The discipline of ‘Christian social ethics’ (also ‘societal ethics’) has been a part of the canon of catholic theologies in Germany for about 100 years. But what exactly is Christian social ethics?
The term ethics refers to the act of critically reflecting on actions, in a way that does not only consider the actions in themselves, but is also interested in the conditions and circumstances that frame them: Which attitudes and goals do the actors have? From within which structures do they act? Which rules and norms are they subject to?
While asking these questions, ethics does not only describe actions, but also normatively judges them. What is ethically legitimate, which actions are prohibited? By doing this, ethics always aims to provide recommendations and orientations for alternative actions.
Accordingly, social ethics is to be understood as the ethics of the social. The social itself is understood as an institutional structure, meaning: a multitude of actions by individual actors that solidified and became an institutionalized form. However, in the end, these structures or constructions are more than the mere sum of all the individual acts: through the dense enmeshing of the contexts in which actions and interactions take place, structures, orders, and rules come into being that, in the end, turn the whole structure into something entirely ‘different’. Because of this, the social has its own entirely ‘new quality’ (Arno Anzenbacher, own translation), which is different from the shape that the sum of all individual actions would have taken.
As the ethics of the social, social ethics thus reflects on social systems and structures and asks for their conditions as well how they can be justly shaped/arranged. Different from individual ethics, social ethics is not primarily concerned with actions of single individuals. It is more the structures and orders that influence how said actions that social ethics is interested in looking at closely. This stems from the fact that it is said structures and orders and not the individuals’ will that shape society (Wilhelm Korff). The social ethicist is thus less interested, for example, in asking whether one single employer’s taking advantage of their newly signed employee stems from personal greed, but whether workers in Germany find themselves supported by the law when it comes to questions of employment and social services. Phrased differently: social ethics, in this example, asks how far and in which ways legal norms either aid or inhibit the exploitation of employees and workers.
As Christian social ethics and theological discipline, social ethics always keeps in mind that humans are “the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions” ( Gaudium et Spes 25). From this standpoint, the discipline reflects on society in a way that wants to find out whether it is really designed to “serve man”. Furthermore, it also sees itself obliged to actively shape, and not just admonish society by offering impulses on how, in the future, it can become more just and worth living in.
Christian social ethics is one of the three “actors” within catholic social teaching/doctrine: It is the academic reflection of the praxis of the believers (basis) and the ecclesiastical magisterium (ecclesiastical social teachings). It is the discipline’s task to “analyze interpretations of the basis, as well as the declarations of ecclesiastical teachings, regarding all socially relevant processes and phenomena. In connection to the insights provided by other sciences, this analysis tries to then constructively offer ways to improve the existing social circumstances” (Reinhard Marx und Helge Wulsdorf, 2002, 22-23, own translation).
As a Christian-ethical reflection on the social - meaning the societal structures of our time - Christian social ethics always faces the dependencies of (post)modernity. It tries to react to current circumstances and thus depends on sound analyses of contemporaries. To be able to do this, the discipline actively seeks broader scientific cooperations, turning towards, for example, sociology, economics or psychology to increasingly work in an interdisciplinary manner.
Christian social ethics seeks to be accessible not only to theology and Christian belief, but to represent the proper of a Christian ethics in current discourses across all disciplinary, confessional, religious, and cultural boundaries. Christian social ethics thus works not only in an interdisciplinary but also in an interconfessional, interreligious, and intercultural manner.
To fulfill these high, self-postulated requirements while facing the multitude of societal circumstances and institutions, a variety of area-specific and not strictly distinguishable ethics have developed to study particular social realms of action. Some of these special ethics are, for example, the disciplines of business ethics, ecological ethics, medical ethics as well as those looking at questions of migration, gender relations, and fair working conditions.
Prisca Patenge, Translation N. Wintermeyer