Since the publication of the Cologne Abuse Report, the Cardinal Höffner Circle in the CDU has been debating how to deal with its namesake. Thomas Großbölting welcomes the discussion because it also questions the self-image.
DOMRADIO.DE: Were you surprised by the result of the Cologne abuse report, which also incriminated Cardinal Joseph Höffner?
Prof. Dr. Thomas Großbölting (Director of the Research Center for Contemporary History in Hamburg): No! What Cardinal Höffner did, namely to keep these deeds under the surface of the public, to cover up, to put it quite simply, actually corresponds in many ways to the mentality and behavior of bishops and other church superiors in the decades over which we were there speak.
In this respect, he practiced a mentality here, namely to protect the institution, to see the perpetrator above all as a priestly brother and in this way to practice a behavior that we no longer consider appropriate today.
DOMRADIO.DE: That would then probably also affect completely different dignitaries who are today in an almost exclusively positive light such as Cardinal Frings in Cologne or Cardinal von Galen in Münster, who is even venerated as a blessed. How should the church proceed in principle with regard to such judgments?
Grossbölting: On the one hand, we are in the process of reappraising at least some of the dioceses and first of all collecting information on how diocese leaders have actually dealt with acts of abuse in recent decades and to what extent dignitaries have also been guilty of cover-up. This will have to be continued in order to get a clear picture there.
This reconstruction of the events from a historical or also from a legal perspective can only be a first step. One will have to consider the extent to which the structures of the church, in particular the distribution of roles, for example between bishop, priest and layperson, have contributed to favoring precisely such forms of abuse on the one hand and also covering up or non-publication, non-processing on the other to favor cases of abuse as well.
DOMRADIO.DE: What is the best way to deal with such a legacy of personalities after whom streets, squares and institutions such as the Cardinal Höffner Circle are named?
Grossbölting: I wouldn’t give any general advice on that. This is at the discretion of the institutions and the people, the actors, who once gave themselves this name and who tried not only to honor Höffner by giving them this name, but also to assign themselves a certain meaning.
If we look at this group of Cardinal Höffner, we see a union in the CDU that was founded in 1992 and, a few years after reunification, has decidedly tried to find a conservative counterpoint against reunified Germany and against the change from the Bonn to the Berlin republic to put.
So much more is connected with Höffner than just the memory of the person of the cardinal, but above all it is a political signal that the protagonists of the time were sending out.
It is interesting that with Höffner you are not just leaning on someone who has many positive biographical traits. He is “Righteous Among the Nations” because, for example, as a pastor, he and his sister hid a Jewish girl from the Nazis. But we also have a certain type of politics, namely a strongly patriarchal style in which the conservative CDU merges with the corresponding circles from the Catholic Church, i.e. a political model from the 1970s and 1980s, which ultimately no longer works today.
In my opinion, the procedure, as the Höffner-Kreis is now describing, is certainly appropriate to consider what the situation is about the person of the cardinal, for which political style this cardinal also stands.
Then you will have to think very carefully in this group whether you actually want to use this name in order to show your own self-image to the outside world.
DOMRADIO.DE: If there is a political stance behind naming or renaming, then such naming is always a reflection of the current mentality and attitude in a society. So, when monarchy reigns again in 500 years, would monuments of kings and emperors be erected again?
Grossbölting: Yes, theoretically you could. This is now a very unlikely example, but it illustrates very well how naming, honoring by naming streets, setting monuments and the like actually works.
So it says a lot about the person who is to be honored there, but says much, much more about the background, the values, the political attitudes of those who undertake this monument-setting, the street naming, etc.
As a historian, I welcome it when there is an open approach to the terms, when it is put up for discussion and when it is openly discussed to what extent this still corresponds to the current values.
So monuments are only interesting, on the one hand when they are erected and on the other hand when they are overturned. In the meantime, as a rule, nobody is very explicitly interested in it, but only when a monument is erected or when a monument is overturned, when a circle is renamed, this discussion arises accordingly.
The actual point that stands behind it and which is also profitable for me as a historian and – I believe – can also be productive for society, as the discussions about the naming and the withdrawal of names show which values, which political attitudes today actually be represented.
DOMRADIO.DE: With many prominent personalities, after whom streets, squares and institutions are named, light and shadow alternate. Where has the line been crossed where a renaming is inevitable?
Grossbölting: We will not be able to give a general rule now; we will have to discuss this in each individual case. But I believe that we naturally have a limit or a strong indication of a necessary renaming at the moment when the law and statutes of the time have actually been violated in this context.
DOMRADIO.DE: So one should judge personalities in the context of their time? So a Cardinal Höffner who acted like all other church dignitaries?
Grossbölting: Not like everyone else. There was of course the option to act differently, but he was completely caught up in the mentality of the time and actually met with many of his fellow ministers in this practice accordingly.
However, one must also object to the fact that Höffner in particular, as an academically very accomplished theologian, must have been clear both legally and canonically that he also extremely bent the canonical rules of the time in favor of the perpetrators. He was not someone who acted on blue haze.
And from that point on, I would always advise you to think very seriously about renaming as well.
Interview conducted by Jan Hendrik Stens.