The Adulterous Theologian

Thanks to The Catholic Herald, an article about the long-term adultery with his assistant of the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, came on screen. It is worth reading, not least for its implications in assessing his corpus of theology.

The author, Mark Galli, notes that Barth’s theology was centred on the knowledge of God through objective revelation rather than subjective experience, the great flaw of 19th century liberal theology that still flourishes today. Yet, Galli discovers in the great man’s personal writings, Barth justified his own adultery precisely on subjective terms, overriding the objective demands of morality and the binding nature of the marriage vows he had freely pronounced. Modern liberals might say he was following his conscience in a difficult situation. It is all the more interesting in light of current Catholic controversies.

In fact Barth was engaging in self-contradictory self-justification.

Karl Barth with his assistant and mistress of over 30 years, Charlotte von Kirschbaum

Galli is probably right to conclude that Barth’s sins do not detract from his theological writing. This is so not least because his behaviour was in such contrast to his theological principles. He failed by his own theological standards as well as plain morality. Yet he never compromised his theological principles; his self-justifications were self-contradictory but only in the private forum. He never refashioned his theology to suit his sins.

Looking again at the Reformation and I begin to wonder if often this is precisely what seems to have been a fundamental motivation in some progenitors of the Reformation. Luther’s theology of sola fide—faith alone justifies a sinner—seems to have been the product of his religious scruples and self-loathing. In his new theology he found a way to relieve the psycho-emotional tension that was eating away at him. As he became intoxicated with this new feeling of self-worth his theology became more extreme, more heretical, and his new self-worth turned to hubris.

Henry VIII, while essentially Catholic (and not Lutheran) in his theological beliefs, refashioned not theology but the Church in his lands, to assuage his dynastic phobia. Again, all sorts of theological and ecclesiological gymnastics were performed to justify his destruction of a thriving Church.

In both cases the men were consciously sincere enough in their initial motivation. That is the tragedy. Blinded by the forces motivating them, they both manipulated Church and doctrine to suit their needs, and all the more so as they found opportunists and toadies to encourage them in advancing further down the course they had set their minds to.

Barth did not let his personal weaknesses influence his theology it would seem. For this reason he deserves to retain his reputation as one of the great theological figures of the last 100 years. But as we come up to “Reformation Day” we might bear in mind how greatly he differs from the Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, who is truly a tragic figure in Christian history.

Not the most ecumenical of posts is this, and admittedly sweeping in tone, but in no way does it reflect a lessening of respect for those Protestants I know or know of. Yet, I have to be honest, papal gestures notwithstanding, there will be no celebrations in my room on 31 October. I shall mark it with a dirge.


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  1. I know a psychiatrist who more or less believes the same thing about Martin Luther’s theology relieving the intense scrupulosity he suffered. To this day – I was one once – plenty of Protestants believe the Catholic system of beliefs to induce that same feeling as a matter of course. I imagine this perception comes directly from Luther. I was told by my old pastor when I was converting that I was putting myself into a system of bondage and law. On the contrary, I’m feeling much freer for the Tiber swim; the objective reality of Confession gives me far greater confidence than I ever had before. Many friends from my old religious persuasion, in addition, have never heard of the term “scrupulosity” – and the solution for dealing with can be entirely found within Catholic orthodoxy, somewhere in the childlike trust section! No need for calling one’s mother bad names, as Luther did.

    1. Maybe confessionals in Luther’s time were more like the “torture chambers” that Pope Francis seems to think they often are today. Nevertheless, sundering the Church for psycho-emotional relief seems a bit extreme!

  2. “Not the most ecumenical of posts is this.” It is better than that Father. It is the truth in charity. What has the ecumenical movement accomplished? Sure there are high level agreements here and there that no one in the pews knows or cares about. How many have not converted to the Church of Christ due to the ecumenical movement, feeling one is good as the other, which used to be called indifferentism. That is the real tragedy.

    1. I have hopes for progress with the eastern churches; indeed I should have a book published next year with a suggestion for a small advance down that path. With the reformation communities there has been progress, but not that which was necessarily intended, such as the Ordinariate. But I grant you, too much has been hung on the peg of ecumenism for it to bear. Wishful thinking will never cut the mustard. Pax!

  3. To me the fact that Karl Barth did not distort his theology to justify his weakness has to be of primary importance. Yes, he was in love and, in his human weakness, could not bear to give up Charlotte, but he did not try to distort Scripture – 2+2 still equalled 4. The cruelty to which he subjected his wife in having his mistress “live in” is, however, a different thing and demonstrates precisely why Pope Francis’ statement that sexual sins are the least serious sins is so erroneous. Sexual sins will always distort our relationships with others because their intrinsic nature is relational: that they are often entirely understandable (assuming they are consensual) makes them insidious and dangerous. When we look at Karl Barth it is not his hypocrisy we should condemn, but his, all too human, inability to see the distortion his love affair was having on those around him.

    1. Well said. His love for one blinded him to his cruelty to the other, who had the overriding claim to his fidelity and commitment So much that is labelled love is little more than adolescent selfishness. As you say, sexual sins have unacknowledged victims, and they alone justify resistance to any abandoning of the teaching of Christ and its logical and necessary implications. Such “mercy” would be cruel indeed not only from the perspective of eternity, but in this life as well. Pax!

  4. A minor point concerning language: hypocrisy is “the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case” (OED, Mac). Thus a practicing adulterer who preaches against adultery is not necessarily a hypocrite. He only becomes a hypocrite if in so preaching he puts himself forward as a shining example of virtue. Of course, people often assume that declaring something to be wrong implies that one is shying away from it. And clearly, leading by example is superior to leading just by words. However, recognising the truth can be easier than living up to it; and declaring general truths is typically easier than announcing one’s personal failures. I think it is humane to appreciate these easier goods even if one maintains higher ideals.

    Furthermore, rationalisation precisely avoids hypocrisy, just in the wrong way. It deals with a conflict between a truth one recognises and one’s own acts by bending the truth rather than reforming one’s behaviour. This self-inflicted clouding of one’s judgement thus in fact removes the very basis of hypocrisy: if one does not know the actual truth (any longer), then one cannot hypocritically claim it for oneself.

    1. Ah, but they do know the truth. Rationalisation is the very conscious attempt to pretend the truth is not what it is. They fool only themselves; to the rest of us, their venal motives betray the deeper hypocrisy.

  5. To judge that rationalisation must be “very conscious” is a presumption I’m not willing to make, absent the ability to read minds and hearts. Disordered impulses and a weak will can easily corrupt the intellect. Furthermore, if someone manages to fool themselves, then by definition they cannot be hypocritical. Finally, culpability ends at foolery, and a fool needs help not sneers.

    1. Foolishness and stupidity are not synonymous. Your generous view of the fool who deliberately “fools” himself perhaps does you credit but I cannot agree in this instance. We shall have to agree to disagree.

      1. Fair enough, it was false of me to make a general statement that culpability ends at foolery! What I meant in our context is merely that if and when one has succeeded to fool oneself (i.e., one now actually believes a falsehood), culpability is reduced or even absent.

        I think we are more in disagreement about the process of fooling oneself. To my mind, it rarely if ever can be called properly “deliberate” in human beings…

  6. The adulterous affair might have affected and indeed corrupted his theology. Barth, I believe, was a Universalist, and such a position is a great comfort for someone in a sinful relationship which he does not even intend to try to terminate.

    1. Barth wasn’t a Universalist in the strictest terms, but your point is well taken. In Catholic terms, Barth may be taken to be presuming too much of God’s Divine Mercy.

  7. 1.Barth wasn’t a Universalist. God says Yes but not without a Big Big No.
    2.At the late years of von Kirschbaum, she had to be committed to a nursery for alzheimer. Barth visited her every Sunday afternoon after his preach. After his passaway, his wife Nelly continued this routine till von Kirschbaum passed away. These three persons share a same grave stone.


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