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Theology professor: German theology no longer has worldwide impact

By Rudolf Gehrig for CNA

Dr. Ulrich Lehner. (Credit: University of Notre Dame)

Berlin, Germany, Aug 9, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- Theology in Germany, with a few exceptions, is in a crisis. This is the conclusion reached by a German theology professor, who is the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Ulrich Lehner earned a doctorate in theology at the University of Regensburg, and a habilitation doctorate in history at the Central European University.

Speaking with CNA Deutsch, the professor and author of numerous books, including God is not Nice, criticized not only a “qualitative regression of German theology”, while noting important exceptions, but also the way some of his colleagues work.

“I have followed many appointments in Germany and can only say: academic mediocrity is always hiring mediocrity,” said Lehner. He believes a “handful of professors” give their former students appointments, “regardless of the weaknesses they have”. It is noticeable that “especially those who are loyal to the Church never get a chance, because they are sorted out beforehand”.

German theology in crisis

As an example, the researcher cites a married female theologian with three children whose appointment to a chair was prevented because the professors found out that she went to daily Mass. She took her faith too seriously – “too seriously for a professor”, Lehner said. In another case the applicant’s five children destroyed his chances for a hire. There are numerous cases in which colleagues are rejected without taking academic criteria into account, often “with the knowledge and cover of the university administration”, commented Lehner.

Lehner stated: “If the people outside academia knew how professors in Germany invent criteria or engage in intrigues to make Catholic hires impossible, then academic theology would lose even the small remainder of its reputation.”

In an Aug. 3 article at, the social ethicist Bernhard Emunds from the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology, a Jesuit college in Frankfurt, was quoted as saying that theology in German-speaking countries has “an exalted academic reputation and importance worldwide”.

Lehner does not share this assessment: “German theology is no longer what it was 25 years ago. Unlike then, it no longer has a global impact today.”

As evidence for this, Lehner cites the dearth of translations of German-language theological works into English, French, or Spanish. Conversely, global research in Germany garners “astonishingly little attention.” This means that one is largely cut off from international research, according to the academic.

“While you still have to learn German in doctoral programs in the US, I had noticed already 20 years ago in Germany that doctoral students could not read lengthy English texts,” Lehner noted. German theologians would by an large only cite each other.

Germany’s ‘theologian shortage’

According to, there are roughly 200 seminarians in Germany, fewer than ever before.

Among all theology students (of whom there were 18,251 in 2018-19), those choosing the full course in theology are a small proportion (just 2,549 in 2018), according to the report. For the rest, theological training is only part of their teaching degree.

Regardless of the relatively small number of “full theologians”, there are still many places in Germany where theology is taught. There are a total of 19 Catholic theological faculties and colleges, more than 30 institutes and chairs for Catholic theology, various research institutions, three colleges that offer a degree in “Religious education and Church educational work”, as well as an online theology degree, according to the secretariat of the German bishops’ conference.

However, the scientific “output” remains low. As reported by the German statistical office, only eight people received their second doctorate required for a university professorship in Catholic theology in 2019. “Considering that many smaller departments there – not all – have almost no students but have good financial resources, one would expect groundbreaking research results”, Lehner remarked.

Yet, the number and quality of publications is also at a low level, so that Lehner “seriously” wonders “what my German colleagues do all day”, he remarked.

The theology professor therefore called for a reconsideration: “The academic mediocrity of German theology – with some exceptions – and the small number of students cannot justify the outrageous number of theology departments and chairs. Maintaining them is akin to holding on to medieval privileges.”

Benedict XVI, too, has lamented developments in theology.

In his April 2019 essay “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse”, the emeritus pope, who long worked as a theology professor before his episcopal consecration, wrote: “Indeed, in theology God is often taken for granted, but concretely one does not deal with Him. The theme of God seems so unreal, so far removed from the things that concern us. And yet everything becomes different if one does not presuppose but present God. Not somehow leaving Him in the background, but recognizing Him as the center of our thoughts, words and actions.”

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  1. The sorry state of “theology” in Germania (as evidenced in the opening of a majoritarian “binding synodal path”)…

    Why are we reminded of the 1965 movie My Fair Lady, and the lyrics chanted by Rex Harrison? He bemoans the sorry English pronunciations of “guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle–and, overall, the general erosion of the English language.
    From Frederick Loewe’s opening song-–”Why Can’t the English?”: “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter / Condemned by every syllable she utters / By right she should be taken out and hung….” The lyrics then include this: “In America, they haven’t used it [the English language] for years!”

    Likewise, the language of theology in Germania?

  2. Theology teachers are teaching theology in seminaries and faculties of theology in several universities across the Globe. Because they are teaching theology, can one brand them as theologians? To get a position to teach, the aspirant needs to be in a rat-race. In the good old days, genuine theologians were never known to be in any rat-race. Those who did exhibit such tendencies, automatically qualified themselves for the sack-race.

  3. It’s part of the sad state of the culture of higher education, including religious schools — as long as you’re a conformist (generally to the left more than the right) you’re more accepted. If you stand your ground on your beliefs, you are ostracized. Why even attend college then? just learn your trade online.

  4. Reflecting on the troublesome German theologians of our own day (and of the present era ushered in by the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962), I am reminded of the following sentences from a letter written by Evelyn Waugh to Lady Diana Acton, dated 15 March 1963: “I think it is a great cheek of the Germans to try and teach the rest of the world anything about religion. They should be in perpetual sackcloth and ashes for all their enormities from Luther to Hitler.” He was speaking of the baleful influence exerted by radical German theologians on the course of events during Vatican II. We can only pray that the influence exerted by radical German theologians and their adherents, ever since Waugh’s day, is truly beginning to wane at last.

  5. Germany hasn’t been Catholic for 50 years. Why is it only now that some theology professor at equally post-Catholic Notre Dame University is waking up to it?

    • Matt. 26:74 and Acts 9:18, it’s never too late to wake up. Mr. Paul, do know any kids that currently attending UND, you should talk to them – please, in the name of Our Mother, don’t just follow the angry, vengeful Catholic mob looking to lynch another prominent Catholic University for trying to keep up with the science, technology and our current zeitgeist with the faith. Fr. Hesburgh had a mission to give academic credibility to the institution but the Congregation of the Holy Cross have not forgotten the original mission of Fr. Sorin – ‘To make God loved, known and served’. My kid worked very hard to get into UND and is working very hard to stay in UND studying immunology/biological statistics and linguistics, not a lot of Universities in the world offer the same breadth of majors or caliber of education. The University of Notre Dame was gracious enough to give him an academic and need-based scholarships so that we as a faithful Catholic middle-class family of 5 can afford to send him there – I thank the Lord for this blessing everyday now that my wife is unemployed due to the Coronavirus. As our Parish Priest is fond of saying, actions over words is how Christians express their love of Jesus Christ. So thank you Dr. Lehner, Fr. Miscamble and Fr. Jenkins et al for trying to bridge faith with the unrelenting secular, progressive pressures from without and from the acrimony from within.

  6. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground..’ – the grain of wheat that knows that it is do the will of The Sower , as our Lord has shown us , to bring His holiness , thus The Fatherhood of God , into our lives and generations .
    The enemy has stolen much , through its lies and cruelties that life is all about worldly power and its ways , life and its sacredness are evil crosses that need to be twisted and turned , to serve the same liar ..

    ‘Jesus , I trust in Thee ‘ – the motto for our times, even to counter that lie , even when many still struggle to take in what it really means .

    The Divine Mercy devotion that God raised up , from the near by oppressed land of Poland , through a holy nun , with a third grade education , whose Diary likely has been a source of good theology for millions world over .

    That aspect of trust – interesting to see its theme , in the area of money as well as ‘social credit ‘ system , promoted and explained at this site , seems good and wholesome in many ways – even when not understanding it all that well either – 🙂 – .

    Good to see their promotion of the Chaste Heart of St.Joseph devotion too , as Patron of Godly wisdom , an area of much poverty in many lands and hearts ;
    his help given us in timely manner , by our Good Father , that we discern the false gold of earthy wisdom in our times , to be instead taught by The Spirit , through the good and holy Fathers that have been in abundance in The Church .

  7. Decades ago the Teutonic theological enterprise metamorphosised into something utterly different from an occupation of the knees. Professor Lehner just got the memo? Ah, he’s at Notre Dame.
    The “katholic theological” academy and its pilot fish in the “klergy klass” had better emerge from their bronze bubble and get a sense of where they are and how they are regarded. The situation is hopeless until they arouse themselves from their torpor. Pick up your breviaries — its all there.

      • ““German theology is no longer what it was 25 years ago. Unlike then, it no longer has a global impact today.”
        So the credence of a perspective advanced as theological rests on its “global impact today”?
        I worked in the academy for thirty years, the theological academy at one of the most “globally” renowned ecumenical institutions conferring advanced degrees for ten of those years. Rest assured, the credentials listed in the curriculum vitae and the length of the bibliography are no substitute for the essential requirement for the theologian — an unmitigated faithful assent and adherence to the perennial Magisterium of Roman Catholicism. All else is speculative thought more properly consigned to religious studies, philosophy and any number of other disciplines.
        John Macquarrie had a fine definition of theology: “The study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith seeks to express the content of that faith in the clearest and most coherent language available.” When I taught high school religion before entering into administrative positions I use to require my students to memorize that definition, much to the consternation of the post-conciliar faculty. Myself I regarded as quite open minded given Macquarrie was an Anglican. The broken clock is right twice a day.
        And no, I have never run across Dr. Lehman’s work — and that reflects poorly on neither of us.

  8. This state of affairs is true not only in Germany but also in the wider northern Europe held in its sway: Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium. Theology in Germany has turned into heavily scientific work often getting rid of God and the supernatural in its purview and simply focuses on the human and the historical. But somehow Germany still clings to this illusion of its entitlement to its former place and time as the center of theological reflection when almost all the giants of theology wrote in German in the middle of the previous century. This trend of decline and fall can also be discerned in certain strands of theology in the U.S.. Let’s say twenty-five years from now, the U.S. will no longer be the singular center of the world’s theological production it stole from Germany and theology will truly be global with multiple centers in Asia, Latin America and Africa. This current trend which can eventually lead to the fall of the U.S. theological hold in the future is the stream among American theologians which tend to be of the reactionary traditionalist and right wing libertarian and free market advocacy. This theology tends to be deeply Americanist and capitalist often at odds with the central magisterium of the Pope and the Vatican which at times even gets expressed in the teaching exercise of the U.S. bishops. Check how the USCCB in this election cycle’s issuance of Faithful Citizenship. It narrowed down the criteria for discernment for Catholics voters to favor the rightist status quo and mostly disregarding the papal social teaching on the environment and economics. If this stream becomes the mainstream in the U.S., the German situation now will also be the American one in the far future.

  9. Rahnerism and Kasperism have basically destroyed Theology in Germany. And yet they are still determined to export their failure to the rest of the world.

  10. There are still some outstanding German theologians, but with some notable exceptions (e.g. Helmut Hoping), they are teaching outside of Germany. In addition to Ulrich Lehner (teaching in the USA at Marquette and now Notre Dame), there is also Fr. Manfred Hauke, a superb Mariologist who doesn’t teach in his native Germany but in Italian-speaking Switzerland (Lugano). We should also mention Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, Cong.Orat., a native German who teaches in England and is an outstanding historian of Catholic liturgy.

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