Public spat between German bishop, Swiss cardinal leads to private meeting in Rome

BaetzingKoch2022 Bishop Georg Bätzing (left) and Cardinal Kurt Koch | Maximilian von Lachner / Synodaler Weg // Paul Badde / EWTN

Following demands for an apology and a threat he might “file an official complaint with the Holy Father,” the German Bishops’ Conference president met with a Vatican cardinal in Rome this week.

Bishop Georg Bätzing sat down with Cardinal Kurt Koch on Oct. 4 to apparently clear the air over what the German Bätzing had called a “totally unacceptable gaffe” by the Vatican cardinal, who is a native of Switzerland and president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The exchange was the result of a disagreement over remarks involving “German Christians,” Nazi ideology, and theological claims of a key document of the German Synodal Way.

“For Cardinal Koch and Bishop Bätzing, it is clear after the conversation that the theological debate, to which the cardinal wanted to contribute in the interview, must continue,” spokesman Matthias Kopp said Wednesday, according to a report by CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language partner agency.

According to the bishops’ conference statement, the cardinal had “assured the bishop that he in no way meant the Synodal Way of the Church in Germany or the Synodal Assembly by the comparison he drew between theological debates on the Synodal Way and the events surrounding the so-called ‘German Christians’ during the Nazi era.”

“Expressly Cardinal Koch emphasizes that it is completely far from him to want to impute the terrible ideology of the 1930s to the Synodal Way,” the spokesman continued.

“Cardinal Koch asks for forgiveness from all those who feel hurt by the comparison he made.”

However, this assertion is not new, nor is the apology that Bätzing said he found not to be to his satisfaction.

CNA contacted Koch about his perspective on the encounter but had not received a response at the time of publication.

On Sept. 29, Koch had apologized for any hurt but at the same time defended himself against Bätzing’s claims of an “unacceptable gaffe,” saying, “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.”

At that time, this clarification did not sit well with the German Bishops’ Conference president.

One day after Koch’s rejoinder, on Sept. 30, Bätzing replied he would not accept this apology as “satisfactory,” reported CNA Deutsch.

So what did the Swiss prelate say that enraged the German bishop and now led to a meeting in Rome?

In an interview with a German newspaper, Koch — an internationally respected theologian — had said 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 told the weekly Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost.

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

The National Synod of “German Christians” in Wittenberg, September 1933. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25547 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The National Synod of “German Christians” in Wittenberg, September 1933. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25547 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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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.’”

Following demands by Bishop Bätzing for an apology, Koch said in a response, written Thursday last week: “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.”

“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.

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.”

“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.”

‘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.

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The Synodal Way — Synodaler Weg in German, sometimes translated as “Synodal Path” — is a controversial process that has come under sustained criticism from cardinals, bishops, and theologians both internationally and in Germany.

The Vatican intervened in July, warning of a threat of new schism from Germany arising from the process.

Writing about the Synodal Way, Pope Francis warned of disunity in his letter to German Catholics in 2019.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian considered close to Pope Francis, in June 2022 warned that the German process is at risk of “breaking its own neck” if it does not heed the objections raised by a growing number of bishops around the world.

In April, more than 100 cardinals and bishops from around the world released a “fraternal open letter” to Germany’s bishops, warning that sweeping changes to Church teaching advocated by the process may lead to schism.

In March, an open letter from the Nordic bishops expressed alarm at the German process, and in February, a strongly-worded letter from the president of Poland’s Catholic bishops’ conference raised serious concerns.

Bishop Bätzing has repeatedly rejected any and all concerns, instead expressing disappointment in Pope Francis in May. In his first reaction to the criticism by Cardinal Koch, the German prelate said Koch’s words betrayed a fear that “something will 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 added.


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