Interview Kath.net – English Version

kath.net: Prof Wagner, you were received into the Catholic Church on the Easter Vigil in 2024 and received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Holy Communion. Are you still breathless from this event and this abundance of sacraments?

Prof Riccardo Wagner: I am indeed, and it was also a very beautiful celebration in the Dominican Church of St Andrew in Cologne, together with seven other baptism candidates from our Fides course. The Easter Vigil is of course also a very special night and the atmosphere of the dawning light and the new beginning has left a deep impression on me, because it ended an important phase of my life, one of very long searching and reflection, and heralded the start of an even more important new phase, one of prayer and actually living out my faith. I am very happy that I took the leap of faith after all and I am excited to see where this new path will lead me.
kath.net: What’s the deal with your baptismal name?

Prof Wagner: Oh, yes, it’s certainly a bit unusual. I chose the baptismal name Caterinus in memory of and in honour of Saint Caterina of Siena. Caterina’s death and memorial day is 29 April, which also happens to be my birthday, although I only realised this later.
I had previously been inspired by a film I had seen about Caterina. I read her book „Dialogue on the Providence of God“ and was enormously impressed by her life, testimony and the strength of her faith, which also manifested itself in equally courageous and exemplary actions. I then delved deeper into her life. Her determination to stand up for what is right and to confront and convince even the highest authorities is impressive.
But it was her absolute devotion to God, the sacrament of the Eucharist and the Church that particularly inspired me. All in all, a very impressive woman, whose story and devotion also shows that the prejudice that women are not recognised and perceived by the Catholic Church is somewhat underdeveloped.
kath.net: At a time when the numbers leaving the Church are rising, you are taking the opposite approach in full awareness. Why is that? What motivated you to embark on this journey of faith and how adventurous was your „inner pilgrimage“ along the way?

Prof Wagner: Of course, I also wrestled with myself for a long time as to whether I should say yes to the institution of the church once I had overcome the content-related hurdles. And it was the example of St Caterina, among others, that persuaded me to do so. In her writings, she came down hard on the Church and the clergy, relentlessly accusing them of wrongdoing and yet making it wonderfully clear that the Church is holy and that we should be united in this Church according to God’s will.
But it has been a really long journey to get to this point. As a child of the GDR, I grew up classically atheist and as far away from the church as imaginable. But even as a child and teenager, I loved going to churches and cemeteries – ultimately because I have always been very interested in the big questions of life.
I also had a Bible from an early age, without really having read it successfully of course, and there was always a certain tense interest in Christianity. On the one hand, the meaning was clear to me, but on the other hand, the language was very foreign and inaccessible to me. It simply wasn’t clear to me exactly what the good news, redemption, sin, salvation, the kingdom of heaven etc. meant and what was meant by them – they were empty words for me and this inaccessibility coupled with beliefs that I thought were simply absurd, such as incarnation, resurrection, virgin birth, meant that in the end I didn’t do any serious further research. For me, it was also a question of intellectual honour not to follow these ancient views.

I never wanted to be a Christian. I was an atheist who was interested in science and technology. I then tried to answer the big questions by looking at Eastern philosophies, especially Daoism and Buddhism, as is probably the case today. Paradoxically, these ultimately led me to believe that a theistic view of the world was more correct and reasonable – but there was still a long way to go to Christianity.
There were actually two specific turning points, one was the birth of my son, because as a father I also wanted to provide answers and guidance and give my son a world view that would enable him to shape his life responsibly and with confidence. My role as a father has also helped me a lot in recent years to better understand God’s intentions and his ways, for example this tension between being there and being present, i.e. revelation – but also being hidden at the same time in order to promote and respect the freedom of the child.
Exactly ten years ago, the concrete turning point towards Christianity came when I came across a book by Richard Rohr during a purely professional stay in a Franciscan monastery. The book was a revelation for me, as it finally explained Christianity and the idea of divine revelation in a way I had never heard before. That was the starting signal for me to take Christianity more seriously.
And since then I have read and listened to everything I could get my hands on – Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Karl Rahner, C.S. Lewis, Henry de Lubac, John Henry Newmann, G.K. Chesterton, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Romano Guardini, Thomas Merton, Rene Girard, the Church Fathers and the mystics such as St John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila and much more. I now have quite a decent library. But YouTube was also very important to me – especially the content from „Word on Fire“ and the US bishop Robert Barron. And, to my great surprise, the picture didn’t become less complex, but it still felt truer with every step.
Three years ago, I finally read the Bible in its entirety, with accompaniment and explanation, as well as the Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and at some point I realised that I basically already think and live as a Catholic. Two years ago I also started praying more actively, I started with the Te Deum and the rosary – which has always accompanied me in the meantime – and I also went to church, which in turn brought me closer to the sacraments, which I then also wanted to receive.
In the end, I also believe that the church is not just any bowling club, but a sacred institution, just like the sacraments. I often miss this message, especially in the German church. From my point of view, the real nuclear catastrophe is that even active Catholics increasingly do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist – these issues should be at the forefront. No other discussion, such as those being held in the various reform movements, will change anything here. People don’t come to church because it uses climate-neutral electricity or because the priest now has a wife, but because they are looking for answers to fundamental questions and hope.
kath.net: The atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recently said that although he considers Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus to be nonsense, and also welcomes the fact that the number of believing Christians is declining. At the same time, however, he described himself as a cultural Christian, he loves Christian songs and feels „somehow at home“ in the Christian ethos and Christian heritage (link). To what extent do you agree or disagree with his position?

Prof Wagner: Of course, I have also read and seen a lot of Dawkins and ultimately his position is intellectually inconsistent and also lazy. But it is typical of our time. We live in a culture that would not have developed in the same way or been as successful without Christianity. We enjoy the unique achievements of science, which has grown from the heart of faith, based on the belief in a God who is the Logos and has created a comprehensible and ordered cosmos. Even for Newton or Darwin, faith in God was the source of their work.
The conviction that faith and science are opposites and that the Enlightenment has freed us from the yoke of the dark, religiously blinded Middle Ages and the church as an obstacle to independent thought is not only wrong, but also boring. Dawkins and the other „New Atheists“ have been using stupid clichés here for decades. However, not only science, but also art, literature and ultimately the organisation of our entire society on the basis of a universal and, as the Vatican recently emphasised once again, infinite human dignity, would be inconceivable without the message of Christ and the Christian view of humanity.
But it is interesting that Dawkins realises very well that he is swimming in Christian water, as the historian Tom Holland so beautifully put it, but that he wants to deny the source of this water. In this way, however, he also reflects our zeitgeist well.
I am convinced that we are at a turning point culturally and that we need to talk much more about an integrated and holistic world view that exposes this limited scientific-technical-materialistic view of modernity as a reductionist lie. From the Enlightenment to the New Atheists, we have been promised that if only we leave religion and God behind and develop on the basis of rational, materialistic science, progress through technology and a market-led economy, a new era will dawn for mankind, with peace, prosperity and happiness for all. But this narrative is becoming more and more obviously fragile. Sure, we are hyper-successful in some ways. We have more things than ever before, we are healthier and better educated than ever before – but we are not happier, not more peaceful, not more united and certainly not more hopeful – quite the opposite.
The inevitable demystification of the world and the inevitable phenomenon of capitalism and hyper-individualisation are causing us to doubt the very foundations of the idea that our lives are meaningful and necessary, that we are wanted and given a purpose. No technology, no money and no ego can provide this meaning – but ultimately only God and our community and relationship with him. A world that does not worship God, who is outside of this world, ends up worshipping something in the world and this can never satisfy our deepest desires.
kath.net: You had a specific preparation course for this step. Would you like to tell us more about it?

Prof Wagner: Yes, I attended a baptism preparation course run by FIDES Faith Information of the Archdiocese of Cologne. There were about 15 of us preparing there. We met several times a month for about half a year for seminars, discussions and church services. The exchange there and also the very warm and personal guidance and support from FIDES, especially Father Sebastian, who also baptised me, Mrs Irmgard Conin and Mrs Anne Wixforth were really great and got us all very well prepared for baptism, Mrs Conin then even became my godmother. I can only recommend this preparation.
kath.net: With your full reception into our church, you have reached a fixed destination point, an end to one stage of your life and at the same time the start of a new one. What comes after the happy ending?

Prof Wagner: A key point that has always led me in the direction of philosophical and ethical questions was the fact that I have been working intensively in the field of sustainable management and communication for many years, in which I also hold a professorship. Not only does our way of life not make us happier, it is also unsustainable for our planet in the long term.
I am firmly convinced that we will not be able to overcome the many challenges facing us in the coming years and decades if we do not focus more intensively on the source of love, strength and hope, namely God. I see this as a key area of responsibility for me – not as a preacher or apologist, but as an expert who wants to promote these issues.
This does not mean that my goal is for everyone to become a Christian, but it does mean that we must not limit our social discussion to technology and politics – these will not save us and will never give us the meaning and energy we will need for the challenges and transformation that is necessary.
Ultimately, the questions in the area of sustainability, but also in topics such as AI, lead to fundamental questions. Who are we? Why do we exist? What is our mission? Why do we need to exist at all?
All too often in my specialist community, I experience ultimately anti-human and fatalistic narratives – humans as a virus, overpopulation as a problem, we as the last generation, etc. – I would like to work towards a perspective that shows us as the first generation. A generation that has a holistic view of our world, that uses the gifts of our likeness to God in responsibility for creation, a generation for whom faith, hope and love are the motor of life.
kath.net: Very specifically, who is Jesus Christ for you? And what does his death on the cross and his resurrection mean to you?

Prof Wagner: I believe that the cosmos, creation and we too are wanted and good out of love. I believe that God is with us at all times and sustains and guides us as a kind and merciful Father. But the really wonderful thing for me is that this God lives in love in relationship with us and has communicated himself to us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the Word of God because in him he has communicated everything we need to know about God. He is a concrete counterpart and he is clearly a provocation for our world and a folly that challenges us and our way of life.
He is a God who is with us even in the deepest suffering and the source of hope, as the cross and resurrection make it clear that neither death nor suffering have the last word and that God ultimately creates life out of everything.

Translated automatically via DeepL