A Vatican cardinal has defended himself against an accusation by the president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, of making a “totally unacceptable gaffe” over remarks regarding the German Synodal Way.

“I am responding promptly, but I cannot retract my essential point, simply because I have in no way compared the Synodal Way to a Nazi ideology, nor will I ever do so,” the Swiss cardinal said, according to a report by CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner. 

Cardinal Kurt Koch, a native of Switzerland, is president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

In an interview with the Catholic weekly “Die Tagespost,” Koch said that he was shocked that, of all places, the German Synodal Way was talking about new sources of revelation. 

“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 said.

The “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen) were a Nazi-era pressure group that wanted to align Protestantism with racist Nazi Ideology.

In contrast, the opposing Confessing Church’s Barmen Theological Declaration spoke against such distortions of Christian teaching. 

The 1934 statement 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.’”

Koch said in his response, written late Thursday: “It was a matter of concern to me to recall the Barmen Theological Declaration in this context, because I still consider it important today, also for ecumenical reasons. In order to make the content understandable to those who read it, I had to briefly note what this declaration responded to.”

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“In saying this, I was in no way comparing the Synodal Way with the mentality of the ‘German Christians,’ nor did I want to do so,” the Swiss prelate added. 

“Just as the so-called ‘German Christians’ — thank God — did not comprise all German Christians, I also, in no way, had all [Synodal Way] participants in mind with my statement, but only those Christians who represent the assertion formulated in the question. And I hope to continue to assume that this assertion is not the opinion of the Synodal Way.”

Bishop Bätzing demands an apology

At a press conference marking the conclusion of the German bishops’ fall plenary assembly on Thursday afternoon, Bätzing demanded Koch make “a public apology” in light of his remarks. 

Otherwise, Bätzing said he would “file an official complaint with the Holy Father,” CNA Deutsch reported.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg at a press conference of the German Synodal Way. Synodaler Weg / Max von Lachner
Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg at a press conference of the German Synodal Way. Synodaler Weg / Max von Lachner

Koch’s statement betrayed a fear that “something will change,” Bätzing continued. “But I promise you: Something will change and even Cardinal Koch will not be able to stop that — certainly not with such statements.”

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“The plenary assembly of bishops has reacted with horror to this statement, with which Cardinal Koch disqualifies himself in the theological debate,” the German prelate continued. 

There had already been “attempts to delegitimize the Synodal Way” by the cardinal for some time, Bätzing claimed.

Koch replied on Friday with a statement published in full by CNA Deutsch. 

“To those who feel hurt by my statement, I apologize and assure them that this was not and is not my intention,” Koch said.

The Vatican cardinal said he had “simply assumed that today we can also learn from history, even from a very difficult time. As the vehement reaction of Bishop Bätzing and others show, I have to state, in hindsight, that I failed in this attempt.”

“However, I cannot retract my critical query,” the cardinal stressed. “I raised it not out of ‘pure fear that something will change,’ and not with the intention of ‘delegitimizing,’ as Bishop Bätzing accuses me of doing, but out of theological care for the future of the Church in Germany.”

Koch pointed out he was far from “alone in my criticism of the orientation text of the Synodal Way,” adding: “My critical comment, then, cannot simply be an expression of a completely mistaken theology.”

Synodal Way flags fly in front of the Congress Center Messe Frankfurt in Germany. Max von Lachner/Synodal Way.
Synodal Way flags fly in front of the Congress Center Messe Frankfurt in Germany. Max von Lachner/Synodal Way.

Participants in the Synodal Way (Synodaler Weg) approved the “orientation text” in February. It sets out the theological underpinnings of the controversial process, sometimes referred to as the Synodal Path.