but also gives their position in the class struggle a theoretical expression.

4. The Church’s position in the ideological class struggle and the effects of the social content on its attitude may be discerned in the typical instances of official texts, especially the statements of the magisterium.

Hypothesis 4: The production of texts is the most influential form of ideological practice. Texts not only influence the conscious mind, because of the ideal reference of their subject-matter, but affect preconscious behaviour because of their nature as a material sign-system. Hence the text itself is a locus of the social nexus and of direct access to societal confrontations. This explains the efficacy of texts and their role in the reproduction of the conditions of production by means of the cultural apparatuses which are the family, school, church and media.

2. Analysis of Two Church Documents

(a) A document from the Church in the Federal Republic

(i) After the Second World War, through the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union) and lay groups and interests obedient to the bishops, and with the aid of a Catholic social doctrine adapted to the economy and an anti-Socialism extended into the realm of metaphysics, German Catholicism succeeded in obtaining political influence and establishing itself as a power in the social order. Therefore the change of government that came about in 1966 meant that the Church’s own socio-political position was endangered.

In 1972, when the socially liberal government of the Social Democratic coalition had been in office for three years, the German Bishops’ Conference issued a ‘Declaration on Social Development in the Federal Republic’ [7].

Basing themselves upon their ‘responsibility for the general good’, in the preamble to this document the bishops express their concern about the ‘increasingly threatening erosion of basic human values’, and presume that in saying this that they accord with ‘numerous forces of renewal … in our people’. In Part I of the document they characterise ‘modern society’ in terms of the contradiction between personal freedom and State regimentation, accuse the State of a negligent degradation of moral values, and foretell the danger of a ‘complaisant democracy’ deluded by the dream of ‘social Utopias’. But the fact that ultimately it is a question not of a specific notion of the State [8] but of the exercise of State power by the parties in the social liberal coalition, becomes evident if nowhere else at the point where profession of basic moral values becomes undisguised mourning for the end of the Adenauer era: ‘In the nineteen-fifties the agreement of decisive legal norms with the moral law was taken as obvious. Today that is no longer the case’: in other words, the social liberal coalition promotes moral decadence. Resolutely, therefore, in Part II, devoted to the discussion of ‘certain developments’, the reader is reminded initially of the discussion of the criminal prosecution of abortion. The bishops try to give the impression that unborn life was more effectively protected by the old paragraph 218 of the legal code than by the revised paragraph, even though hundreds of thousands of abortions in the previous decades demonstrate the exact opposite. A direct line is drawn from the increase in crimes of violence and terrorism to ‘political extremism’ and ‘the proponents of . . . radical ideologies, who have already acquired key-positions in our society and exercise their terror in education, in the mass media, and in politics’. The bishops opine that the ‘declared will of the great majority of our nation’ (that is, CDU voters, since the CDU is the party of the largest numbers!) entitles them to call here for the retention of authoritative measures. Therefore they are not entirely trustful of the freedom of the individual, and the individual responsibility that otherwise they profess to support is not always what they would recommend. This insistent argumentation for a particular political party is continued on the level of the family, and the ‘growing enmity towards the family and children’ is criticised without even indicating its deeper causes in the capitalist mode of production. In an appeal to ‘those holding responsibility in public life’, such persons are in Part III required to ‘do everything to ensure that citizens remain free and individually responsible, and are not incapacitated as objects of State care and planning’. In Part IV, the last, where they again address all citizens, the bishops try to emphasise their representation not of special Church interests but of the general good.

(ii) Instead, however, of offering a real social analysis, the bishops combine tendentious indications of current trends with a morality that is not defined with any precision but merely invoked, and put forward this mixture as the supreme standard. An attempt is made to win acceptance of the views asserted not by means of demonstrable evidence but by means of supposed general interests and an underlying fear of chaos. But what could be closer than such a procedure to bourgeois ideology and its application in class war from above?

It is characteristic of the logic of institutionalised ideologies in a bourgeois class society formally to justify one’s pronouncements as universally applicable, so that no one can oppose one’s claims without a bad conscience.

The assertion of bourgeois class interests in the form of universal norms must necessarily take the shape of a deduction of concrete behavioural rules from supreme and unassailable principles. The legitimacy of the existing conditions of production (that is, ultimately, conditions of ownership of the means of production) is then shown by their appropriateness in regard to certain fundamental ideas and ‘sacred basic values’. Catholic social teaching is especially well placed to carry out the overvaluation to the status of principles required by bourgeois ideology. For this purpose it not only holds in readiness such pertinent principles as personality, solidarity, subsidiarity, but can extend the requisite exaggeration even into the realm of the transcendent, so that politically divisive conflicts become literally religious conflicts and Left-wingers intent on changing the system also become atheists and God’s enemies.

Nevertheless the West German bishops cannot be accused of supporting State authority as such without any reservation. But they are far from moving in a grass-roots democratic direction, for all they are concerned with is a shake-up of the group in power and thus with an associated assurance of the distribution of property and influence. Their populist appeal to the majority of the people would not be heard if that majority voted for the Socialists and not for the Christian Democrats.

(b) A document from the Nicaraguan Church

(i) Under the title ‘Christian Commitment for a New Nicaragua’, the Nicaraguan bishops published a pastoral after the liberation of their country from the grip of the dictator Somoza. This pastoral, [9] dated 17 November 1979, was addressed to priests, religious, basic communities, preachers and all people of good will. The bishops do not begin with instructions, but with what they have learnt from the revolutionary process: ‘We have recognised that in the years of suffering and social marginalisation our people acquired the necessary experience for application to inclusive and profoundly liberating action. In heroic struggle our people defended their right to a life of dignity, in peace and justice. This is the real meaning of this action they have lived through against a regime which maimed and suppressed human, personal and social rights. . . . We have recognised that the blood of those who gave their lives in this long struggle, the unstinting effort made by young people for a just society, and the prominent role of women (otherwise subject to social discrimination) in this entire process afford new energies for the construction of a new Nicaragua.’

Then, alive to the conflicts associated with economic, political and cultural change and the resulting possibilities of error and abuses, the bishops indicate that the central task of reconstruction demands the active participation of the entire nation.

The bishops’ remarks on Socialism [10] place them on the side of the poor as a class. Under German conditions, they would sound ‘extremist’.

After rejecting crude descriptions of Socialism, the bishops write: ‘If on the other hand Socialism . . . means primacy for the interests of the majority of the Nicaraguan people and the model of a jointly responsible, increasingly participatory and nationally planned economy, then we have no objection. This kind of project of a society which ensures the common application of the products and resources of the country; which makes it possible to improve the quality of human life on this basis of the satisfaction of the fundamental needs of all people, seems just to us. If Socialism implies the progressive removal of injustice and the usual inequalities between town and country, between the wages paid for intellectual and physical labour, if it means the participation of the labourer in the products of his or her labour and the removal of economic alienation, then there is nothing in Christianity to oppose this process.’

In one section the bishops address themselves ‘with a word of faith and hope to the present revolutionary process’. They stress the fact that liberation and justice are at the centre of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. Liberation in Jesus Christ comprises human relations to the natural environment, to one’s fellow men and women, and to God. The struggle for love and justice—but especially the unambiguous option for the poor—is concrete thanksgiving for the presence of the liberating power of God in history. A third section speaks of the responsibility of the Nicaraguan Revolution in regard to the fact that so many hopes from all over the world are directed to its successful future.

(ii) In the course of an arduous process of awareness, the Nicaraguan bishops already freed themselves under the rule of Somoza from the embrace of bourgeois ideology and learned to understand that commitment to the poor under certain socio-economic conditions, primarily because of a brutal dictatorship, included an acceptance of revolution, if the liberation of the oppressed was not to remain a pious wish and a ‘religion is the opium of the people’. With the acknowledgment of the centrality of the axis oppression/liberation for the self-realisation of the Church too, comes the awakening of a new Christian awareness that the eschatological vocation of the Church to bear practical witness to the inclusive liberation of mankind is to be preferred to a predominantly static and legalistic notion of the Church. The more this new consciousness that the religious promises and the political hope in the liberation of the oppressed classes prevails, the more, however, the poor and marginalised become the preferred location of the presence of Christ. The people no longer remain the object of concerned instruction or paternalist leadership but themselves become the subjects of the realisation of the true Church of Jesus Christ.

3. Ecclesiological Consequences

An analysis of texts reveals characteristics which enable the particular ecclesiastical reality to be described as a factor of a social formation.

(a) Characteristics of a Church orientated to the superstructure

(i) A Church orientated to the superstructure reproduces the contradictions of the circumambient class society. In the religious and theological production of symbols, texts and so on we have a process analogous to the social division of labour between intellectual and physical labour and to a separation of the people from the religious means of production and to the production of experts and functionaries who alone control the means for the satisfaction of religious needs and their distribution.

The religious producers operate in another social space as religious consumers. This leads to the monopolisation of production on the one hand, and to the pure privatisation of appropriation on the other hand. The results are that religion and theology are no longer the products of a community but remain relegated to specialists and their special interests. The division of labour also means that religious and theological intellectual labour accords more with the way of life of the privileged than with material labour, so that the distance from the ruling groups is automatically less than from the working population. The result is therefore an approximation to the habits and interests of the bloc in power, and the almost obvious assumption of a position of hegemony.

(ii) Accordingly the entire power in the political apparatus of the Church is concentrated on the hierarchy: the pope, bishops and priests. The remainder of the people of God do not share in the central decision processes. The layperson is merely the bearer of secondary ecclesial values. He participates in apostolicity together with the Church only in so far as he submits in faithful obedience to the dispositions of the hierarchy.

(iii) The unity of the Church (as a complex whole composed of contradictions) turns to univocity of doctrine and unification of the symbolic field. Linguistic rules which are distant from reality and intended to introduce uniformity exaggerate social and theological contradictions and are designed to ensure the readiness of the basis to offer a consensus in regard to the hierarchy. Any conflicts which arise are concealed, repressed or attributed to those who reveal them. Before all else the class division of society (and class struggle) is denied. Moral appeals replace concrete commitment and supernatural reconciliation replaces the transformation of the existing conditions of domination.

(b) Characteristics of a Church orientated to the basis

(i) A Church orientated to the basis (11) is rooted in the underprivileged classes, which are powerless both religiously and politically. In economic terms, too, it therefore becomes a poor Church and cannot be merely a Church for the poor. In opposition to the asymmetrical distribution of products and power in the class society, it is concerned with the construction of a neighbourly society marked by active participation and co-determination. There is a parallel displacement of theology and of theologians towards the people which introduces a structural alteration of the entire theologico-ecclesiastical mode of production. The processes in the basic communities, which organise service of the unity of the Church as horizontal cooperation and not as hierarchical subordination, show how the division of labour between theological producers and religious consumers and the associated conditions of domination resulting from this structural transformation can be overcome, and the social and theoretical conditions of the production of a Church outlook can be re-appropriated by those actually concerned.

(ii) If the people become the bearer of ecclesial reality, that does not mean the abolition of the office of priest or bishop, but only its liberation from superficial sacral bureaucracy. All members of the community are called to serve; every service answers to actual needs; and all are therefore participants in the ecclesiastical power entrusted to the community as a whole. This abolishes the schematic division into a leading elite in whose hands is concentrated the whole decision-making and administrative power, and an army of those who receive and carry out the orders.

(iii) As the Church of Jesus Christ and the apostles is shaped anew in the oppressed class and a Church of the people comes into being, it is also possible to initiate a process of liberation encompassing society as a whole. The Church does not merely cease to participate in the bloc in power, and thus to confirm it, but also helps to abolish social conditions of domination and subordination by means of a mutually responsible form of practice which promotes community, and to establish islands of a classless society within the framework of the existing class society. Thus the basic Church does not only ensure unity with the Church of the Acts of the Apostles and the martyrs, but direction to the universal task of the Church. But there cannot be justice and love for all so long as the poor do not enjoy justice and the oppressed are not liberated.

4. Postscript From Experience

Some days after writing it, the author of this article discovered the accuracy of his assessment of the situation as given in note 8. When taking part in a demonstration of solidarity with El Salvador, in the form of a symbolic search for asylum in Cologne Cathedral, I became a living witness to the unexampled cynicism of German prelates who would rather have a peaceful demonstration brought to an end by police action than utter even a word on the problems of an oppressed people. How poor is the rich Church of the Federal Republic! Saint Romero of El Salvador, pray for us!

Translated by J. G. Cumming

[1] In the Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, the Council admits self-critically that the Church’s existence in the world affects its own fulfilment: ‘In its sacrament and institutions which still belong to this wordly time, the pilgrim Church bears the form of this world which passes away’ (§ 48)
[2] See L. Althusser For Marx (London 1973) esp. pp. 15Iff.
F. Engels ‘Brief an J. Bloch’ Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW) XXXVII p. 463; G. Girardi ‘Christlicher Glaube und Historischer Materialismus’ Korrespondenz der Christen fur den Sozialismus (1980) no. 26 3-22.
L. Althusser Ideologie und ideologische Staatsapparate (Hamburg and West Berlin 1977) p. 154
See F. Belo Lecture materialiste de I’Evangile de Marc (Paris 1974) esp. pt. IV
See A. Gramsci Philosophic der Praxis (Frankfurt am Main 1967) pp. 405ff.
The text is quoted in the version supplied by KNA (23.9.72).
The bishops do not give any details of the State activity which they wish to see restricted. In any case, they do not refer to the repressive apparatus of the State (police, military forces, gaols), which they specifically acknowledge in the form of specially appointed clerics.
The quotations are taken from the original text: Carta Pastoral del Episcopado Nicaragiiense: Compromise cristiani para una Nicaragua Nueva
Unfortunately there has been a growing number of signs recently that a few bishops are becoming less favourable to this openness to Socialism as against the traditional anti-Socialism
On this theme see especially L. Boff Eclesiogenese. As comunidades eclisais de base reinventam a Igreja (Rio de Janeiro 1977); Theologie aus der Praxis des Volkes ed. F. L. Castillo (Munich & Mainz 1978); N. Greinacher Die Kirche der Armen (Munich 1980).