"Münster is a very special location"
Born in 1987, Prof. Michael Seewald is Germany’s youngest Professor of Theology and holds the Chair of Dogmatics and the History of Dogma at the Faculty of Catholic Theology – as the successor to, among others, Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner – and he is also involved in the "Religion and Politics" Cluster of Excellence. Gerd Felder asked Michael Seewald what he particularly liked about this professorship and discussed with him his new book, entitled "Changing Dogma: How Doctrines Develop".
You have already taught at other universities and you refused an offer from the University of Paderborn. What was it about the Chair of Dogmatics in Münster that appealed to you especially? Was it perhaps the particular atmosphere in the Theology Faculty or Faculties?
The Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Münster is the largest of its kind in Europe. It’s great to lecture to full houses and to work with students who derive pleasure from my subject. And in Münster there is also a Faculty of Protestant Theology, the Centre of Islamic Theology and of course the "Religion and Politics" Cluster of Excellence. You won’t find this combination anywhere else.
There were some famous predecessors who held the Chair you now have – including Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler. Does that overawe you? Or does it rather give you a sense of wanting to live up to them, spurring you on?
None of those. The fact that they were once here plays no part in the everyday work done at the Chair. There’s a chair somewhere that Karl Rahner is always supposed to have sat on – but it’s broken and uncomfortable. It goes without saying that Rahner and Ratzinger have left indelible marks on theology here which no one can ignore. But they have become part of the recent history of theology which I would not deal with any differently in Munich, for example, than in Münster. The context in which theology is studied has undergone a marked change in the last few decades. It has to strive more for acceptance in society and, at the same time, struggle to attain freedoms vis-à-vis the Church. Especially the field of relations with the Church is not free of tensions.
What is the book you have recently published about? The title – "Changing Dogma: How Doctrines Develop" – sounds like a contradiction in terms …
What I was concerned with in the book was to bring together two things which, at first sight, don’t belong together: dogma and change. I don’t think anyone would contradict the statement that dogmas do not fall from heaven, but are historical forms expressing religious convictions. However, Christian theology has a long tradition – which people are hardly aware of nowadays – of thinking about changes in doctrine. The aim of my book is to illuminate these forgotten theories in the development of dogma.
What is dogma actually? Is it a means to an end or an end in itself?
Although the word "dogma" is a word from antiquity, the theological sense that it has today was only acquired in the 19th century. Dogma was a teaching which was believed to have been revealed by God and was presented by the Church as something binding. Later there were a number of additions to the sense of the word. Dogma does not claim to be an end in itself, but is designed to make Scripture clearer and express it in a way everyone can understand. How dogma does that has changed in the course of history.
The worst thing the Catholic Church is accused of today is that it is too dogmatic. Accordingly, the Church is frequently called on to make fundamental changes …
No one can please everybody all the time. That goes for the Church, too. It should certainly, however, face up to critical questions and be prepared to correct itself if it becomes convinced that such correction is necessary.
In your book you do not discuss which dogma should change. Can you give an example?
I quite consciously did not draw up a list of things I would like to see changed. I was more concerned with the question of how change was thought of at different times. The discussions that were conducted on this topic have of course been sparked off by specific examples. When Joseph Ratzinger, for example, whom we mentioned before, was a professor here at Münster, he was convinced that the primacy of the Pope needed to be developed further. There is no doubt that the way in which the office of the Pope is exercised today is a very recent phenomenon. But this office could be developed further and, as a result, changed – because development always brings change.
To sum up: does the Church still need dogma – or should it bid farewell to it one day?
It needs dogma in order to be able to tell itself and other people what it believes. It does not, however, need dogmatism.
This interview was published in the university newspaper "wissen|leben" number 5, july / august 2018.