‘Dorothee Soelle’ by Joe McVeigh



You probably have never heard of Dorothee Soelle but I want you to know about her because I met her a few times in New York and I think she is a woman worth knowing about.

Dorothee Soelle was a theologian, born in Cologne Germany in 1929. I met her in New York in 1981 in Fr Daniel Berrigan’s house. Dorothy was 15 years old when the Second World War ended. It haunted her for the rest of her life. The moral issues raised by the Nazis led her to study philosophy and later theology. She was involved in political theology an effort to counter the privatised and spiritualised ‘bourgeois’ religion through subversive memory of Jesus and his social message.

In the light of the Holocaust she was particularly critical of ‘a superficial understanding of sin’ largely confined to personal morality: “Sin has to do not just with what we do, but with what we allow to happen.”

Her challenge was to develop an understanding of God who does not float above history and its trauma but who shares intimately in the suffering of the victims. Such an understanding of God defined in turn a new meaning of Christian discipleship. A true prophet, Soelle did not just denounce the way things were but looked forward ‘to a new heaven and a new earth.’ Her theology was influenced by poetry and drew on her wide reading of literature, her love of music and art.

Her experience of being mother to four children strengthened her hope for the future and reminded her that pain and joy are inextricably combined in the struggle for new life. In 1968 she organised ecumenical gatherings to protest the Vietnam War, human rights and the campaign for social justice. For this she became a controversial person in Germany and so did not get promotion.

From 1975 to 1987 she spent six months of each year in New York as a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological seminary. She was arrested many times for civil disobedience. She emphasised the need to join mysticism with political commitment. Dorothee Soelle was a woman I will never forget.


5 Responses to ‘Dorothee Soelle’ by Joe McVeigh

  1. moser September 12, 2016 at 10:34 am #

    For me, the fundamental question, more important than the question about God , is the question of good and evil and why do they exist ?

    • PF September 12, 2016 at 4:53 pm #

      Without an arbiter of good and evil we can’t know they exist.

      • moser September 14, 2016 at 9:50 am #

        We know they exist by our observation of them.

  2. Mike Cummings September 12, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    I instinctively remembered the name Dorothee Soelle but I could not remember from where until I read further. I went to graduate school at NYU and lived in NYC from 1968-1975. I was a participant…not a leader…in both civil rights and Vietnam protests and regularly picked up …for one penny…the Catholic Worker paper and attended labor, academic and religious forums. To my recollection that is why the name was familiar. Thanks for the memories.

  3. Dominic Hendron September 12, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

    When Christ upbraided Judas for criticising the woman who anointed him saying, you have the poor with you always and you can give to them whenever you wish, you will not always have me, was he putting personal devotion to him above social action. Then he said that wherever the gospel is told this story will be told in remembrance of the woman. Did Christ prioritise devotion because of who he was thus re-affirming the first commandment. Was he trying to teach Judas something he had forgotten?