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Prof. Dr. Bernhard Sill

Professor of Moral Theology

Bernhard Sill

Name: Prof. Dr. Bernhard Sill
Address: Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Pater-Philipp-Jeningen-Platz 6
85072 Eichstätt
Germany
Building: Ulmer Hof
Room: UH-109
Tel.: +49 8421 93-21312
Fax: +49 8421 93-212750
E-mail: bernhard.sill(at)ku.de
Office hours: By appointment

 

There is nothing good unless you do it. – Erich Kästner

 

Dear visitor,

Das gute Leben – Das Gute leben (good life – doing good) was the title of the main feature of the winter 2015 issue of the magazine Franziskaner. As I read the magazine I thought to myself that there could hardly be a more suitable title with which to formulate and bring into focus the concerns of the discipline of moral theology as I understand it and as I represent it in my research and teaching at the Faculty of Religious Education at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.

In fall 1997 – just a few days before I took up my professorship – an older priest from the archdiocese of Paderborn, who I knew from my days as a student at the Faculty of Theology in Paderborn and who had always been very kind to me, gave me a book as a gift. It was the 1954 German edition of L’enseignement de la morale chrétienne by the Belgian theologian Jacques Leclercq (1891–1971), originally published in Paris in 1950. He had taken the book from his library, which had grown larger and larger over the years, and placed a piece of paper between two pages as a marker before giving it to me with his best wishes on the occasion of my becoming a professor in Eichstätt.

On the page marked by the piece of paper I read the following: Moral theology has become a majestic structure; it is presented in a conventional language that no longer corresponds to the living language; it concerns itself with truly remote things and questions. One can perhaps still admire it like an old palace that one admires as a historic monument but in which one would never want to live.

A harsh critique that really packs a punch! Here the state of moral theology in the 1950s is described by one of its representatives as unsustainable. Jacques Leclercq’s assessment was based on three points of criticism.

  • Point 1: Moral theology speaks a language that does not speak to people.
  • Point 2: Moral theology concerns itself with things that do not concern people.
  • Point 3: The house of moral theology is an old and awe-inspiring house. People may wish to view and admire it, but it is not a place that they can live in.

Accordingly, the eminent Belgian moral theologian believed that the crisis facing moral theology was threefold. It was 1. a crisis of language, 2. a crisis of topics, and 3. a crisis of its lack of ability to provide people with habitable teachings. 

Whether moral theology in the mid-20th century was really in the precarious condition described by Leclercq is open to speculation. What is not open to speculation, however, is the fact that the language that it speaks, the topics that it deals with, and its ability to provide people with habitable teachings are the three crucial criteria that determine whether moral theology is a theological discipline that people want to learn about and whether it remains one.

I believe that this was the three-fold advice that the priest wanted to give me as a well-intended warning as I continued on my path as a moral theologian. To take heed of this advice means asking oneself from time to time whether the things that one is doing as a moral theologian fulfill these three criteria at least to some extent.

In order to be accountable for the way in which one ‘manages’ one’s subject as a moral theologian, one must be willing to continuously reconfirm which tools one has in one’s hand during one’s day-to-day work and who put them there; who taught one how to work in moral theology and how the tools should be used. When one considers this, it soon becomes clear who one has to thank.

I owe great thanks to my beloved teacher Bernhard Fraling (1929–2013) who I was able to learn from during my studies at the Faculty of Theology in Paderborn before later working as his assistant in Würzburg from 1981 to 1990. As a representative of Christian existential ethics he was able to convince me to share the concerns that were of incredible importance to him to this day.

Over the years I developed an increasing interest in narrative ethics, as described, for example, by Dietmar Mieth (* 1940). The connection between ethics and narrative is not a one way street; the ethical interest in narrative is as strong as the narrative interest in ethics. We must take seriously the fact that narrative reason can be a distinct form of ethical reason whose teaching revolves around stories, the gaps in which we can use as opportunities for learning. The anima naturaliter narrativa of mankind provides enough of a reason to do so.

It became clear to me that ethical reason is able to take on a separate function as optative reason through my reading of various publications by Wilhelm Schmid (* 1953), the Berlin-based philosopher of the art of living. Our ‘multi-option society’ (Peter Gross) provides a true kairos for contemporary moral theology to present options of a Christian ethos that are attractive because it is feasible for people to apply them in a way that allows them to be successful in various areas and at different stages of their lives. It is more important to say what one stands for and what one believes in than what one is against. Ethics shaped by optative reason must therefore not allow itself to be content with exercising the art of reflection; it must also practice and exercise the art of thinking about the future.

In doing so it must also be mindful of the fact that there is not always a perfect solution for everything. Life is not that predictable. It follows its own – often unpredictable – laws. The Münster-based philosopher Peter Wust (1884–1940) was not the only one who knew that as long as life consists of uncertainty and risk, dividing the sum of life by reason always results in a remainder.

The theologian Thomas Pröpper (1941–2015), also from Münster, gave an interview when his two volume work Theologische Antropologie (theological anthropology) – a multi-faceted work comprising an impressive 1534 pages – was published in 2011. In this interview he was asked the following question: If you had to give new students three pieces of advice, what would they be? He replied as follows:

The first would be: ‘Always trust your own questions and have the confidence to actually ask them – persistently if necessary’. And the second: ‘While you are developing your skills in theological thought and learning how to apply them in life, always remember that there can be no contradictions between being (or becoming) human and being (or becoming) Christian.’ Finally, the third: ‘From the very beginning, aim to make sincere and reliable friendships, and talk about your faith to ensure that it is able to overcome the problems that you are sure to experience during your studies better and will not be become isolated.’

The second piece of advice – ensuring there are no contradictions between being (or becoming) human and being (or becoming) Christian – reminds me of a productive misunderstanding caused by someone mishearing me. Some time ago, someone asked me what my profession was, to which I replied, ‘professor of moral theology’. However, due to my unclear pronunciation, he thought I said ‘professor of human theology’. This term, I thought and still think, is not entirely incorrect or inappropriate, since those who study moral theology must unite the concepts of humanity and Christianity in their work – the two cannot be separated.

Is it possible to write a book about a single sentence? It is, and excellent proof of this is provided in the book on virtue ethics by Hans-Joachim Höhn (* 1957), professor of systematic theology and philosophy of religion at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Cologne. It is a book about a single sentence, and that sentence is ‘Mach’s gut!’ (‘Take care!’; literally ‘Make it good!’). The good wishes behind this sentence are truly wishes for life, as life is that which can be made good. The discipline that focuses on the question of how this can be done – how life can be made good – is ethics. Its teachings should therefore be seen as teachings for life, and the imperative ‘Mach’s gut!’ should be seen as an ethical imperative that we would do well to heed.

The question is simply what items are on the to-do list. If possible, they should be the building blocks for every-day practice that allow the things that should succeed to succeed: good life and doing good. Such building blocks are not easy to obtain and can only properly be acquired through many years of study of the art of living, which the Swiss priest and writer Jeremias Gotthelf (1797–1854) described as ‘the exegesis of life’ (‘die Exegese des Lebens’).

Ethics, Robert Spaemann (* 1927) said many times, should be understood as the ‘scholarship of successful living’ (‘Lehre vom gelingenden Leben’); the search for what successful living can mean is its true mission. Anyone who embarks on this search will always have to bear two things in mind: The first is that both – good life and doing good – cannot be achieved without our actions and assistance, and the second is that without the gift of the success that we are given, no human abilities would really be abilities at all.