8. Overcoming the “sacred empire”?

March 4th, 2011

Cardinal Kurt Koch and some prospects of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Kurt Koch is a name that perhaps does not mean much to most people. A few months ago, though, Benedict XVI appointed him as cardinal and gave him the responsibility to preside over the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which is the Vatican institution devoted to ecumenical dialogue. Former bishop of Basel (Switzerland), and himself a Swiss (b. 1950), Koch took over the post at the Pontifical Council from another “prince” of the RC church, cardinal Walter Kasper, who resigned after reaching his 75th birthday, as Canon law prescribes.

Koch has been involved in RC ecumenism since his ordination to priesthood. His doctoral thesis obtained in Luzern was on the theology of history in Wolfhart Pannenberg. Knowledge of Protestant German theology has been his daily bread, theologically speaking. He seems conversant with D. Bonhoeffer, J. Moltmann and E. Jüngel (and also H. Küng). Much less prominent on his horizon is Evangelical theology. Moreover, his Episcopal experience in central Europe has meant that the relationship with non-RC Christians has always been central in his views and practice.

Opportunities and Challenges for European Christians

It is too early to say how cardinal Koch will develop the multifaceted action and strategy of the Pontifical Council. There is a way, however, to gain at least a flavor of what his main concerns will be, especially concerning the situation of Christianity in Europe. His previous writings provide a taste of what his thinking and ethos are regarding ecumenical matters and more general issues that are at stake for Christian witness. He is not a theologian of the caliber of Walter Kasper, but he is a thinker that deserves attention.

One particular book of Koch’s is worth mentioning, for a number of reasons. First, it was published in German (Kirche ohne Zukunft?, 1993), in French (Chrétiens en Europe, 2004) and in Italian (Quale futuro per i cristiani?, 2010), thus projecting Koch in international conversations on European Christianity. Second, the book contains a series of lectures that Koch delivered in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall on the prospects of the Christian faith in a pluralist society. The fall of communist regimes has been a watershed event that continues to have implications for Christian witness and Koch explores some of the scenarios for us. Third, ecumenism is right at the core of what Koch has to say in arguing that Christianity indeed has a future in Europe. He thinks that the challenges before Christians demand a way forward in terms of unity.

Backward to the “sacred empire” or forward to an “open house”?

Cardinal Koch agrees with many observers that secularization as a sociological process and secularism as an ideological framework represent the European cultural climate. Any type of Christian spirituality, therefore, needs to come to terms with it. In secular society religious concerns are widespread, yet they are not lived out in traditional patterns and within ecclesiastical institutions. How should Christians respond? Churches, Koch argues, have the tendency to reclaim their traditional status and power when they are challenged by secular trends. For him it is a wrong move. Instead of defending the privileges inherited from the past, churches need to be self-critical and willing to lose the unnecessary benefits that are unjust and unfair in democratic and pluralistic societies. In doing so Christians have to resist the direction of marginalization in which secular society wants to push them. Secularism has a place for churches only if they are institutions for “free-time” (i.e. not for the whole of life), and if they deal with the destitute, which always makes an affluent society nervous. In a telling comment, Koch argues that the church must learn to accept pluralism without reservations, even if pluralism diminishes her status (p. 29, Italian edition). Rather than aspiring to re-building the “sacred empire”, the church should wish to become an “open house” (p. 35), which acknowledges her provisional nature.

The “New Evangelization”

Churches will make a gross mistake if they get entangled in preserving past settlements of church-society relationships. Their role should be to engage Europe in the “new evangelization”. In a rather narrow historical perspective, Koch says that the word “evangelization” began to circulate at Vatican II (1962-1965). Perhaps this is true as far as RC circles are concerned, but it is also true that the word had been part of the Evangelical language for centuries. For Koch evangelization does not mean to rally a new crusade to claim back the past dominion, but instead to live out the Gospel in spiritual terms. Real Christian life is the “fifth gospel” for modern man (p. 62), and that speaks more powerfully to him. In other words, the mood of evangelization should not be dogmatic but mystagogical, i.e. more concerned with mystical realities than theological definition. In this respect the church needs to be semper evangelizanda (always in the process of self-evangelizing). In evangelizing others, she should evangelize herself. In doing so evangelization will not be “confessionalist” (i.e. reproducing past schemes and divisions) but “ecumenical” (i.e. promoting unity).

Where do we go from here?

The combination of the acceptance of pluralism and an emphasis on mysticism (others would instead speak of “spirituality”) seems to be Cardinal Koch’s direction in Europe. In a sense, his views are not very different from those of Protestant ecumenicals. Rather different tones and perspectives are found in John Paul II’s 2003 Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe), and in Joseph Ratzinger’s writings on Europe (e.g. A Turning Point for Europe? The Church in the Modern World, 1994). In these writings there is no hint of the willingness by the RC Church to renounce her privileges, especially when they imply political and economic benefits. There is no evidence of the practical viability of Koch’s arguments. The main theological justification of a RC “sacred empire”, i.e. a Church having a state (the Vatican), is left totally unquestioned even by progressive voices. The Gordian knot of the settlement is carefully protected and possibly extended, rather than cut or even untied. Cardinal Koch must work out what he means by overcoming the “sacred empire” towards an “open house”, not just in the safety of a lecture room, but inside the Vatican establishment itself.

The meaning of “evangelization” then needs to be spelled out more clearly, both theologically and practically. Appealing to postmodern mysticism can resonate with some European maîtres-à-penser, but what does it mean in terms of gospel faithfulness and a call to conversion to Jesus Christ? Again, giving a lecture is one thing, doing evangelism and seeing it happen can be quite another. From Basel to Rome, from bishopric in Central Europe to the Vatican curia, from the lectern to a more complex reality, Kurt Koch will surely have opportunities to test the weight of his views on Europe.

Leonardo De Chirico


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