Germany’s most prominent bishop issued an almost 1,000-word statement Friday denouncing a Vatican cardinal.
Bishop Georg Bätzing lamented what he called Cardinal Kurt Koch’s “untenable statements” about the German “synodal way”: a multi-year initiative bringing together bishops and lay people to discuss power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexual morality.
How did the spat begin? And why has it escalated? The Pillar takes a look.
What Cardinal Koch said
The controversy began when the Swiss cardinal referred to the Nazi era while discussing the synodal way during a Sept. 29 interview published by German newspaper Die Tagespost.
Interviewer Martin Lohmann suggested that “again and again” the synodal way’s supporters, including bishops, had claimed that “there are allegedly new sources of revelation” which require the development of Church teaching.
The president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said it irritated him that the synodal way was seeking to establish “new sources” for Catholic teaching, “in addition to the sources of revelation of Scripture and Tradition.”
He added that it frightened him “that this is happening ― again ― in Germany.”
“This phenomenon already existed during the National Socialist dictatorship, when the so-called ‘German Christians’ saw God’s new revelation in blood and soil and in the rise of Hitler,” Koch explained.
The virulently anti-Semitic “German Christian” movement tried to align the country’s Protestant churches with Nazi ideology in the 1930s.
Koch cited the 1934 Barmen Declaration, which rejected the claims of the “German Christians.” The declaration, largely drafted by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, said in its first article: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.”
Cardinal Koch referred to the first article, then said that while the Church had to take “careful note of the signs of the times,” these were not “new sources of revelation.”
“I miss this necessary distinction in the orientation text of the ‘synodal way,’” he said, referring to the 18-page document describing the initiative’s theological foundations.
What Bishop Bätzing said
Koch’s remarks provoked a furious response from Bishop Bätzing. Speaking at a press conference at the end of the German bishops’ plenary meeting in Fulda on Sept. 29, he said the cardinal was guilty of a “totally unacceptable gaffe.”
Bätzing added that if Koch did not apologize publicly, he would make an “official complaint” to Pope Francis, with support from other German bishops.
Bätzing also noted that Koch was an established critic of the synodal way, suggesting the cardinal’s interventions were motivated by “pure fear” that the initiative would lead to change.
“But I promise you: Something will change and even Cardinal Koch will not be able to stop that — certainly not with such statements,” Bätzing said.
What’s the context?
The Nazi era remains an extremely sensitive topic in Germany, for obvious reasons. Comparisons between the Third Reich and present-day events are generally seen as distasteful.
The synodal way is also at a particularly sensitive stage following a meeting earlier this month that starkly exposed divisions between the German bishops. The gathering also resulted in votes that are likely to further increase tensions with the Vatican.
Bätzing would therefore be sensitive to criticism from a Vatican official even without the reference to Nazi Germany.
What happened next
On the evening of Sept. 29, Koch sent a response to Bätzing, which was made public:
The 72-year-old cardinal said that he could not retract his basic point, “simply because I have in no way compared the synodal way to a Nazi ideology, nor will I ever do so.”
The cardinal explained that he was trying to make a general point about new sources of revelation and referred again to the Barmen Declaration “because I still consider it important today, also for ecumenical reasons.”
Koch said that he had “simply assumed that we can also learn from history today,” but now realized that evoking memories from the Nazi era was “obviously taboo” in Germany.
“I apologize to those who feel offended by me and assure them that this was not and is not my intention,” he wrote.
The cardinal added: “However, I cannot take back my critical question. I did not raise it out of ‘pure fear that something will change’ and not with the intention of ‘delegitimizing,’ as Bishop Bätzing accuses me of, but out of theological concern for the future of the Church in Germany.”
“Behind my question is the much more fundamental question of what is to be understood by ‘revelation.’ I do not see this question sufficiently clarified in the texts of the synodal way. I would be grateful if this important question were subjected to further theological clarification.”
On Sept. 30, Bishop Bätzing issued an extensive reply to Koch:
“I cannot accept the answer to my publicly expressed criticism as satisfactory, because Cardinal Koch in essence does not apologize for the untenable statements, but ― on the contrary ― aggravates them,” he said.
The bishop of Limburg said he took offense at Koch’s comment about memories of the Nazi era being “taboo.”
“Indeed, he suggests that in Germany we do not face up to the terrible legacy of National Socialism,” he commented. “I firmly reject this new insinuation. It is not we who are erecting a taboo; rather, in view of the victims of National Socialism, it is taboo to make comparisons between the National Socialist thinking that led to these very victims and any thinking today.”
Bätzing said that he still expected Koch to distance himself from his statements.
The 61-year-old bishops devoted the final half of his statement to the cardinal’s criticism of the synodal way’s “orientation text.”
He noted that the text included “the signs of the times” among the “sources of knowledge” in theology. He then argued that God’s will can be known not only from the Scriptures and Tradition, theology, the Magisterium, and “the sense of faith of the faithful” (sensus fidei fidelium), “but also from contemporary events and developments in history.”
He gave the example of Pope John XXIII describing the social equality of women as a “sign of the times.”
“Thus, developments in the ‘profane’ world have always become ‘signs of the times’ and sources of theological knowledge,” he said.
When will it end? And how?
The controversy could end in several ways. The quickest would be if Cardinal Koch decided to offer an unequivocal apology. Failing that, Bätzing seems likely to make an official complaint to Pope Francis. The pope could then either instruct Koch to apologize, or he could ignore the request.
It would be difficult to dismiss it entirely, though, as the German bishops are preparing to make their ad limina visit to Rome in November. The bishops are due to meet the heads of Vatican dicasteries — no doubt including Koch.
But if even the dispute ends with an apology, the profound theological differences that it has highlighted will remain unresolved and continue to surface in debates about the synodal way.
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