Among Catholic contributors to ecumenical theology in the period following Vatican II, perhaps none has done more work, and work of more lasting significance, than this year’s Père Marquette Lecturer, Otto Hermann Pesch. Pesch was born in Cologne, Germany in 1931 and finished his “Abitur” degree there in 1952. The same year, he became a member of the Dominican Order, and in 1953 he began work at the Dominican House of Studies in Wahlberberg, where he earned the “Lector” degree. In 1958, he was ordained a Catholic priest. In 1960 he became a student at the University of Munich, where he earned the Dr. Theology degree in 1965.
From 1965-1971, Pesch served as Professor of Systematic and Ecumenical Theology in Wahlberberg. He spent the 1971-72 academic year in residence at the Harvard Divinity School, where he served as Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies. In 1972, Pesch was laicized and married. In 1974 he took the position of Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Hamburg. In 1975 he was tenured in the same position and thus became the first Catholic theologian to serve as “ordinarius” professor in the Protestant faculty of a German university. During 1988-89, Pesch served as Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Temple University, and as Visiting Professor of Church History and Systematic Theology in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In 1992, Pesch received the Doctor’s degree, honoris causa, from the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Mainz. In 1993, he returned for a second stay as Visiting Associate Professor at Temple University. For the academic year 2002-2003, he served as Professeur extraordinaire de théologie systematique in the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Pesch retired from his faculty position in Hamburg in 1997, but in the years since has been anything but resting.
Among his numerous books the best known is Theologie der Rechtfertigung bei Martin Luther und Thomas von Aquin (1967, 2nd ed. 1985). Examining comparatively the doctrine of justification in these two theologians—whose works in so many ways epitomize the Lutheran and Catholic traditions—Pesch drew those traditions back from an armed standoff into a fraternal, persistent and theologically sensitive dialogue. Pesch has continued to publish at an astonishing pace throughout his career. His subsequent books include: Twenty Years of Catholic Luther Research (LWF, 1966); The God Question in Thomas Aquinas and Luther (1972); Das Gesetz. Kommentar zu Thomas von Aquin: Summa Theologiae I-II 90-105 (1977); Einführung in die Lehre von Gnade und Rechtfertigung [with Albrecht Peters] (1981, 3rd ed. 1994); Hinführung zu Luther (1982, 3rd rev. ed. 2004); Gerechtfertigt aus Glauben. Luthers Frage an die Kirche (1982); Frei sein aus Gnade. Theologische Anthropologie (1983); Streiten für die eine Kirche [with Heinrich Fries] (1987); Dogmatik im Fragment. Gesammelte Studien (1987); Thomas von Pesch Ecumenical Potential of Second Vatican Council Aquin. Grenze und Größe mittelalterlicher Theologie. Eine Einführung (1988, 3rd ed. 1995); Rechtfertigung im Disput. Eine freundliche Antwort an Jörg Baur [with Ulrich Kühn] (1991); Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil. Vorgeschichte, Verlauf, Ergebnisse, Nachgeschichte (1993, 5th ed. 2001); Martin Luther, Thomas von Aquin und die reformatorische Kritik an der Scholastik (1994); Die Sünde. Kommentar zu Thomas von Aquin, Summa Theologiae I-II 71-89 (2002). As the titles of these many books quite rightly indicate, Pesch’s work has continued to revolve around its ecumenical center by means of an illuminating comparative analysis of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas.
Pesch has also written frequently for a more popular audience. These “pocket books” are frequently addressed to the practical questions faced by the average Christian, e.g., Das Gebet (1980); Die Zehn Gebote (1976, 9th ed. 1995); Heute Gott erkennen (1980, 3rd ed. 1988); Kleines Katholisches Glaubensbuch (15th rev. ed. 2004); and Die Sünde (2004). Finally, as if to add good humor to such a long and impressive list of publications, mention must also be made of his Warum hast du so große Ohren? Rottkäppchen—theologisch zu Gehör gebracht (1993), ET as What Big Ears You Have! The Theologians’ Red Riding Hood (3rd rev. ed. 2000). Pesch has lectured in 11 countries, nowhere more than in the United States. In addition to frequent service as visiting professor in American universities, he has been a frequent participant and lecturer in meetings of the International Luther Congress, as well as a plenary speaker at the Aquinas-Luther Conference at Lenoir-Rhyne College. In addition, he is past President, now Vice President, of the Académie internationale des sciences religieuses (Brussels), and serves on the editorial boards of Concilium and Ökumenische Rundschau. Pesch is a member of the Advisory Board of the Institut für Europaische Geschichte—Abteilung Abendländische Religionsgeschichte (Mainz), and a member of the Joachim-Jungius-Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften in Hamburg. He has also been for many years a member of the influential Ökumenischer Arbeitskreis evangelischer und katholischer Theologen, a group whose work helped make possible the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999.