Social Responsibility

Tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine in Germany

Catholic social doctrine and the Christian social movement have a long tradition in Germany. Their primary focus is on a reasonable order of social organization and social justice.

History and important representatives

Wilhelm Emmanuel Freiherr von Ketteler © KNA-Bild
Wilhelm Emmanuel Freiherr von Ketteler © KNA-Bild

Catholic social doctrine and the Christian social movement have been influenced by members of the clergy and lay Catholics alike. The Bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-1877), played a pioneering role with his social policy ideas and his demands with regard to resolving the “social question”. His ideas had a direct effect on the social and political programme of Catholicism. Adolph Kolping (1813–1865) promoted the welfare of craft and trade journeymen. His main concern was the compatibility of working and having a family, and it still lives on in numerous initiatives of the “Kolpingwerk”.

Through the German Centre Party, the Catholics had a strong influence on social welfare legislation at the time of the German Empire as well as in the Weimar Republic. From the 19th century on a broad area of social responsibility was opened up to Catholic lay people in the Catholic labour movement.

Through its main proponents Catholic social doctrine gained a prominence of its own in Germany. Heinrich Pesch SJ (1854–1926) is considered the founder of Christian “solidarism”, formulating a concept of society somewhere between “liberalism” and “socialism”.

Franz Hitze (1851–1921), a priest and social politician, sharply criticised industrial capitalism and was a co-founder of the “People’s Association for Catholic Germany” (1890–1933), a grass-roots organisation which awakened the social conscience of German Catholics and worked towards their social integration. Heinrich Brauns (1868–1939), a priest and for many years Reich Labour Minister, introduced unemployment insurance in Germany in 1927.

Oswald von Nell-Breuning © KNA-Bild

The two Jesuits, Oswald von Nell-Breuning (1890–1991) and Gustav Gundlach (1892–1963), exerted key influence on the social thinking of German Catholicism in the early and middle years of the Federal Republic. Gundlach formulated the subsidiarity principle in the encyclical “Quadragesimo Anno” (1931). It says that (financial) matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authorities such as communities and municipalities themselves. Only when a particular task cannot be undertaken adequately by a ‘low’ level will it be handed ‘up’ to a higher level of government.

Cardinal Joseph Höffner (1906–1987) was a highly regarded exponent of Christian social science and it was a prominent achievement of him to have kept Catholic social doctrine on course in an era of radical moral and social changes.

After 1945

The years 1933 to 1945 were not only a serious setback for social and political Catholicism in Germany, in many cases they constituted the termination and destruction of a long tradition. Reconstruction and new construction after the Second World War took place in the context of transformed social, political and economic conditions. Following the criminal Nazi regime there was a need to return to the inviolable dignity of man and basic Christian values as the foundation of society. The Basic Law of 1949 was an example of a value-based constitution. Politically and socially committed Christians played an important part in building the German welfare state. They succeeded in translating an understanding of human rights based on natural law and a view of society based on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity into political reality. The socialist dictatorship established in the eastern part of German after 1945 prevented any free development there.

The activities of lay Catholicism were grouped together in the Central Committee of German Catholics founded in 1952. The Central Committee has been the source of a large number of social policy ideas and initiatives. The German Bishops’ Conference on 12 February 1963 established the Catholic Social Science Centre in Mönchengladbach <> to deal with social questions and until today this Centre enjoys an international reputation as an influential voice of Catholic social teaching.

German society today is characterised by far-reaching processes of secularisation, pluralisation and individualisation. In a country with about 25 million Catholics and nearly just as many Evangelical Christians, this constitutes a challenge to the two major churches. In the recent past, the Evangelical and the Catholic Churches have taken joint stances on basic social, political and economic issues such as the validity of basic values, protection of life, responsibility for preserving the nature of Sundays, overcoming unemployment, dealing with property problems in the new states, as well as on migration and the integration of foreigners.

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