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Vatican cardinal cancels trip amid backlash over synodal way remarks

Local media reported that Cardinal Kurt Koch pulled out of a planned visit to Germany for ‘security reasons.’

Cardinal Kurt Koch. RPP-Institut via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 at).

A Vatican cardinal canceled a weekend visit to Germany after reportedly receiving threats related to his recent remarks about the country’s “synodal way.”

Cardinal Kurt Koch was due to celebrate Mass and give a lecture on Oct. 2 in the southern German city of Schwäbisch Gmünd. He was also expected to celebrate Mass in the nearby town of Ellwangen on Oct. 3.

But local media reported that the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity pulled out of the trip for “security reasons.”

The 72-year-old cardinal provoked anger in Germany when he invoked the Nazi era while criticizing the synodal way, a controversial initiative bringing together bishops and lay people to discuss hot-button issues.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, called on Koch to apologize publicly after the cardinal referred to the virulently anti-Semitic “German Christian” movement in a Sept. 29 interview with the newspaper Die Tagespost.

He said that if the cardinal did not withdraw his remarks, he would make an “official complaint” to Pope Francis.

In the interview, Koch argued 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 cardinal told Bätzing that he could not withdraw his general point about sources of revelation and insisted that he had “in no way compared the synodal way to a Nazi ideology.”

But Bätzing replied that Koch had not only failed to apologize for his “untenable statements,” but also aggravated them.

Germany’s “anti-Semitism czar” Felix Klein also criticized the remarks by the cardinal, who is president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

“It is irritating that the comparison with the darkest chapter of German history has to be used to take a stand on an inner-Church conflict,” Klein said.

Koch is not the only cardinal to express concern about the trajectory of the synodal way. Cardinal Walter Kasper, his predecessor as the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has repeatedly criticized the initiative.

In a June lecture, the German theologian described the synodal way’s proposal for a permanent “synodal council” as an outrageous innovation.

“The tradition of the Church does not know a synodal church government,” Kasper said.

But members of the synodal way voted in favor of the proposal at their most recent meeting in September.

Koch was expected to celebrate Mass on Oct. 2 at Heilig-Kreuz-Münster, a church in Schwäbisch Gmünd, and then deliver a lecture on “Why it is worthwhile to be a Christian today” at the invitation of the Schönblick Christliches Gästezentrum Württemberg and the Fundatio Christiana Virtus.

In an Oct. 2 statement on its Facebook page, the Schönblick conference center said: “In the current public mood surrounding him [Koch], it was not possible to hold this event in an atmosphere appropriate to the occasion.”

The Schwäbische Post reported that the cardinal was due to sign the city’s “Golden Book” — an official guestbook — on Oct. 1, but the event was canceled by city authorities.

The local newspaper said that Koch’s office had announced the cancelation of the weekend’s events on Saturday morning, citing unspecified “security reasons.”

According to the paper, Fr. Sven van Meegen, a pastor in Ellwangen, said there were “threats of violence against the Schönblick conference center,” as well as abusive emails and phone calls.

But Martin Scheuermann, the conference center’s managing director, said he was unaware of any threats of violence.

German Catholic media reported on Oct. 3 that Bishop Bätzing had arrived at the Vatican for days of talks with officials ahead of the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome in November.

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