dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Remembering Klaus Demmer

In September 1982, I moved to Rome to do a licentiate and a doctorate at the Gregorian University. I wanted to study with Josef Fuchs, SJ, who had just retired but told me he would direct my dissertation. He suggested that in preparation for the degree I should do my licentiate course work and thesis with Klaus Demmer, MSC. A fellow Jesuit studying at the Gregorian told me that many thought Demmer, who died July 18 at the age of eighty-three, the greatest European moral theologian of his generation. I had never heard of him.

Fuchs and Demmer proved to be very different from each other: Fuchs was clever and friendly, hosting doctoral students in the Gregorian’s dining room and then later in his room where we would retire to drink and share stories. Demmer was shy and frail; the only time I went to his room was to discuss my licentiate. None of us socialized with him; if we discussed anything with him, it was usually a recent lecture of his.

It was in the main aula of the Gregorian where Demmer was in his element. Before his lecture, he would pace back and forth across the enormous foyer collecting his thoughts. At the break, he would do the same. We never interrupted him because we knew that his lectures to the two hundred of us would be memorable. More than thirty years later, they remain so.

Demmer invited us into the very deep world of fundamental morals. He would begin by reminding us of the Augustinian insight that God was closer to us than we were to ourselves. There he would show us the roots of moral theology, our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another.

Truth, too, was closer to us than we were to ourselves. We were called by God to get to that truth. Truth was not a set of statements or assertions then, but a life lived. 

For Demmer, the goal of moral theology was to help each person build up a true moral life; the Christian, he wrote, makes “her life history a project aiming at the vision of God.” All moral guidance, then, depends not on concepts or oft-repeated rules or norms but on the “life histories on which people have reflected.” For him, then, every ethical insight was fundamentally an existential one.

Born in Germany in 1931, Demmer knew from the outset that life was a struggle. He presumed conflict in life, became suspicious when moral tensions were not apparent, and recognized that these conflicts have their own embodied, complicated histories. In this world of conflict, Demmer found the freedom of the cross; there the God of providence through the death and resurrection of Jesus concretely freed us from sin and death. The theologian’s reflection on this event of Christ is central: “It is impossible to think more radically than this of the conflictual history of humanity.”

His ethics of a life lived in truth was hardly triumphalistic. The right realization of “human existence begins with the admission of one’s own weakness.” Precisely in our struggles, we encounter the cross and therein the liberating presence of God. The Christian life story then has, to use a typical Demmer phrase, “theophantic traits.”

Demmer urged us, as future moral theologians, continuously to witness to the thick and complicated lives human beings actually live. But he warned us that those in our field rarely did. “The existential problems under which people suffer silently tend to be inconspicuous. They remain in silence and play scarcely any role in the public academic arena.”

Demmer wanted us to know where we as teachers should start. He had a similar concern about where to start with episcopal teaching. When asked should bishops take public stances on moral issues, he argued that bishops should attend to their primary charge: to remind all Christians that they each had a conscience to be followed. If bishops spent their moral energy on this, then maybe the People of God would get somewhere. But he felt that bishops neglected this. Still, one would ask, what if bishops did preach, teach, and admonish all their communities to follow their consciences, could they still take moral stances and urge Christians to follow this or that course of action? Demmer would remind the bishops that their second task was to instruct Christians that knowing they had to follow their consciences, now they needed to form their consciences. Because conscience-formation was not first about knowledge, but about living, they had to form their consciences by becoming better people, more competent to living and doing the truth. Demmer would remind them, however, that this second task was a life-long one, and getting started on the right road was a long process. (“It takes time to gain a foothold in truthfulness,” he once wrote.) But, Demmer would then be asked, if bishops did teach us to follow and form our consciences, could they then take moral stances? Exasperated, he would say: I don’t think if they did their two primary tasks, they would have much time for that.

Years later, Georgetown University Press translated and published two of his more than forty books, including his masterpiece, Living the Truth. When I learned that Klaus died this past week, I thought of how apt the title was and of the extraordinary influence he had on me and on all those who sat in that hall where he lectured for more than forty years.

Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

This is very moving, Jim. I never met Klaus Demmer, but your words bring him to life again!.  

And welcome to the blog! It  is a great conversation!

For those of you who don't know Jim Keenan, here is a link to his BC webpage--and to the webpage for the groundbreaking global conversation in Catholic moral thought he not only imagined, but also realized: Catholic moral theology really is becomming a global conversation, thanks in large part to Jim's efforts today, and the efforts of people like Fr. Demmer in days past.

http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/theology/faculty/jkeenan.html

http://www.catholicethics.com/

"All moral guidance, then, depends not on concepts or oft-repeated rules or norms but on the “life histories on which people have reflected.” For him, then, every ethical insight was fundamentally an existential one."

Hear, hear!

Thank you for a thoughtful tribute to Fr Demmer. He was one of my (and I believe most of my class's) favourite professors at the Gregorian. I remember being struck by his insistence that each person had to take personal responsibility for his/her life as a disciple of Jesus and not expect "authoritative" answers to the often complicated moral questions. 

 

A great compliment, Bob, coming from someone who knew so many of the profs.  

I didn't mention a point that he frequently made and that your comment prompts me to recall, that is, in quoting Paul that by Christ, sin and death were conquered, he would ask us, "if Christ has freed us from sin and death, what effect has this Good News had in your life?"

I, too, was a student of Klaus Demmer at the Gregorian. That was in 1973-74, when, among the more than 200 in the class, I was one of two women. In what was for me a somewhat overwhelming world, Demmer stood out, not only in the clarity of his lectures, but in his unfailingl respect for that tiny minority. I an happy to see him remembered here. 

Because conscience-formation was not first about knowledge, but about living, they had to form their consciences by becoming better people, more competent to living and doing the truth. Demmer would remind them, however, that this second task was a life-long one, and getting started on the right road was a long process. 

I don't think this process of becoming better people can be separated from getting to know God.  Thus I'm skeptical about this distinction between knowing and living.  I can't "do the truth" until I first get to know the truth.  In my view, the truth (and the way, and the life) is the person of Jesus. If we wish to know the truth, we need to get to know Jesus.

The evangelization imperative is to introduce God to those who don't know him (or who have permitted their relationship with him to deteriorate) by introducing them to the person of Jesus.  Without that knowledge of God, including God's moral laws and guidance for us, we're left with philosophies for good living that all too often tend to boil down to, "follow your heart".

I agree that this emphasis on conscience and reflecting on our life experience is salutary, but surely knowledge of God through Jesus can't be separated out and made subordinate to it.  

 

Dear Jim,

I agree.  I certainly meant that knowing God, who is closer to us, is the start of living the truth. 

What Demmer is reminding us in the section you cite, is that conscience formation is not primarily about knowing right from wrong, it's actually about living rightly, and for we who are Christians living rightly depends on knowing Jesus and following in his way.  

The Christian, Demmer wrote, makes “her life history a project aiming at the vision of God.”

Jim

Jim, many thanks for that clarifying - and kind - response.