Johann Baptist Metz, one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century and pioneer of the Judeo-Christian dialogue after the Holocaust, died on December 2 in Münster, Germany. He was 91 years old.
His death was confirmed by the University of Münster, where he taught for many years.
Professor Metz believed that the church should be aligned with the victims of history, and dedicated his work to building solidarity with the oppressed. He challenged German Catholics to face the reality of Auschwitz when many did not.
"Articulating the suffering of others is the presupposition of all real claims," Professor Metz said when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1994. "Even those made by theology."
Thanks to Professor Metz, the Catholic Church in West Germany formally addressed the Holocaust for the first time. He pressed the German bishops to discuss it in a statement he wrote for a synod, or special council, in Würzburg from 1971 to 1975.
His work gave recognition to the victims. "We have to be aware of the suffering in the past," one of his first students, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, said in an interview, explaining Professor Metz's approach. "How did Hitler take place, how did the Holocaust take place, how did the churches speak no more?"
Professor Metz shaped generations of students, as well as influential Catholic bishops, in the years after the Vatican Council II, a critical moment for the church when it came to the steps of the council to confront the modern world. However, unlike theological contemporaries such as Jürgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, he did not reach international fame.
As Europe became more secular and Christianity turned inward, Professor Metz asked the church to reconsider its role in society. He promoted what he called a new political theology: the idea that the church should interpret its political participation not as exercising power over others, but as following Christ's example of healing those in need.
His work countered the philosophy of Carl Schmitt, a prominent German conservative political theorist who had sided with the Nazis and He used his theories about absolutist authority to defend Hitler.
Professor Metz dedicated himself to understanding the nature of suffering, which he saw as the main theological question. "He never thought it was a question he could answer," said J. Matthew Ashley, an associate professor at Notre Dame who has translated his work into English. "He was always cautious with the theologies that thought they had all the answers."
His attention to oppression in his own European context developed along with the liberation theology movements in Latin America, which focused on the experience of the poor and the oppressed. In doing so, he reinforced his work, which was often controversial in the church, as well as the work of African-American Catholic theologians in the United States. Instead of speaking and writing primarily, he believed that theologians should "meet each other's faces," said Dr. Schüssler Fiorenza.
Johann Baptist Metz was born on August 5, 1928 in Welluck, near Auerbach, a Catholic city in Bavaria. His father, Karl, a merchant, died when Johann was about 12 years old. His mother, Sibylle (Müller) Metz, was a housewife.
In the last months of World War II, he was forced to leave school and join the Wehrmacht. In a scorching incident, he was once sent from his unit to deliver a message and returned to find all the other members, children of the same age, killed by an attack. The memory of the trauma remained with him in his life and in his future work.
After being captured by Allied troops, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp on the east coast of the United States for seven months. He returned to Germany and, after finishing high school, entered the diocesan seminary in Bamberg.
He earned a doctorate in philosophy and theology at the Jesuit seminary in Innsbruck, Austria, where he met Father Rahner, a leading Catholic theologian who shaped his work and with whom he began a professional collaboration for life. He was ordained a priest in the archdiocese of Bamberg in 1954.
I was not trapped in the academy. In the first part of his career, he The priests taught clandestinely, including married men, who had been secretly ordained in Czechoslovakia when communist governments restricted religious activities.
In 1963, when the crucial Vatican Council II of the church was underway, he joined the University of Münster as a professor of fundamental theology. The same year, another Catholic theologian joined the faculty of Münster: Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
The two men represented divergent theological traditions and were divided over the future of the church. Professor Ratzinger led a more conservative wing, while Professor Metz's school saw the council as a decisive moment to move the church in a more progressive direction.
The groups clashed in competing theological journals. Professor Metz, with professors Rahner and Küng, helped found Concilium; Professor Ratzinger, together with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac, established Communio.
When Professor Metz was offered a teaching position at the University of Munich in 1979, Professor Ratzinger, who had become archbishop of Munich, vetoed the appointment. Professor Metz continued teaching at the University of Münster until he retired from there in 1993. He then taught philosophy and religion as a visiting professor at the University of Vienna until 1996.
Known for his essays, Professor Metz was a careful writer who considered four or five well-written sentences a good day at work. His most famous writings include "Poverty of the Spirit,quot; (1968), a reflection on what it means to be completely human, and "Faith in history and society: towards a fundamental practical theology,quot; (1977), a summary of his political thinking .
He also participated with Elie Wiesel in a joint series of interviews published as "Hope Against Hope,quot; (1999).
"For many, even for many Christians, Auschwitz has slowly crept across the horizon of his memories," Professor Metz said in that volume. “But nobody escapes the anonymous consequences of this catastrophe. The theological question after Auschwitz is not only "Where was God in Auschwitz?", But also "Where was mankind in Auschwitz?"
He also spent many summers in Litzldorf, south of Munich, as pastor of a small parish. His homilies, noted in shorthand, remain unpublished.
No immediate family member survives. Professor Metz's only sister, a younger sister, Margarete Tischer, died in 2017.
Professor Metz's ideas often echo Pope Francis, who has asked for a church to heal wounds.
"Metz never looked away from horror and never allowed us," Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College who studied her work and the Nazi era, said in an interview. "Studying with Metz, it seemed to me, was a transfiguration."