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.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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