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Interview with Social Philosopher Friedhelm Hengsbach

by Friedhelm Hengsbach Thursday, Jul. 05, 2018 at 10:21 AM

The financial markets have uncoupled from the real economy since the middle of the 1970s. Politicians listen and react to every sound from the financial sector. Who paid for the bank bailout? The general public or the state made itself poor and guaranteed capital.


[This interview published on 4/11/2013 is translated from the German on the Internet.]

Interviewer: Welcome to the Alpha Forum. My guest today is a social scientist and economist, educator, theologian and member of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit, Prof. Dr Friedhelm Hengsbach. You are well-known for being both angry and composed. Your anger comes from impatience. For you, many changes in society and with individuals take too long.

Hengsbach: Yes, there is anger, a furiously clenched fist, because things as they are, firstly, are not reasonable and secondly, are not just. This annoys me because I think a society could be created or developed where the equality of people plays a role and not the class distinctions in which a minority can put pressure on the majority of the population that only has its labor power to earn a living. On the other side, when I see with God’s eyes and acknowledge with God’s heart, I must have patience and think in longer time periods and not in quarters. When development is seen over longer periods, one can only be astonished about the great learning capacity of people including politicians and decision-makers.

Q: How can this be harmonized? On one side, there is this anger and impatience over the slowness of change and on the other side, your thesis of a necessary de-acceleration of the world… Who steals our time regarding a more democratic change and individual development?

Hengsbach: Different interpretation patterns coexist. One says: every person decides what he or she does with their personal time or life possibilities. I oppose this view because I am convinced there are unequivocal or somewhat clear cause-effect relations. The financial markets first strongly uncoupled from the real economy since the middle of the 1970s and secondly appropriated the technical means to affect the environment with a tremendous speed after the great crisis of technology: on the financial markets themselves and on corporations listed on the stock exchanges. Corporations attain this speed and this acceleration in working conditions. On the other hand, politicians are under pressure to decide as quickly as possible and listen and react to every sound coming from the financial markets. This pressure also comes into private households since working conditions and the private sphere are deregulated more and more: between men and women and between parents and children. At the end of this cascade, women grow silent or protest against what is exacted of them.

Q: I would like to bring something “more cosmic” into our conversation. In an interview with the Catholic News Service, you said: “Only contemplating the starry sky is not enough. Identifying and analyzing injustice is not enough. We must do something against it.” Is that a correct interpretation?

Hengsbach: As a professor and lecturer, I have always understood my theoretical and reflective activity in the framework of catholic social teaching. Academics must always take a stand. They must give an account of their perspective from which they see society and from the perspective of which people. Liberation theology taught me something different than the traditional social teaching which represents an ethic of principles formulated in the clouds and then spelled out to us down here. Liberation theology taught me the cry of people who are oppressed, exploited and marginalized should really be the perspective and standpoint of those reflecting on social conditions.

Q: Why has the Vatican treated liberation theologians so harshly?

Hengsbach: The Vatican is certainly the epitome of a leadership elite within an absolute hierarchical system. Those who are at the top and must decide do not easily accept radical reforms or the standpoint of marginalized persons. When one sees the social biography of the persons who speak in the Vatican or think they can autonomously determine what Jesus wanted or what God expects in today’s society, one should not be surprised that they suppress the ideas of liberation theology. A hierarchical regime is absolutely monarchical. In any case, this is true for the Catholic Church. These persons can say they are the church. Therefore, all new ideas from society that press in the church are first rejected. This reflects its absolute hierarchical and monarchist structure.

Q: The title of your last book is “The Time is Ours” (Die Zeit gehort uns). You discuss your understanding of democracy in this book. You say democratic life forms are not rule-free or chaotic. Democratic rule is bound to functions. There is no succession… With that, you collide with a large part of Vatican theology beginning with the apostolic succession and ending with the pope’s claim of exclusive representation. I know passionate criticism can be heard from you again and again as an angry theologian, economist and social scientist.

Hengsbach: I react less from Rome than from my German background… I try to bring experiences, learning processes and innovations from society, democratic structures, and systems into the church. I attempt to apply thought patterns and interpretation categories regarding social processes to the church. The church as a faith community does not interest me here. Instead, I refer to the church as an organization. This organization was originally a movement, the Jesus movement. Originally, it had offices and certain functions corresponding to the interests and desires of the church people. With time, this movement because a bonded and congealed structure. Those who imagine they have a claim of exclusive representation, appeal to the divine command or Jesus’ commission, resist all learning processes and positive experiences from society applied to the church. This first triggered a provocation for the Catholic Church in 2010. We have to speak and reflect about the structures that contributed to this. My immediate response was that this had something to do with this quasi family milieu, the strong pedagogical dependence in the boarding schools and the strong religious dependence that plays a great role within the Catholic Church. These are the structural presuppositions… The question for me is how a church can be reformed and how its structures can be changed. The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church must be broken through election to offices for example. How can a Catholic Church appeal to Jesus and systematically exclude women from leadership functions and decision-making processes and authority? How can a church appeal to Jesus and couple the office to a certain life form like celibacy? These three structural components must be finally questioned publically.

Q: You speak of reforms of the Catholic Church and not of reformation. How is this different from a Lutheran approach? You criticized the pope’s address in the German Bundestag. You are for equal rights of women in the church – like many other priests in the Catholic Church. You are for temporary offices including the pope’s office.

Hengsbach: The papal office is divisble. In my opinion, collegiums could be created for common resolutions… Martin Luther wanted to radically reform the church. Dialogue-readiness is imperative, not this radical schism between top and bottom. Farewell to a natural law, purely philosophical argumentation! A naturalist fallacy must be blocked… The church actually bid farewell to what Pope Benedict esteemed, namely traditional natural law. Interestingly, Cardinal Meisner recently set a signal. This is like a revolutionary decision… Church leaders always say: “We could not do anything else because these things were given to us.” I think many church leaders do not suspect everything is in the control of teachable persons and that everything is not changeable at will.

Q: A radical change of the Catholic Church is unconditionally necessary in “celibacy” and “sexual morality.”

Hengsbach: Undoubtedly, church people have largely bid farewell to what church leaders proclaimed as unabandonable doctrine, as God’s will or as Jesus Christ’s commission as the great narrative. The basic evil is maintaining a natural law argumentation… In other areas, the Catholic Church does not show this rigorousness. Jesus said: “You should not kill!” He even said “you should not use evil words.” The church is not rigorous in the poverty question, dealing with wealth and dealing with power.

Q: Does the Catholic Church have a divided conscience?

Hengsbach: Yes, undoubtedly… Exercising a definitional power over what other people should do involves a dose of folly.

Q: Does maintaining power mean not conceding power?

Hengsbach: Either there are possibilities of excusing, they did not know responsible use of power, or there is nothing but the will to power. Misuse of power is injustice. The church must confirm this. In many areas, the church speaks of justice and holds the economy, political authorities and society altogether to the great banner of justice. Aristotle said “Nothing is more beautiful than justice, not even the morning star.” Not judging itself is Pharisaic hypocrisy. They speak about things without doing them.

Q: That is an enormous criticism. How can we hold to the principle hope in relation to the Roman Catholic Church? Why didn’t you turn your back on this church like many others?

Hengsbach: On one side, this is a question of calculation and strategy. I feared I would be rejected with the words: “This is a traitor, one who doesn’t join in any more and sees us only from the outside… I have a “server career” behind me… Jesus is my model… Those were very beautiful experiences… My parental home was catholic…

The relation between church and state in Germany is rather unique in the entire world. This has consequences. One consequence is for example that the state is very interested that this institution, the church, is maintained…

Q: You are 76 and belong to a generation that observed, accompanied and analyzed the Second Vatican Council intensively. Are you disappointed that so many path-breaking marks were reversed in the following decades? I think of the term aggiomamento, opening to the world, the anchoring in the world, as Pope John XXIII proclaimed.

Hengsbach: I am disillusioned, not disappointed… The bishops at the Second Vatican Council were enflamed, not intoxicated, by these desires of John XXIII. See and know the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the gospel! See, judge and act! That is a different method than what is customary in the church. At that time, I witnessed these changes and was completely absorbed in them. The traditional catholic social teaching represented an ethic of principles. The church argued philosophically with a very dubious natural law and upheld the distribution of labor. The church leaders proclaim the principles and the laity must then realize or concretize them. Then the bishops answered the Second Vatican Council and swept aside that social teaching… Something was turned upside down… What was formerly catholic social teaching has become ecumenical today…

Q: The just state is a postulate of the Reformation… The state made itself culpable in the crisis. You wrote: The state allows itself to be extorted by the different lobbies.

Hengsbach: The fundamental thesis and the ideal conception how this was always expressed in the church tradition means the state exists to enforce general interests – earlier called the “common interest” – against the multitude of private interests and should be the guardian or watchman of the common interest so no one is run over in this nationals community. The general interest includes the interest of the weak and the marginalized. This must be defended against the interests of the powerful, the strong and the rich. However, this ideal is crumbling today and has been disintegrating for a long time.

In the crisis from the middle of the 1970s, the public interest was intensely put in question when the middle class and the economic-political elites said: “The sleek state is the best of all possible states! We must trust more strongly the self-healing powers of the market!” The third sentence of this market radical and neoliberal dogma is: “Economic policy is entirely superfluous if the central bank rigorously fights inflation!” This means movements exist to play down and limit the state. We are now witnessing the consequences of this.

The state makes itself poor through the tax bill – above all through the Red-Green coalition. Red-Green has deregulated working conditions and helped in the genesis of atypical working conditions and a low-wage sector in which people cannot live from their work. It contributed to systematic ally deforming the solidarity security systems by redefining the solidarity elements. I recall the repeated manipulations of the pension formulas, the co-payments to the health insurances, the cancellation of many promised services and so forth. These were allegedly anchored processes and faltered in great campaigns by middle class elites against the social state.

The state has fallen to its knees. A representative of Deutsche Bank once formulated: “The financial markets are the fifth branch in democracy. The millions of daily decisions of owners of capital are better signals of rational policy than the parliamentary elections every four years… Wages only develop moderately, taxes are lowered and redistribution is reduced as much as possible. This is rational policy in their eyes. I have the impression a phase began in the Red-Green coalition since the 1980s in which this kind of advice was taken seriously. Then what was earlier propagated was legally anchored.

Q: I am now amazed. You said the state meddled too intensely in social connections and social justice within society. You formulated this in an interview as follows: At the same time, there are also critical sentences against Agenda 2010 of the Red-Green government. Today, we know Germany would be much deeper in this crisis within Europe without Agenda 2010. Why are you smiling?

Hengsbach: This legend that arose sometime ago is absurd. I actually read that opinion from the council of experts in the first phase when an economic upswing occurred after 2007/08. “The world economy has reignited the German export economy.” In 2014, the academics then wrote in their expert opinion: “The strong world economy led to this economic upswing in Germany. Perhaps, the Hartz IV reforms and Agenda 2010 contributed to that.” This second sentence was only a conjecture rather than a clear analysis that the world economic stimulation had a positive effect on the German export economy and the German labor market. Strictly speaking, almost the opposite is argued today.

Germany is economically robust on account of Hartz IV, Agenda 2010 and the Schroeder reforms. That is why southern European countries are now imitating Schroeder. They are making labor markets more flexible, privatizing state enterprises and capping the state budget. I ask myself if such consequences are now occurring in southern European countries. Are deregulation of working conditions, the deformation of social security systems and fiscal policy in favor of the financial actors the remedy that should now be applied in Europe?

Q: The question is raised: who should pay for this.

Hengsbach: Who paid for the bank bailout? The general public or the state made itself poor, guaranteed capital and even took over part of the “toxic” securities. We should not ask who should pay for this today. The central banks kept the banking system or the financial system alive with a surplus in liquidity. These are all processes in which this question about payment cannot be answered as though the poor pensioner with her nest egg finances businesses or bailouts out the banks.

Financing what is poltically desired happens through the central banks and their money creation. The bold activity of the central banks is now regarded as the great deliverer for problems in Europe. This activity is not ensured in a political or parliamentary way. However, it is presently regarded as beneficial because the crisis did not spread intensely and the economy did not completely succumb. Rather, this actually now supposedly calms the financial markets and relieves political decision-makers.

Q: I must now somewhat overstrain you… What values does financial management, politics and European society need?

Hengsbach: Politicians are now beginning to learn. The state has its function. It has to enforce general interests against the private interests of the banks. There are attempts to increase the capital holdings of banks. The state must safeguard the general interest and banks when they create money or strengthen the stability of the financial system. Banks have a public commission and cannot simply say: “We are private businesses. We make profits.” I think something has changed in Europe and in the whole world. The position of the state is made stronger in reflections and in the intentions of politicians than was the case in the scope of the financial crisis and in the nascent crisis of European states and their indebtedness…

Related Links:

Friedhelm Hengsbach, “Housing is not just another commodity,” 2014,

Friedhelm Hengsbach, “Sharing, not Killing,” 2017,

Ernst Wolff, “The World Dependent on Central Banks,” January 2018,

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