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Bishop Leader of the German Synodal Path Threatens Cardinal Kurt Koch. Response

Die Tagespost published an interview with Cardinal Kurt Koch. The interview focused on current topics, one of them being the German Synodal Path. In that particular context, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Christian Unity was asked about the opinion of some Bishops regarding the sense of believers being a new source of revelation and if that implies a change in the teaching of the Church. Cardinal Koch replied:

“It irritates me that, in addition to the sources of revelation of Scripture and Tradition, new sources are accepted; and it frightens me that this is happening again in Germany, as this phenomenon already happened during the National-Socialist dictatorship, when the so-called “German Christians” saw God’s new revelation in blood and land and in Hitler’s rise. The Confessing Church protested against this in 1934 with its Barmer Theological Declaration, whose first thesis states: “We reject the false doctrine as if the Church could and should recognize other events and power, figures and truths as a separate revelation of God and, moreover, of this sole word of God as source of preaching.”

The Christin faith must always be interpreted faithful to its origins and contemporary. Hence, the Church is obliged to take good note of the signs of the times and take them seriously. But they are not new sources of revelation. In the process of the three steps of faithful knowledge — see, judge and act — the signs of the times belong to seeing and in no way of judging along with the sources of revelation. I miss this necessary distinction in the guidance text of the “Synodal Path.” 

On hearing of the declaration, the President of the German Bishops and leader of the German Synodal Path, Georg Bätzing, criticized Cardinal Koch harshly and asked that the Swiss Cardinal retract what he said publicly, otherwise he threatened to present a formal complaint to the Pope.

Cardinal Koch’s counter-answer came swiftly, who not only doesn’t retract what he said but emphasized what he said and the context in which he said it. 

Because of its interest we translate and reproduce the full answer of the Prefect of the Dicastery threatened by the German Bishop.

* * *

During the press conference after the Plenary Assembly of the German Episcopal Conference, in an interview with “Tagespost,”the President, Monsignor Georg Bätzing accused me of criticizing harshly the Synodal Path with a Nazi comparison. Ultimately, he demanded that I retract this “unacceptable lapsus” and that “I apologize immediately.” 

I respond immediately, but I cannot retract my basic affirmation, simply because I haven’t compared the Synodal Path at all with a Nazi ideology, nor will I ever do so. Rather, the facts are the following: 

The Synodal Path is not compared with “German Christians.” 

In the interview I was asked the question, heard over and over, that “supposedly there are new sources of revelation.” “The spirit of the times and – permit me to call it so – feeling obviously play a role there. Can the teaching of the Church be changed like this?” I also tried to respond to this question formulated in a general way. It was important for me to recall , in this context, the Barme Theological Declaration, because I continue to consider it important today, also for ecumenical reasons. For the content to be  comprehensible for those that read it, I’ve had to point out briefly to what this Declaration was responding. In doing so, I haven’t compared at all the Synodal Path with the mentality of “German Christians,” nor did I wish to do so. Just like the so-called “German Christians”  – thank God they were not referring to all German Christians, with my statement I didn’t have in mind all the members of the Synod, but only the Christians that represent the affirmation formulated by the question. And I hope to be able to continue assuming that this affirmation is not the opinion of the Synodal Path. 

To avoid a possible misunderstanding, which has happened now, however, to my regret, I have added a second paragraph, which I will quote fully here, because it’s the most important for me:

“The Christian faith must be interpreted always in a way faithful to its origins and in keeping with the times. Hence, the Church is certainly obliged to take note of the signs of the times and to take them seriously, but they are not new sources of revelation. In the process of three steps of faithful knowledge –see, judge and act– the signs of the times belong to seeing and in no way to judging along with the sources of revelation. I miss this necessary distinction in the guidance text.” 

It is only in this context that I have formulated a criticism of the orientation text, but in no case have I criticized the Synodal Path with a Nazi comparison. When Bishop Bätzing stated in the press conference that the signs of the times  are “sources of knowledge and for the development of doctrine,” I can certainly agree with him. But the sources of knowledge are something different from the “sources of revelation,” other than for the fact that I consider this term very problematic in itself. And posed immediately is the additional question if the “signs of the times” are taken as sources of knowledge and with what interest.

In this connection, I perceive open questions in the “Orientation Text” and in other text of the “Synodal Path.” And in this sense I’m not alone. Whoever reads the second supplement of the “Tagespost,” for example, will realize that in the “Orientation Text” similar questions are posed by a scholar of the Old Testament, a dogmatic, a practical theologian and a philosopher, all of them University Professors of merit. So my critical commentary cannot be simply the expression of a completely mistaken theology. 

The Intention Is Not to Cause Harm

It wasn’t at all my intention to cause harm to anyone. I simply assumed that we can also learn from history today, including from a very difficult one. As Bishop Bätzing’s strong reaction shows, as well as that of others, I must realize that I have failed in this intent. And I must perceive that the memories of the phenomena and events of the National Socialist time  are obviously taboo in Germany. I apologize to those that feel wounded by me, and I assure them that that wasn’t my intention. 

However, I cannot withdraw my critical question. I didn’t pose it out of ”pure fear that something would move” or with the intention to “delegitimize,” as Bishop Bätzing accuses me, but out of theological concern for the future of the Church in Germany, because behind my question is the much more fundamental question of what is understood by “revelation.” I don’t see this question sufficiently clarified in the texts of the Synodal Path. I would be grateful if this important question is subjected to a greater theological clarification. 

Rome, September 29, 2022

Kurt Cardinal Koch