The cardinal from Cologne

Joseph Höffner still knew that Catholicism and capitalism go well together. We should better listen to him than to Pope Francis.

Joseph Höffner (center) in Fulda in 1980 together with the then Pope John Paul II (right) Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal and later pope

Se since the most recent encyclical “Fratelli tutti” (“On fraternity”) penned by Pope Francis, we have known: Catholics did not deserve this Pope. Anyone who puts populism and liberalism on the same level as today’s heresy, who has no eye for the wealth-creating power of the market economy, willfully deprive himself of his authority.

Cynics will say: What else should we expect from the Pope and the Church? Martin Rhonheimer, a liberal theologian researching in Vienna, not a cynic, states that the so-called ecclesiastical social doctrine has been going on since the encyclical “Quadragesimo anno” by Pope Pius XI. in the “wake of the zeitgeist”. In 1931 the Pope raved about a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. In the sixties and seventies the church then borrowed from Marxist theories of impoverishment. Today a colorful bouquet of arbitrary opinions is offered for sale from Rome: a little bit of globalization criticism here, a little bit of climate ethics there. Nothing that couldn’t be found better elsewhere. But nothing original that would be worth remembering from the great intellectual tradition of a religious community. The social irrelevance of the church is the result.

A farmer’s son from the Westerwald

That was not always so. At the end of my polemic against the encyclical “Fratelli tutti” two weeks ago, I pointed out the former Cologne Cardinal Joseph Höffner (1906 to 1987) and his proximity to the Freiburg tradition of the social market economy. Inquiries taught me that the Cologne Cardinal is no longer known today – apart from specialist circles. That is why I am adding a small portrait of the Cardinal from Cologne, whom I, too, in the seventies and eighties – caught in the spirit of the times – took for an ossified reactionary.

Joseph Höffner was born as a farmer’s son on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1906, in Horhausen, a village in the Westerwald. As an elder, he was predestined to be the successor to the court. But the village pastor suggested that the parents send him to the high school in Montabaur, not without having taught him some Latin beforehand. From Montabaur, Höffner moved to the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium in Trier, where Karl Marx and the Jesuit theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning had also graduated from high school.

After that everything happened quickly. Höffner was sent to Rome to study, where he acquired various academic degrees at a breathtaking pace. A philosophical doctorate in 1929 was followed by a first theological doctoral thesis on “social justice and social love”, followed by another theological dissertation in 1938 on “farmers and the church in the German Middle Ages”. Back in Germany, Höffner studied economics in Freiburg and received his doctorate in 1940 under Walter Eucken, one of the founders of the social market economy in the Federal Republic. Finally, in 1942 there was a habilitation with the title “Christianity and Human Dignity”, where Höffner dealt with the Spanish colonial ethics of the so-called Golden Age. In the meantime he had been ordained a priest and, in addition to his studies as a pastor in Trier, was doing a full-time job.