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Dialogue with “People on the Borders” and “Beyond the Walls” and Theological Ethics

Czech society has long been considered, together with former East Germany and Estonia, as one of the least religious and most secularized societies in Europe and in the world. If we regard as a criterion of religiosity relationship to an institutionalized religion or affiliation to traditional churches, we can characterize the Czech Republic without hesitation as a strongly secularized country. The religious situation is further characterized by a religious pluralization (which is particularly evident in the area of non-church spirituality). This special religious situation represents a unique and in many respects stimulating challenge for theological ethics. In the following discussion, I will briefly sketch two of them:

As is well known, an interdisciplinary orientation belongs to the ‘methodological instruments’ of Catholic theological ethics at least since the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council. A reception of sociological inputs as well as critical dialogue with other ethical approaches and social science disciplines constitute an integral part of a conciliar and post-conciliar theological-ethical reflection. In the highly secularized Czech Republic, the explicit requirement of a dialogue with non-believers and atheists (cf. GS 21) gains particular importance. The plea for a contextual theological ethics, which takes its social and cultural context seriously, implies here a demand for intense dialogue with non-believers. Secularism and atheism are not to be understood thereby as ‘problems’, on the contrary: it depicts a chance (and a challenge), not only in the ‘area of faith’ – as convincingly portrayed by Tomáš Halík in his books – but also in ethical debates. It is significant that Pope Benedict XVI remarked during his visit to the Czech Republic in 2009 that the most important challenge for the Czech Catholic Church is a widespread intellectual dialogue with people for whom religion represents something strange and alien, and with atheists and agnostics. The Church’s open dialogue with ‘people on the borders’ and ‘seekers’ as well as with atheists is not only a challenge for theology (and theological ethics) but also its task and chance. It plays an important role in enriching and deepening the theological reflection itself. A precondition of such a fruitful dialogue is that Christians do not strive to create any anti-society; on the contrary, they want to express their opinions in the plural civil society as partakers.

The other challenge relates to “the language of theological ethics”. Theological ethics exists with an inevitable and unresolvable tension – even conflict – between particularly characterized Christian values, the appeal to genuine theological sources and to one’s own tradition of ethos on the one hand, and the commitment to try for a universally acceptable justification of norms on the other hand. However, if theological ethics is to be an unmistakable element of public ethical discourse in a plural society, it has to act as an agent with a specific profile. On the one hand, this profiling of an explicitly reasoned theological identity implies its own  authentic language. On the other hand, this communication presupposes at the same time a language, which is comprehensible and compatible for each counterpart. Along with it, it follows that it requires a “specific translation performance” in order to make one’s own context-related ideas cross-contextual. In other words, it belongs to the tasks of theological ethics to connect “a clear theological identity with the ability to communicate beyond one’s own ‘cultural’ horizon” (M. Heimbach-Steins). Theological ethics thus faces an indissoluble tension, between, on the one hand, (a) its specific profile, to which belongs inseparably the recourse to genuinely Christian sources and theological foundations, on the other hand, (b) the requirement to persist in the ‘instance of communicative discursive reason’, and finally (c) the demand for an overall social communicability and an appropriate ‘translation performance’.

Although the described challenges are realized in different ways in concrete terms and may be demanding, they are tasks from which theological ethics – not only in the Czech Republic – cannot be dispensed. At the same time, these challenges are important incentives for creative shaping of the theological work.