During the recent debates about the sacramentality and indissolubility of marriage initiated by Pope Francis, much attention has fallen on Cardinal Walter Kasper and his “theology of mercy.” With clear evidence of Northern European theology filtering all the way down to Rome—and all the way up to the papacy—some have revived Ralph Wiltgen’s famous ecclesiastical quip: “The Rhine flows into the Tiber.” Although Kasper has played a very public role, one would be remiss to omit the influence on Pope Francis’s thinking about marriage of Peter Hünermann, another leading German theologian. Born in 1929, within a few years of Kasper (1933), Hans Küng (1928), Joseph Ratzinger (1927), and Johann Baptist Metz (1928), Hünermann has never received the same attention in the Anglophone world as his aforementioned contemporaries. Yet he has exercised a seismic theological impact that stretches all the way to Francis’s much-debated Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia. It is Hünermann’s work that has helped provide a theological justification for the pope’s insistence that the sacrament of marriage be understood in less legalistic terms. According to Hünermann, certain medieval reflections on the theology of marriage recognized that not all sacramental marriages were indissoluble in the way that indissolubility came to be understood in the modern period. The church should reclaim that understanding.
The lack of familiarity with Hünermann also reflects the changing relationship between North American and European—especially German—theology. Advances in the sophistication of American theology since the Second Vatican Council have decreased the urgency for theology students to head to Europe to receive a first-class education. Meanwhile, less contemporary German theology is being translated, and a good number of North American theologians would be hard-pressed to name a German theologian born after World War II. Although American theologians-in-training no longer flock to the most prominent German faculties of Catholic theology—Freiburg, Munich, Münster, and, of course, Tübingen—there remains a general appreciation for the ongoing impact of German theology on pressing theological questions.
Tübingen, where Hünermann taught from 1982 to 1997, offers a reliable point of reference for understanding his thought. The university also served as a crossroads for Küng, Kasper, Ratzinger, and Metz, all of whom received appointments to the Catholic faculty there. Ratzinger’s stint was rather brief (1966–69) and it is often said that his reaction to the student upheavals of ’68 turned him from an advocate of Vatican II’s reforms to a skeptic. When viewed through the polarization that followed the council, it seems unfathomable that Hans Küng recruited Ratzinger to Tübingen as part of his effort to make it an epicenter of reform-minded theology.
The abiding ethos of the Tübingen School centered on the task of understanding theology in its historical context. Through its most prominent nineteenth-century representative, Johann Adam Möhler, the school modeled what would later be called ressourcement, while also seeking to address squarely the pressing problems of the day. Thanks to the work of key twentieth-century theologians (most notably Josef Rupert Geiselmann, Walter Kasper’s mentor), Tübingen appreciation for its nineteenth-century forebears became more explicit. Before coming to Tübingen, Hünermann had done his first dissertation on a key early Tübingen figure, Franz Anton Staudenmaier (1800–56). Hünermann’s time at Tübingen only deepened his appreciation for the school, which is manifest not only in his many publications, but also in his historically centered approach to theological questions. The degree to which a “Tübingen theology” took exception to the regnant neoscholasticism depended on the degree to which scholasticism eschewed historical thinking. Scholasticism may seem like a safe bet if the primary theological task is figuring out the proper philosophical and metaphysical groundwork needed to ensure that the church’s ancient truths are safeguarded. If, on the other hand, theology’s most pressing need is to understand the radical entrance of God in history (the Incarnation), then it requires the work of historical retrieval and a commitment to reading the signs of our own times. On this account, Hünermann’s theology aligns closely with that of Kasper’s.
In a conversation last fall, Hünermann mentioned to me his private meeting with Pope Francis in May 2015. After reading Amoris laetitia alongside Hünermann’s recent essays on the theology of marriage, I asked if he would consent to an interview to flesh out how their conversation might have influenced the Apostolic Exhortation. The most controversial section of Amoris laetitia, Chapter 8, deals with the problematic topics of divorce and remarriage. Here especially Francis recognizes that the increase in “irregular situations,” such as cohabitation and Catholics who remarry without obtaining an annulment, are not simply symptoms of moral decadence. Pastors and theologians must understand the social and historical forces at work in contemporary society. The chapter’s repeated call for pastoral discernment presumes a concern for the particularity of each situation, and cautions against a too-easy application of a universal law that ignores individual circumstances. Francis quotes Aquinas in support of this approach, before declaring the insufficiency of “simply [applying]...moral laws to those living in irregular situations.”
Chapter 8 also underlines the availability of the grace that accompanies and sustains the sacrament of marriage. An unbending legalism, Francis insists, risks endangering the Christian message of mercy and forgiveness. By reminding his audience that grace can also provide healing, Pope Francis opens the door to the sacramental participation of those in broken marriages or who are living together but are not married, especially when children are involved. Despite repeated assurances that Amoris laetitia did not undo previous magisterial teaching on marriage, the Apostolic Exhortation decisively adjusts the way Catholics should approach their understanding of marriage and family, especially as it pertains to civil divorce and cohabitation.
This interview took place in May at Hünermann’s house outside Tübingen, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Grant Kaplan: You entered the seminary shortly after the war, and were immediately sent to Rome. What was that like?
Peter Hünermann: When I began to study in 1949 at the Germanicum in Rome we had philosophy first, for six semesters. This was very fascinating for me. I tried to learn a lot about Kant and also read Heidegger. Neoscholastic philosophy was taught, so I naturally read Aquinas.
GK: They permitted you to read non-scholastics?
PH: Sure. Emerich Coreth, SJ, was in charge of our studies. He was a good scholar who later taught at Innsbruck. So from the beginning of my studies things were very open.
GK: How was the transition from philosophy to theology?
PH: When I began theology in the fall of 1952, it started with textbooks from Sebastian Tromp in fundamental theology, and Thimoteo Zapelena in ecclesiology. Their texts struck me as simplistic and disconnected from reality. I remember I went to our spiritual director and gave him my impressions and conveyed my desire to keep reading philosophy, so I read Hegel. Around Christmas I went back to him, and said that I wanted to find a way into theology. He told me to take up the apostolic fathers, and in this way come into theological thinking. And it worked.
GK: You eventually wrote a doctoral thesis in 1958 on the Trinitarian anthropology of Franz Anton Staudenmaier, a prominent member of the Catholic Tübingen School. How did that come about?
PH: Staudenmaier represented for me the promise of a better and more adequate theology. I was also fascinated by the leading members of the first decades [of the Tübingen School]: Johann Sebastian Drey, Johann Adam Möhler, Johann Baptist Hirscher, and the other key Tübingen theologians. I felt that this generation of theologians in the nineteenth century took seriously the problems of modern theology, and that we needed to continue on this path.
GK: After a period of pastoral work and a brief academic stint in Munich, you eventually came to work on your habilitation, or second dissertation, under Bernhald Welte in Freiburg, a theologian known for integrating existential and hermeneutical philosophy into theology. What was Welte like?
PH: I had met Welte in Rome, and he invited me to do my habilitation with him. I am really grateful because I learned a lot from Welte. [Points to a plaster death mask]. This is his mask, which I have kept above my desk. He was a very educated and cultivated man, a real thinker in continuous dialogue with Martin Heidegger. He applied phenomenology in his approach to religious questions. He had a very strong group of students and researchers around him.
GK: Your habilitation was on the breakthrough of historical thinking. Can you say a little more about how you chose this subject?
PH: I had heard Max Müller [a leading Catholic philosopher at the time] give a lecture on history and the philosophy of history, and I was immediately fascinated. In the habilitation I wanted to connect the Catholic Tübingen School with the thought of people like the historian Wilhelm Dilthey and the philosopher Graf Yorck, who took seriously the connection between history and thought.
GK: In what has become almost a canonical book for North American theologians, Method and Theology, Bernard Lonergan cites your habilitation. How close is his project to yours?
PH: Lonergan combined historical and transcendental thinking, as Welte did. So on this point they are very close. Method in Theology demonstrates this in a very clear way.
GK: Welte was more than just a mentor in philosophical theology. He also initiated you into examining theological work going on beyond German borders. When I participated in your doctoral circle in 2000, I was struck by how international your circle of students was. Students presented chapters of their work in French, English, and German. They came from different parts of Europe, South and North America, Africa. Of course you had studied in Rome, but what role did Welte play in your developing an international theological network?
PH: In Freiburg in the 1960s a lot of people were coming from South America. They invited Welte to lecture in Argentina and Chile. When Welte came back from these lectures, he said we should come into closer contact with them. It was important that we go there to balance out not only the neo-scholasticism, but also the positivistic thinking that filtered down from the United States. So we set up a program, I learned Spanish, and I went to Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, Santiago, and Valparaiso. The exchange program that we started still exists. It covers the whole continent and has been very fruitful. Here I also met Jorge Bergoglio in 1968.
GK: Let us briefly review your career, before catching up to the present. You taught dogmatic theology at Münster from 1971 to ’82, and in Tübingen from 1982 to ’97. Since your mandatory retirement, you have turned your focus toward the council, which resulted, most prominently, in a five-volume theological commentary. After such a focus in philosophical theology, what compelled you to turn to the council in your emeritus status?
PH: As a teacher I had always included the council’s text in whatever I lectured on. After I retired in 1997, I thought and prayed for a long time about what needed to be done. It became clear to me that Vatican II should be a point of reference for the way forward for the church, and therefore we should have a commentary. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Acta Synodalia began to be published, and were not completed until 1999. So in 2001 the last volume of Giuseppe Alberigo’s History of Vatican II was published. I wanted to oversee a theological commentary using the Acta [the full record of the council’s sessions and proceedings] to which the theologians who participated in the council did not have access. We also asked younger theologians to work with us, so now we have a group of younger theologians informed and anchored in Vatican II.
GK: Let us go back to your relationship with Pope Francis. He made enough of an impression on you that, after John Paul II’s death in 2005, you said in an informal setting that Jorge Bergoglio would be your choice for the next pope. Can you tell us why?
PH: I used to stay in the Jesuit seminary residence when I taught in Buenos Aires. He directed the novitiate and later became provincial. Over this period I saw him almost once per year. He manifested a certain spiritual distance, which struck me. Before the military putsch in the 1970s, the former president Perón came back onto the scene. The election slogan was “todo el poder a Perón” [all the power for Perón]. I was talking with the young Jesuits who were all for Perón. I told them that this slogan was incompatible with democracy. Bergoglio, however, did not share their enthusiasm for Perón. This is what I mean by distance as a good thing. After Perón died the military took over and a truly awful period commenced. It was also a very hard time for Bergoglio, but these incidents helped form him, along with his profound integration of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, as archbishop and now as pope.
GK: So you must have been happy about his election in 2013. How did it come about that he invited you to the Vatican?
PH: Some colleagues from Latin America asked if I would be disposed to talk with the pope. I asked what the subject would be, and everything was arranged quite rapidly. I had just a few weeks notice, so I put together a paper and had it sent to him. The next day I was scheduled at the Vatican, and I told the Swiss Guard that I had an appointment with the pope. He looked a bit skeptical, but eventually let me through to a small parlor in Santa Marta. Then the pope came down, said hello, and we sat down. We spoke in Spanish for almost an hour. It was amazing to me how he listened. The intensity of his responses manifested a profound concentration. It is very rare in my life to have such an experience of concentrated dialogue.
GK: Questions of indissolubility and sacramentality rest at the heart of the marriage debate, and also figure into Amoris laetitia. Can you say something about how you understand the theology of marriage, as you conveyed it to the pope?
PH: I want to avoid any shadow of indiscretion. I tried to summarize what I had published before and treated in public lectures. So I refer here to these topics, nothing else. Casti connubii (1930) was instigated by an article by theologian Matthias Laros, “Revolution in Marriage,” in a 1930 edition of Hochland, a leading Catholic journal. Laros took up three topics in light of a rapidly changing social and cultural milieu: (1) the meaning of marriage, (2) the question of divorce, and (3) family planning. The Jesuit General Ledochowski was not happy with Laros’s piece, and commissioned Franz Hürth, a Jesuit moral theologian, who later taught me in Rome, to write the response that we know as Casti connubii. Hürth’s standpoint came from canon law and moral theology, and was not informed by systematic theology. One upshot was a narrow understanding of what it meant for a sacrament to be a sacrament. The document was too narrow from the beginning, and could not deal satisfactorily with the complexities of the situation we face today.
It helps to look at the history of the theology of marriage. It was not until the twelfth century that matrimony was first considered a sacrament. Peter Lombard helped lay the foundation, which was accompanied by a lively discussion about how to understand it. Lombard himself asked whether calling marriage a sacrament opens the door to a certain Pelagianism. If the man and woman confer the grace of the sacrament to one another, then Pelagianism would seem to follow, for the grace would come from the couple, and not from God. Both Thomas and Bonaventure found a way out of this problem by asking about the character of the sacrament. The sacrament assures that God will help the spouses. God gives “auxiliary grace” to Christians in marriage, which indicates that grace works differently here than in the sacrament of the Eucharist. In Casti connubii, Hürth says that marriage is transformed in sacramental reality in that it becomes indissoluble. Thomas does not argue in that sense. For Thomas, the unity of matrimony and hence its indissolubility comes from its very nature, given by God the creator. In the sacrament of marriage God gives his help, but this help is not a supernatural transubstantiation of indissolubility. [In this sense, it is not analogous to how bread and wine are transformed at the consecration.] God’s helping grace does not erase what matrimony is in itself [as a natural covenanted relationship freely entered into].
So there is a way forward. We can return to the teachings of Thomas and Bonaventure. But if indissolubility refers to the nature of marriage, it is quite clear that [due to a failure of human cooperation] it can break down. Situations can arise where it is impossible to continue in marriage. If there are children and so on, one has to deal with the individual situation and attempt to find a pastoral solution.
I also spoke about penance, and this was very moving. When Thomas writes about penance, he comes down very differently than the Council of Trent. Trent says that penance is a judgment, and the confessor functions as a judge who has to apply the law. Therefore one has to confess one’s sins completely, and so on. Thomas, on the other hand, says that it is a judgment of charity. The one who comes to confession confesses his sins in order to be reconciled. In an adjudicative judgment the one accused cannot be expected to confess his transgressions. But in the confessional the sinner accuses himself because he wants to be reconciled. The priest represents the Lord, who is interested in and wants reconciliation for the penitent. The important point is this: satisfaction here is not the application of a law or a decree. The penitent must manifest his will to be reconciled. Because he offended God, he hands himself over to God and promises a willingness on his part. It is impossible to simply impose a decree on a penitent, because the moment of reconciliation is a sign of love, and reconciliation in love. If friends encounter and reconcile, there is a certain logic. For friends, the rule is: If he gives what he can, I give what I can. It’s the exact sentiment that occurs in the “Contemplation on Love” in the fourth week of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius.
GK: So do you see in Amoris laetitia not just the possibility for renewal of the theology of marriage, but also of penance?
PH: Absolutely. I think this is the key point underlying why Pope Francis makes such a big deal out of reconciliation in Amoris laetitia, and of the necessity to talk with a priest. It leads to a possibility of reconciliation with God, and it opens the door to receive the Eucharist. By saying what he does, Pope Francis intends to acknowledge the reality of the sacrament of penance according to the best traditions of theology, although he did not work out a systematic theology of the sacrament in the final document.
GK: Pope Francis cites Aquinas quite frequently in Amoris laetitia.
PH: Yes, and we talked a lot about Aquinas. But I was happy that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (a Ratzinger student and archbishop of Vienna) was so prominent in the German-speaking group at the synod, and was aware of the role of Aquinas for re-thinking these questions.
GK: As an expert on Vatican II, how do you think Pope Francis is fulfilling the council’s call for episcopal collegiality, especially in the context of the role of synods?
PH: I think synodality is a very important point, and I think it is good that the pope is underlining and accentuating it. The entire process that resulted in Amoris laetitia came from Pope Francis’s awareness of the concrete difficulties faced by couples. We don’t have the solutions ready-made, but need the solutions to reflect the lived reality. I think he behaved in a prudent and also an open way, in terms of how he instructed the synod, and how its ideas were included in the document, alongside the reflections of different bishops’ conferences. This kind synodality and collegiality is very important but hard to institutionalize.
GK: Since the 1970s, you have been very involved in questions about the possibility of renewing women deacons in Roman Church. You must have been excited to hear Pope Francis’s call for a new study of the question. Do you think he will call you back to Rome?
PH: I don’t know [laughter], but this topic was of great importance to me for over forty years. So of course I was happy to hear the news. I think the women diaconate would be a great step toward integrating women sacramentally into the service that they already do.