Johann Baptist Metz, Theologian of Compassion, Dies at 91


Johann Baptist Metz, one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century and pioneer of Jewish-Christian dialogue after the Holocaust, died on 2 December in Münster , He was 91.

His death was confirmed by the University of Münster, where he taught many years.

Professor Metz believed that the church must be reconciled with the victims of history, and he dedicated his work to building solidarity with the oppressed. He called on German Catholics to face the reality of Auschwitz, if many did not.

"To articulate the suffering of others is the prerequisite for all truth claims," ​​said Professor Metz in 1994, when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna.

Thanks to Professor Metz, the Catholic Church in West Germany has for the first time officially dealt with the Holocaust. He urged the German bishops to discuss it in a statement he had written from 1971 to 1975 for a synod or special council in Würzburg. "We have to be aware of the suffering in the past," one of his first students, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, explained in an interview the approach of Professor Metz. "What happened to Hitler, how did the Holocaust happen, how did the churches no longer express themselves?"

In the years immediately after the war, Professor Metz coined generations of students and influential Catholic bishops The Second Vatican Council, a critical time for the Church in which the Council's steps were taken to engage with the modern world , In contrast to theological contemporaries such as Jürgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, however, he achieved no international fame.

As Europe became more secular and Christianity took a turn, Professor Metz called on the church to reconsider its role in society. He promoted a new political theology, as he called it: the idea that the church should not interpret its political commitment as an exercise of power over others, but as a follow-up to the example of Christ to heal the needy.

His work contradicted the philosophy of Carl Schmitt, a prominent conservative German political theorist who had sided with the Nazis and used his theories of absolutist authority to defend Hitler.

Professor Metz devoted himself to understanding the nature of suffering, which he saw as the primary theological question. "He never thought you could answer that question," said J. Matthew Ashley, professor at Notre Dame, who translated his work into English. "He was always careful with theologies who thought they had all the answers."

His attention to oppression in his own European context developed along with Latin American liberation theology movements, which repressed the experience of the poor and the poor. He underpinned their often controversial work in the church and the work of African American Catholic theologians in the United States. Instead of talking and writing in the first place, he believed that theologians should "meet the other's face," Dr. Schüssler Fiorenza.

Johann Baptist Metz was born on 5 August 1928 in Welluck near Auerbach, a Catholic city in Bavaria. His father Karl, a merchant, died when Johann was about 12 years old. His mother Sibylle (Müller) Metz was a housewife.

In the last months of World War II he was forced to leave school and joined the Wehrmacht. In a burning incident, he was once sent by his unit to deliver a message, and returned to find all the other members, boys of his age, who had died in an attack. The memory of the trauma remained with him in his life and in his future work.

After being captured by Allied forces, he was sent to a POW camp on the east coast of the United States for seven months. He returned to Germany and joined after graduation in the diocesan seminary in Bamberg.

He completed his doctorate in philosophy and theology at the Jesuit seminary in Innsbruck, Austria, where he met Father Rahner, a leading Catholic theologian, who shaped his work and with whom he began a lifelong professional collaboration. He was ordained a priest in 1954 in the Archdiocese of Bamberg.

He was not trapped in the academy. At the beginning of his career, he secretly taught priests, including married men, who had been secretly ordained in Czechoslovakia, when the communist governments curtailed religious activities.

He joined the University of Münster as Professor of Fundamental Theology. In the same year another Catholic theologian entered the faculty of Münster: Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.

The two men represented different theological traditions and shared the future of the church. Professor Ratzinger led a more conservative wing, while Professor Metz's school regarded the council as a turning point to move the church in a more progressive direction.

The groups played in competing theological journals. Professor Metz helped with the founding of Concilium together with professors Rahner and Küng. Professor Ratzinger founded together with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac the Communio.

When Professor Metz was offered teaching at the University of Munich in 1979, Professor Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich, vetoed the appointment. Professor Metz taught until his retirement in 1993 at the University of Münster. He then taught Philosophy and Religion as a Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna until 1996.

Known for his essays, Professor Metz was a meticulous writer who thought four or five well-written phrases for a good day's work. His most famous writings include "Poverty of the Spirit" (1968), a reflection of what it means to be completely human, and "Faith in History and Society: Towards a Fundamentally Practical Theology" (1977), a summary of his political life thinking.

He also participated with Elie Wiesel in a series of interviews published as "Hope Against Hope" (1999).

"For many, even for many Christians, Auschwitz has slowly slipped the horizon of their memories," said Professor Metz in this volume. "But nobody misses the anonymous consequences of this catastrophe. The theological question about Auschwitz is not only: "Where was God in Auschwitz?", But also: "Where was humanity in Auschwitz?"

He also spent many summers in Litzldorf, south of Munich, as pastor of a small community. His shorthand sermons remain unpublished.

No immediate family members survive. Professor Metz's only sibling, a younger sister, Margarete Tischer, died in 2017.

Professor Metz's ideas are often repeated by Pope Francis, who has called for a church to heal wounds.

"Metz I've never strayed from horror and never allowed it," said Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, who dealt with his work and the time of the Nazis, in an interview , "Studying at Metz seemed like a transfiguration to me."


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