| Katholisch-Theologische Fakultät, SPF Religion. Gesellschaft. Weltbeziehung., Forschung

New research project on theology and church in times of pandemic

In the face of the Corona pandemic, the Catholic Church, not only in Germany, is "in a tremendous process of transformation", say Julia Knop and Benedikt Kranemann. The professors of dogmatics and the liturgical science at the University of Erfurt therefore want to examine more closely what the consequences will be. In December, they launched a new research project entitled "Pastoral, Theology and Church in Times of Pandemic. A European Comparison", which should provide answers in the coming years. The two theologians are supported by liturgical scholars, (social) ethicists, dogmatists, fundamental theologians and pastoral theologians from nine European countries.

"We want to make challenges and solutions in dealing with the pandemic visible, compare them, identify cross-cutting issues, and name transnational challenges and resources," Julia Knop and Benedikt Kranemann explain the goals of their project. From a scientific perspective, the pandemic is a laboratory situation in which conflicts, perspectives and new approaches to church life can be studied. "We want to know how the church acts in the pandemic, what its themes and interests are. But we are also interested in seeing how the institution changes in the course of this pandemic laboratory and how it in turn responds to these changes or needs for change. In some places, people would rather return to old habits sooner rather than later. But 'after' Corona, not only the situation, but also the people, including the church, will be different from 'before' Corona. Former 'ecclesiastical and spiritual customs' will no longer simply fit - if they really corresponded to needs before Corona and did not just follow long habit. To suggest it very carefully, because we are still very much at the beginning, there is a tendency across the countries we have observed so far that work at the grassroots level is sometimes very innovative and new formats for pastoral care and liturgy are being tried out. But there are always inconsistencies. But there is also the observation that the church leadership often seems less flexible and is very reserved theologically."

The impetus for this new research came from the fact that the pandemic is omnipresent - also in church life: The Catholic Church is currently undergoing a huge transformation process, not only in Germany. How does a faith community with its rituals, but also, for example, its large social and charitable institutions, react to such a pandemic? "We ourselves are surprised that, for example, comparatively little research has been done on church services in the pandemic so far," says Julia Knop. She therefore sees challenges in the ecclesiastical-theological field in liturgy and pastoral care, education and Caritas. In the process, the questions of giving meaning (in) this situation posed themselves anew: What resources of meaning does religion have to deal with the situation? How are they articulated in the different countries, how is faith practised? "One should not forget, after all, that religious practice is, according to the church's assessment, to a large extent common practice and therefore sensitively affected by the contact restrictions and hygiene requirements," adds Benedikt Kranemann. Is this changing now, and if so, how? Another perspective is linked to the challenge of digitalisation: for example, liturgy and digitalisation or digitalisation in pastoral care have been discussed for some time. But now the situation has changed "overnight", as it were: In the short term, church life has been catapulted into the digital realm. What then happens to old familiar rituals? What is developing anew? Who participates here?

The pandemic also acts like a burning glass for the transformation processes already mentioned. It reveals which (human, spiritual, structural, economic) resources are available and which are needed. What was not practised and cultivated before the pandemic is difficult to activate in the pandemic. Religious competence for creative individual coping with life, as it would be necessary right now, must grow so that it can also be effective in the exceptional pandemic situation. Structural problems, internal church conflicts and inconsistencies that have existed for a long time are breaking out and becoming more visible, for example, disbalances in the relationship between clergy and faithful or the coexistence of "disenchanted" world and self-understandings and magical remnants in piety.

And, say the two theologians, one should not forget the relationship between church and society: What does the respective society now expect from the Church? And how does the church react to this? "After all, one rightly attributes to religious people and institutions a special sensitivity in dealing with illness, dying and death, with existential uncertainties and fears. But how this happens in detail and whether church offers to deal well with such challenges are perceived as plausible and helpful will probably look different in Catholic Poland than in the secularised Netherlands. The comparison is highly interesting and opens up a new view of the diversity in a world church that is understood as rather uniform and homogeneous.

The researchers deliberately chose not to focus solely on Germany for their analysis, but want to draw comparisons across Europe: "The European comparison is important to us in order to be able to observe the actions of the church in different social and cultural contexts. Up to now, there have been various projects around Corona and the church, which remain very much within the national horizon. We hope that the international comparison, which is still limited to Europe, will give us further insights into how a church reacts to such a pandemic. Who is an actor in such a time? How are church base and church leadership involved? How does church do pastoral care 'at a distance'? How does one respond to people's pressing questions and concerns, and does one respond at all? Is the church 'systemic' and if so, to what extent? And it is always about images of God, people and the church that are also being negotiated here. The first workshop that has now taken place shows: There is a lot to discover and reflect on here."

The academics then want to publish the results of their research in an anthology, which should be available by 2022. In December 2020, there was a workshop that gave them a first very interesting insight into the topic and enabled an exciting exchange. A second workshop, also digital, is planned for February. Benedikt Kranemann: "But we are really concerned with 'work in progress'. That means our work will hopefully always be able to continue."