Francis Schüssler Fiorenza – « In Memoriam J.B. Metz »

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza

«In Memoriam J.B. Metz»

Johann Baptist Metz was born on 5 August 1928 in Auerbach in der Oberpfalz, a town in the Amberg-Sulzbach district of Bavaria, Germany.  His death on December 2, 2019 in Münster, Germany marks the death of one of Germany’s most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the post-World War II era. Metz was among the leading theologians who established Concilium as an international journal to further the reforms of Vatican II.  In 1963, Metz was appointed Professor of Fundamental Theology on the Catholic Faculty of Theology at the University of Münster, in North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany until his retirement in 1993. 

Metz belongs to the post World War II generation of German theologians. As the war was ending, the German army increasingly lacked soldiers, Metz was drafted at the early age of sixteen. He was immediately sent to the front. A commander sent him with a message to bring to another commander. His way took him through an area that had been heavily bombed. Many of surrounding buildings were either on fire or destroyed by bombing.  On his return Metz discovered that his camp was decimated by air attacks and found his fellow comrades dead. Soon after, he was captured and was shipped to the United States, where as a prisoner of war, he was sent to work on farms in Virginia and Maryland. In conversation with me, he remembered being so homesick those years and that the wife of the farmer felt sorry for him, since he was the youngest prisoner of war working on that farm in Virginia. She often made sure he had enough to eat.  Despite the significance of these experiences, the impetus and tenor of Metz’s theology stems not as much from his experience in the war itself as it does from his attempt to come to terms with the developments within German society, both religious and political society in the period leading up to the war. Where was the voice of the theologians? What role did the churches play? How do Christians deal with the Holocaust? It was the failures and crimes prior to the war that moved Metz to develop his political theology. 

Metz began his academic studies at the University of Innsbruck with a philosophical dissertation on Martin Heidegger.  As a student of Karl Rahner, he wrote a theological dissertation which published as Christliche Anthropozentrik in which he provided an interpretation of Thomas Aquinas that mirrored the roots of Rahner’s anthropology in Aquinas He edited the second edition of Karl Rahner Hearers of the Word, updating the lectures to reflect the further developments in Karl Rahner’s theology in 1964. He was also the co-editor of a two volume FestschriftGott in Welt published in honor of Karl Rahner.  Metz and Karl Rahner remained in close friendship over the years. In many ways Karl Rahner was a “father figure” as well as a friend to Metz. His early writings reflect Rahner’s theology, especially on anthropology and on the relation between church and society. Metz’s friendship with Rahner continued even after started to develop his own voice in theology and in political theology and began to criticize elements of Rahner’s transcendental philosophical approach. 

 As he began to teach fundamental theology at the University of Münster, he started to develop his initial conception of political theology as fundamental theology. This development took place in the context of the dialogues promoted by the Paulus Gesellschaft that aimed to bring West German philosophers, theologians, and scientists in dialogue with East German scientist and philosophers in dialogue.  

 Metz faced a specific critique of his theological position and political theology. As may be recalled, Metz sought to overcome not only what he saw as the weaknesses of the personalist, existentialist theologies of the time, but also the ecclesial failures during the era of National Socialism. His critics questioned whether his appeal to political theology could be understood as a return to the traditional domination of the church over the state and of theological views over society. Metz sought to avoid this criticism by emphasizing “an eschatological proviso” in his early articulation of political theology. He thus argued that political theology should not align itself with a specific government or system or institution because it would then lose its critical force to become an apologist of the status quo. Metz’s emphasis on “the eschatological proviso” had the advantage of avoiding any future ideological defense of the political establishment, a perspective that was criticized by other political theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Söelle and Latin American liberation theologians.  

Metz’s conception of political theology has a consistency and yet shows a development as can be seen in his publications:  Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology (1997 German, 1980 English) The Emergent ChurchThe Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World (1980 German, 1987 English) with his later works A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity (1998), in which he increasingly began to emphasize the role of memory.  

He referred to the “dangerous memory” of the victims of suffering and injustice. He articulated the memory of suffering not only as central to understanding redemption, but also as a basic and fundamental category for his political theology, which he now called the “new political theology” in order to distance himself from Carl Schmitt’s political theology and his anti-democratic, pro-Nazi, and anti-Semitic direction. Metz asserts that this memory of the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of other victims of injustice breaks through our prevailing consciousness. It mobilizes tradition as a critical and liberating force never to accept the societal status quo and always to have hope. This memory represents a theological understanding what it means to be a Christian community in discipleship of Jesus. The experience of suffering often cannot be traced back to an explicit guilt or history of guilt, but is an experience suffering and misery that cries out to God.  

The Christian discourse of God, Metz argued, should be inspired by the mysticism of suffering unto God.  Such discourse exhibits a poverty of spirit that does not immunize itself from the challenge that theodicy presents. But as discourse in a language of suffering and crisis, of doubt and danger, it raises that discourse to center of theology and it obligates us to more acutely perceive and attend to the suffering of others. 

Metz was very much involved in the Würzburg Synod that sought to bring together all the German dioceses. East Germany refused to allow the dioceses within it to participate, so the synod was were limited to West Germany.  Metz wrote a draft for the synod entitled “Our Hope:  The Power of the Gospel to Configure the Future,” in which he reemphasized the importance of focusing on the suffering of others and the victims of injustice. This prophetic stance is then linked to Christian hope.  Christian hope is not a hope for a future that leaves behind the suffering and injustices of the past. The Christian community must live through the history of suffering to live out a history of hope. The religious crisis of the believers in the church itself must become acknowledged as a crisis that the church has to deal with. 

One decisive point Metz maintained that the Catholic Church must acknowledge the holocaust and that the church had to take responsibility for it. The final document promulgated by the synod in 1975 Our Hope: A Confession of Faith in this Time took this impulse from Metz into account. It became the first official document in which the German Roman Catholic Church acknowledged the holocaust as a part of its history. In remembering and honoring the legacy of Metz’s contributions to theology, we should not overlook two characteristics of his writings. Many of them were more aphoristic than systematic, more evocative, and practical. He often authored small books that one might call “spiritual writings” but they are not so much pious as they underscore the central issues of Christian discipleship. In Poverty of Spirit (1968 English, 1962 German), Metz advocates also for the importance of an intellectual poverty as central to Christian discipleship. To be a Christian is not to know more than others, but to have an awareness of what we do not know.  This poverty of spirit that enables one to hope in the face of the challenges and injustice of our world. It enables one to discard the intellectual superiority of spirit that cannot learn from others and their suffering.  In Followers of Christ: The Religious Life and the Church  (1977 German, 1978, English),  Metz underscores that it is important for religious orders to exhibit discipleship through a memory that remembers injustice and the suffering of others and makes that essential to Christian discipleship.


Francis Schüssler Fiorenza is the Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. His primary interests are in the fields of fundamental or foundational theology, in which he explores the significance of contemporary hermeneutical theories as well as neo-pragmatic criticisms of foundationalism. His writings on political theology engage recent theories of justice, especially those of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, and have dealt with issues of work and welfare. He has also written on the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology, focusing on both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians. In addition to more than 150 essays in the areas of fundamental theology, hermeneutics, and political theology, his publications include the books Foundational Theology: Jesus and the ChurchSystematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, edited with John Galvin; Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology, edited with Don Browning; and Modern Christian Thought, volume 2, The Twentieth Century, written with James Livingston. He is presently completing a book entitled “Human Rights in the Crossfire: Political Theology Faces the Cultural Challenges to Rights.”

Address: Harvard University, Massachusetts Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA.