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A Report from Graz

By Marianne Heimbach-Steins

The 36th conference of the International German-speaking Association of Moral Theology and Social Ethics on the topic “Ethics and Empirical Research” took place in Graz (Austria) on September 8-11, 2013. The topic perfectly captures the challenges that theological ethics has to face. Barely any concrete issue can be discussed in an ethically competent way without familiarity with approaches and research in social or natural sciences. It is indispensable to draw on empirical data, as well as engaging with ethically relevant experiences that people make in the contexts of their lives.

Hille Haker (Chicago) and Matthias Möhring-Hesse (Tübingen) presented theological-ethical contributions on the relationship between ethics and empirical observation. The differentiation between experience and empirical research (in the sense of scientifically reflected and theoretized experience) was discussed by Matthias Gutmann (Karlsruhe) from the perspective of philosophy of science. All three presentations focused on the fundamental task to clarify what we mean when we talk about experience and empirical observation and their role in theological ethics. Ethically relevant experience, hermeneutics and normative justification have to be interrelated in a coherent theory, but only few have dealt with this question of fundamental ethics in the last decades. The relationship between social, human and natural sciences is also one of the fundamental issues that calls for greater attention.

How might taking account of human experience and empirical observation contribute to theological-ethical reflections? This question was discussed in relation to several problems, of which two were particularly interesting:

(1) moral theologians Stephan Goertz (Mainz) and Martin Lintner (Bressanone) discussed the issue of young people’s sexuality: studies in developmental psychology, pedagogy and sociology show how practices have changed in fundamental ways in our society, and note the positive potential in adolescent sexuality that should be cultivated in processes of education and socialization. In theological ethics barely any approaches constructively engage with these results. Obviously, this has to be seen in the context of Church teachings on sexuality.

(2) Something similar becomes obvious with regard to the challenges that demographic developments pose to social ethics. Johannes Müller SJ (München) presented a sociologically precise and ethically demanding scenario of globally differing demographic dynamics. Social ethics approaches directed towards the fight against poverty and the alleviation of human suffering have to face the complexity of ecological, economic, social, cultural and political factors, and search for contextual solutions. Marianne Heimbach-Steins (Münster) complemented this observation with a sketch of the perception of this topic in Catholic social teaching: it is characterized by the exclusive perspective of sexual ethics, while the social-ethical complexity of the problem is not seen as the point of departure for ethical orientation. Only the inclusion of experiential reality and its analysis from the perspective of human sciences could open up new perspectives. In this, it would be possible to draw on “Gaudium et spes” and, more recently, the decisive option for the poor and preference for action that Pope Francis represents. This is a reason to hope.

The International Association of Moral Theology and Social Ethics organizes a biennial conference, in which numerous German-speaking moral theologians and social ethicists from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other European countries participate. For each conference a topic is chosen that is relevant for moral theology and social ethics.

The Association includes the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Moraltheologen (, which has organized regular meetings since 1947, and the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christliche Sozialethik (, which in addition organizes an annual workshop in social ethics in Berlin.



Marianne Heimbach-Steins, teaches at the University of Muenster, Germany.  She can be reached at