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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7. The Pauline Year. A More Pauline Church?

February 21st, 2011

The Roman Catholic Church is master at celebrating special years: the year of Jubilee, the Holy year, the Marian year, the Year for priests, etc. In a sense, every year is a “special” occasion for something. So it was with the Pauline Year (PY). Designed to celebrate the bimillennium of the birth of St Paul, which historians place between the years 7 and 10 AD, the PY included a series of liturgical, cultural and ecumenical events, as well as various pastoral and social initiatives, all inspired by Pauline spirituality. It took place between June 28th 2008 and June 29th 2009 and had as its center the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (Rome). This massive Basilica was built by Emperor Constantine (IV century AD) over the burial place of the apostle Paul and is one of the four great Roman basilicas. The occasion to assess the outcomes of the PY was given by a 500-page book entitled L’anno paolino (The Pauline Year) that was officially presented in a press conference at the Vatican on February 9th. The book is a reference tool with all kinds of information on what took place during the PY.

Ecumenical (little) achievements

One of the chief aims that stirred Benedict XVI to proclaim the PY was to have a catalyst event that would foster the ecumenical cause on behalf of Christian unity. Since Paul is a central figure for both Eastern and Western sides of the church, the idea to celebrate a Pauline year took shape. Particular attention was given to ecumenical gatherings that would re-invigorate Christian unity on the basis of a common and renewed appreciation of Paul. For Eastern Orthodox churches, the PY was meant to highlight Paul’s missions to the East and the great legacy of his teachings about the “mystery” of the faith. Solemn events and liturgies were performed during the year, even though the success has been mainly symbolic. No real breakthrough was achieved in the name of Paul as far as the Eastern front of RC ecumenism. For Protestant churches, the PY was crafted to underline the importance of justification by faith and other Pauline themes dear to Protestant hearts. The hope was to give another chance to the 1999 Joint Declaration between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on justification which promises much (i.e. agreement on the basics of the Gospel) yet is delivering very little in terms of a deepened Christian unity. During the PY, divisions over gay unions and how to respond to the challenges of secular culture further divided the relationship between historic Protestants and the RC Church. On the whole, the PY was wishful thinking as far as ecumenism is concerned. In theory it was a great idea (though quite unsubstantiated historically), but in reality it was quite the flop.

Paul’s relics

Apart from ecumenical analyses, another feature of this special year is worth mentioning. The ambitious program desired to honor the great themes of Paul’s letters: creation, sin, salvation, grace, faith, and mission. Pauline scholarship afforded the chance to produce books and convene conferences. Opportunities were created to read Paul afresh or, for most people, to read him for the first time. All this is welcome, yet it is interesting to note how Benedict XVI closed the PY. In a solemn liturgy the Pope announced a recent discovery. In the marble sarcophagus in which according to tradition Paul’s body was buried, bones of a skeleton dating to the first century AD had been found and analyzed. It is possible that these skeletal remains belong to the Apostle Paul, though no certainty can be established. The point of the Pope’s announcement was to state that these relics were going to be displayed for public veneration. While underlining great Pauline and Biblical themes such as salvation and grace, and faith and mission, the PY encouraged at the same time practices that are far from Pauline and Biblical spirituality. Paul himself wrote that the “living letter” of his service are living men and women who follow his teaching (2 Corinthians 3:2-3), rather than his dry bones calling people to bow down before them.

A Pauline church?

These comments generate a fundamental question: How is it possible to combine Paul and the veneration of relics? How is it feasible to square the spirituality of justification by faith and the cult of the dead? How is it legitimate to nurture a Christ-centered life and folk-religion practices? How is it possible to produce fine Pauline scholarship while fostering anti-Pauline habits? In fact for the RC Church not only is it possible, but it’s also mandatory. The RC worldview demands complexio oppositorum (the combination of the opposites) as its paradigm without having Scripture alone as its decisive criterion. The issue at stake is not questioning the Pauline nature of the RC Church. In a sense, the RC Church is a Pauline church. The issue is that, besides the Pauline element, the RC Church is also Petrine, Marian, Papal, Imperial, Roman, Tridentine, folk-oriented, etc. Pauline teaching is only one aspect of the whole and the whole goes far beyond the other canonical strands of the Bible. It is a “catholic” whole in the sense that it wishes to embrace all. The standing question is whether or not the PY was an opportunity to return to the Gospel or a chance to expand Roman catholicity. The latter is closer to the truth.

Leonardo De Chirico


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