The Problem of Europe’s Weak Christianity: An interview with Cardinal Kurt Koch, Part 1

"The presence of Islam in Europe calls into question a problematic fundamental conviction in Western societies: that religion should be shoved aside into the private sphere of the individual human being."

Editor’s note (updated): The following interview with Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was conducted by Armin Schwibach and published at on July 18, 2016. Part 2 of this interview, “The Greatness of Benedict XVI”, was published on July 23. The interview has been translated for CWR by Michael J. Miller.

Your Eminence, as a representative of the Holy See, you observed the proceedings of the so-called Pan-Orthodox Council on the island of Crete (June 2016). During the press conference during the return flight from his Apostolic Journey to Armenia, Pope Francis was asked his judgment about this gathering, which he described as positive. Despite the absence of the Patriarchs of four autocephalous Churches, among them Kyrill, the Patriarch of the largest Orthodox Church, he said that these were “first steps” that had been made “as well can be expected”. The Pope made a comparison with crawling children who are slowly learning to walk. 

What is your judgment of the method, proceedings and result of the conciliar process? What is the relative importance of the documents that it issued? Will it be possible to reach a broader consensus starting from these documents? 

Cardinal Koch: The fact that the Council took place at all should be regarded as a positive development. Shortly before it began, that seemed to be in question, on account of the non-participation of the four Churches. The task at hand now is the reception of these documents. Of course they are not of a dogmatic nature. For the Orthodox Churches do not have the impression that questions of faith are debatable within Orthodoxy. Rather, the questions that were discussed are pastoral and disciplinary. Consequently we are talking, to some extent, about little steps. When I think about the document on the diaspora, the big problem with it is the fact that in the current situation of the diaspora, now as before, a fundamental principle of Orthodoxy is violated, namely, that there can be only one bishop in a city. Granted, with the establishment of Orthodox bishops’ conferences in various countries a step has been taken, but the problem has really not yet been solved. 

The document that was debated the most at the Council was the one about ecumenism, because within Orthodoxy there are obviously different trends in this regard. The one trend is ecumenically very open, whereas another trend is rather apprehensive. From what I have heard, there was a long debate also about how other Christian churches should be designated, whether or not they can be called churches at all. After long wrangling they found a compromise formula: the Orthodox acknowledge their historical designation as Churches. What that means more precisely will of course have to be analyzed, even and especially in the case of the dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church. 

Another difficulty is that the document makes no distinction between the Catholic Church, which exhibits the same ecclesial structures as the Orthodox Church, and the other churches. This may be connected with the fact that the concept of degrees of membership in the Church, as formulated at the Second Vatican Council, is foreign to Orthodoxy, so that they judge according to the principle of “all or nothing.” This of course does not make dialogue easy. In my opinion, though, it is good that this document was accepted by the Council too. This should be taken as a clear signal that the ecumenical relations and dialogues should continue. 

Another question that remains after the Council is: what can be done by the Churches that did not participate in the Council? Now they have the opportunity to express their views about the conciliar documents and to accept them. Indeed, in Orthodoxy it is important that conciliar decisions really be approved [rezipiert]. This process can begin now.

Do you see any possibility of comparing this Synod with Vatican Council II? 

Cardinal Koch: As far as the relative importance of the Pan-Orthodox Council is concerned, it should be noted that its character is different from that of the Second Vatican Council. The latter did not have such a long preparatory period, which took place at the highest level, and yet it lasted for three years. Moreover, the Pan-Orthodox Council, as already mentioned, treated no dogmatic questions in the strict sense, but primarily pastoral and disciplinary questions. In contrast, Vatican Council II had a dogmatic quality also, which is visible especially in the Dogmatic Constitutions on Divine Revelation and the Church. There might prove to be a certain similarity in the course [of the two Councils]: As Vatican Council II was being prepared, quite a few thought that it might play itself out in a couple of weeks; this couple of weeks, however, then became three years. I can imagine a similar development in the case of the Orthodox, too: that after the experience of a one-week Council most of them will be convinced that there is a need for another Council in the foreseeable future. 

In late May of this year, in your capacity as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity [sic; actually:] as President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, you gave a lecture at the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, Great Britain. In connection with the problem of the current mass immigration of people to Europe from Muslim cultural areas, it was reported in sound bites by several media outlets worldwide that you allegedly spoke about the duties of Christians to conduct a mission to the Muslims, which was understood by some as a “call to proselytism”. This incident prompted the director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., to issue a statement: “It is incorrect to attribute to Cardinal Koch an invitation to proselytize Muslim believers.” 

Given the massive influx of Muslims, where do you see an opportunity and a duty of the Church, in a Europe that increasingly suffers from amnesia about its Christian roots?

Cardinal Koch: The context in Cambridge was a conference with Jews about deepening the theological dialogue between Christians and Jews. In that connection I emphasized that the Church’s commission to evangelize cannot be carried out in the same way with regard to the Jews as it is with regard to other religions. I also said in an interview that a conversion is necessary for all who perform violent acts in the name of religion. Out of these statements a newspaper then made up a false headline, as though I had said that all Muslims must be converted. 

For the Catholic Church it is self-evident that she has a commission to evangelize all people and therefore witnesses to her faith. The question is the manner in which she carries out this order to evangelize. In this connection, the Catholic Church champions the conviction that proselytism is not the way to go about it. Pope Benedict XVI said this clearly in his substantial homily at the inauguration of the General Assembly of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida in the year 2007: “The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’: just as Christ ‘draws all to himself’ by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.” The question is therefore not whether or not the Church does missionary work, but rather how she does it. 

In German this can be expressed also with this distinction: The Church wants to convince [überzeugen] people, but not talk people into [überreden] accepting the faith. For talking someone into believing is a method that does not respect the other person’s freedom, whereas convincing occurs within the space of a human being’s freedom. This desire to convince, naturally, is necessary in the conversation with Islam too. The Church has the commission to evangelize, which she carries out, however, in a dialogical way by entering “into a conversation” with the Muslims too. 

Is the promotion of Islam (establishing Islamic centers, mosques, greetings at Ramadan, Islamic instruction in the schools, Islamic holidays, etc.), by representatives of the Catholic hierarchy, of all people, the right thing to do? How can Christianity, which has grown “cold”, position itself vis-à-vis the “hot” Islamic religion? 

Cardinal Koch: It is right to help Muslims make it possible to live out their faith in our democratic societies. What I miss somewhat is this: people do not demand just as clearly of Islamic countries the same policy toward Christians. You can stand up credibly for the establishment of Islamic institutions in our Western societies only if you simultaneously stand up, for example, for the reopening of the Greek Orthodox secondary school on the island of Halki in Turkey. We should insist still more on reciprocity in this area. 

The presence of Islam in Europe calls into question a problematic fundamental conviction in Western societies: that religion should be shoved aside into the private sphere of the individual human being. In contrast, Islam understands itself as a public religion that also intends to be publicly visible. Islam in Europe is a provocation also inasmuch as the far-reaching privatization of religion must be corrected. After all, a society that pushes religion aside entirely into the private sphere cannot be capable of interreligious dialogue. 

If you contrast Christianity grown “cold” with the “hot” religion of Islam, this already points toward the appropriate therapy: Christianity in Europe can withstand the encounter with Islam only if it rediscovers the flowing stream of warmth within itself and does not hide the Christian roots of Europe out of false modesty, but rather stands by them. In this respect the problem today is not so much the strength of Islam as the weakness of Christianity in Europe. 

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