Home > Archives > 03 - 2011 > Christian unity dwells in prayer
from issue no. 03 - 2011

Christian unity dwells in prayer

An interview with Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity

Interview with Cardinal Kurt Koch by Giovanni Cubeddu

Created cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in the Consistory of 20 November  2010, Kurt Koch was Bishop of Basel from 1995 and for three years, from 2007 to 2010, the President of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference. On 1 July the Pope appointed him president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. And in that office Cardinal Koch has already visited the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and of All Russia. Even so, as he tells us, his interest in the Churches born out of the Reformation remains undimmed.

Kurt Koch [© Romano Siciliani]

Kurt Koch [© Romano Siciliani]

KURT KOCH: There’s no lack of things that need doing, and one has to balance between the eastern and western sections of our Pontifical Council.
I’d begin with the first, recalling the meeting with all the Orthodox Churches, in Vienna in September 2010 as part of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, at which we took an important step: we decided on the need for the Church to have a protos, i.e. a summit at the local, regional and universal levels, and also on deepening the historical research into how the primacy of the Bishop of Rome existed in the first millennium of the undivided Church. They are the same themes of our preceding meeting in Cyprus in 2009. The Orthodox, however, subsequently decided not to continue with the historical research, considering it objectively complicated and not in keeping with the Commission. Whereas systematic theological study of the relationship between primacy and collegiality which will be discussed at next year’s meeting has begun.
You held a meeting in January with the Eastern Orthodox during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
We focused primarily on the Christological issues, given that some Eastern Orthodox Churches did not accept the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and it was necessary to start again from there. We emerged from that meeting with the recognition that the differences between us do not relate to the faith, but to certain modes of expression. In 1984 the Pope and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch signed a common profession of faith about the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the mutual hospitality in the sacraments of recon­ciliation, of the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick, where there are urgent cases. Today we want to go into the ecclesiological issues and the Petrine primacy.
The western section?
We can see that in the Churches of the Reformed tradition a lot of fragmentation is taking place.
So the first necessity is to discuss with the Reformed the nature of the Church, because the Dominus Iesus declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that there are no Churches in the proper sense in the Protestant world but ecclesial communities. And in the interview-book Light of the world, Pope Benedict says that what we see here is another type of Church. Indeed that’s how it is, and it’s not for us to define the ecclesial concept of the Churches of the Reformation, but it’s up to them. That’s why we need to discuss the nature of the Church: in fact each denomination has its own conception of what unity is internally. Among the aims of the ecumenical movement is that of rediscovering that multiplicity, given that there are various and competing denominational ideas on the theme of unity.
A second aspect is the great change that is taking root in the thinking of the Reformed communities: they no longer see visible unity in faith, sacraments and ministry as the goal of the ecumenical movement, but want the permanent presence of a plurality of Churches which recognize each other, all of which together would finally result in the Church of Christ. A little like households, from which every so often comes an invitation to the neighbors to join in some celebration. The Catholics and the Orthodox do not like that position. This is not the single and undivided body of Christ, that is it does not correspond to the prayer of Jesus that the disciples be united, as are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What is the appropriate response?
No common path can be found outside of ecumenical spirituality, that is, without prayer.
The ecumenical movement was born with the proposal for the January Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The idea came from an Anglican convert to Catholicism, Paul Wattson, and from an American Episcopalian, Spencer Jones, and it gradually won papal support in recent times, and was further gone into by Paul Couturier, a leading figure in ecumenical spirituality. It is a reminder that we humans can’t achieve this unity, we can maybe arrange some transitional historical situation, which the Holy Spirit then makes use of.
That is the basis of ecumenism, and I would like to further it during my term of office.
Earlier you said that in the discussion among Christians, there is no shared meaning for unity. What do you propose?
Unity in the same faith, in the celebration of the sacraments and in recognition of the ministries in the Church does not mean leveling, because the differences between the Churches exist and it isn’t necessary to remove them. We only need to be rid of the ones that led to the rupture amongst us and require healing. The others… let them remain. Pope Benedict has reiterated to the Anglicans who want to enter the Catholic Church: you can keep your traditions. There, that is unity in diversity and diversity in unity: otherwise there is only a leveling unification, foreign to the very essence of Catholicism. The set of religious orders and forms of ecclesial life make a garden with many flowers in the history of the Church and we don’t want to replace them with a single crop, the Church is not so. The same applies in the field of ecumenism.
The journey shared with the Anglicans advanced with the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus.
The Church of England was created because the Pope did not accept the second marriage of the king, and that in some way assured that the Anglicans remained, at bottom, more Catholic than others. In the Roman Curia we have a clear separation of competences. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is responsible for Anglicanorum coetibus, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity continues with the ecumenical dialogue.
Let’s go back to the different conceptions of unity.
There are, we were saying, two styles of ecumenism. The one seeks for visible unity, works and prays for that. The other leaves intact the plurality of today, codifies it, and asks for ultimate recognition of all the Churches as shareholders in the Church of Christ. The Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran bishops who support the first way are happy that the Holy See proposes unity and plurality, the others are less so. In his homily at Vespers for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Benedict said that we cannot renounce the goal of ecumenism, that is visible unity in faith, in the sacraments and in the ministry.
There is more than one passage in the text of the Ecumenical Directory pointing out that there are means of salvation outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ is not an abstract idea, which does not yet exist, but is in the Catholic Church, understood as historical subject. And that does not mean that Catholics are better Christians than others, but only that the means of salvation exist in the Catholic Church. It is an objective fact. So when I hear that there are Protestant believers who wish to become Catholics I say to them: “You need not give anything up, you get something more”, that is, the means of salvation in the Catholic Church. These are not a merit of the Church, but a gift from the Lord.
By that it’s already understood that in other ecclesial communities the means of salvation exist.
A moment in the celebration of Vespers presided over by Benedict XVI on the Feastday of the Conversion of St Paul the Apostle, at the end of the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, 25 January 2011 <BR>[© Osservatore Romano]

A moment in the celebration of Vespers presided over by Benedict XVI on the Feastday of the Conversion of St Paul the Apostle, at the end of the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, 25 January 2011
[© Osservatore Romano]

What is the nub of the dialogue with the Churches of the Reformation?
With them we certainly can’t start from the primacy. With the Reformation another Church came into being, and that was not what Luther was looking for, he called for the renewal of the Catholic Church. The Protestant ecumenist Wolfhart Pannenberg has said that the existence of new Churches is not the success but the failure of the Reformation. That opinion helps me a lot with a view to the year 2017, the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, because I ask myself how the Protestants themselves see the Reformation today: a commitment to the renewal of the Church or a break? I personally am very interested that the Reformed should speak not only of the five hundred years after the break, but also and above all of the two thousand years of the life of the Church, of which fifteen hundred were spent together. I am very happy that the president of the Evangelical community in Switzerland, Pastor Gottfried Locher, has described himself not as a Protestant but as a reformed Catholic. That is as a Catholic with the experience of the Reformation, maintaining also the foundation of the same apostolic faith, shared up to 1517. It’s my hope that things be looked at in this way.
Do you think that work can also be done for the unity of the Church in China?
So far we have not had the chance. It is primarily the responsibility of the Secretary of State. We know the delicacy of that situation and the delicacy of the letter, full of compassion, which Pope Benedict wrote to the Chinese faithful in 2007. If our Council can help in the future, well and good...
In what way?
That will depend on what the competent bodies of the Curia may ask. But for China, in my personal prayer, I already do everything I can.
In dialogue with Jews cues for the talking-points are there. Let’s begin with an indication from the book-interview of the Pope, following what St Paul declared about the relationship between Christians and Jews.
I’m sure of the worth of what St Paul passed on to us, he still helps us today. I’m also certain that the Pope has followed St Paul in drafting the new version of the Good Friday prayer. Pope Benedict is very sensitive to the Jewish theme, starting with the fact that he no longer calls the Jews our “elder brothers”, knowing full well how problematic the definition of “elder brother” is in the Old Testament. I’d like to go deeper into theological discussion.
On what issues?
Christians believe in the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ, on the other hand people say that a mission to the Jews is absolutely impossible. How can these two statements not be incompatible? That’s another reason why the new Good Friday prayer has stirred so much debate.
I’d like to get a better understanding of what the Christian faith and the relationship between Jews and Christians mean to a Jew. Pope Benedict’s dialogue with Rabbi Neusner, in the first part of the book, Jesus of Nazareth, is important for me, it’s precisely the theological dialogue that I imagine. And about a systematic mission to the Jews... the Church is not seeking it. But we Christians confess our faith in Jesus, and we lay it freely before the freedom of others.
Is there a Leitmotiv in your work since you’ve been in Rome?
Some people claim that Benedict XVI is not interested in ecumenism with the Churches born out of the Reformation, since the Orthodox Churches are closer to us, and this claim is not true. When the Pope asked me to take this assignment, he said that it was necessary to have a person who knew of the ecclesial communities born out of Reformation not only through study but out of experience. The Pope has great hope in the ecumenical movement. In fact, we have this text, the Ecumenical Directory, which reminds us that every bishop in his diocese is the main person responsible for ecumenism. This document will always be useful to everybody to read and use. In every diocese there are particular ecumenical situations and the local bishop has the main responsibility for them. Our Pontifical Council also wants to be at the service of the local church when this is asked and desired.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português