Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Bishop Emeritus of Basel, was born in Emmenbrücke, Diocese of Basel (Switzerland), on 15 March 1950. The son of a tradesman and a housewife, he concluded his elementary education in his home town, and completed his secondary education in Lucerne in 1970. He subsequently studied Catholic theology at the Faculty of Lucerne until 1975, followed by two years of specialist study in Münich.
He has had an interest in ecumenism since his youth. At the age of twelve, he was “shaken and distressed” in reading the Passion of Christ because “the Roman soldiers did not want to divide Christ’s tunic, while Christians themselves have done so, dividing the one body of Christ”. This period coincided with the Second Vatican Council, “a great event in the furrow of the living tradition”. Later, his studies brought ecumenism fully into the scope of his theological concerns. After receiving his degree in Lucerne in 1975, he undertook pastoral work in the parish of Sursee. From 1976 to 1978, he worked on a research project with the Episcopal Commission Iustitia et Pax, together with Professor Franz Furger, on questions relating to human life in contemporary society from the Christian ethical point of view. From 1979 to 1982 he was a university assistant in the field of systematic theology at the Theology Faculty of Lucerne.
Ordained a priest on 20 June 1982, he worked as vicar of the parish of St Marien in Bern until 1985. At the same time, he was invited for a semester as professor in fundamental theology at the Catholic Faculty of Fribourg. He completed his doctorate in Lucerne in 1987 with a thesis on “The God of History. The Theology of History in Wolfhart Pannenberg as a Paradigm of a Philosophical Theology in the Ecumenical Perspective”. From 1982 to 1989 he was a lecturer in dogmatic and moral theology at the Educational Institute of the Faculty of Lucerne, and a lecturer in fundamental theology in a course for lay Catholics in Zurich. In 1989 he became the professor of dogmatics and liturgy at the Faculty of Lucerne, as well as professor of ecumenical theology at the Educational Institute.
On 6 December 1995 John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Basel, the largest Swiss diocese. He received his episcopal ordination on 6 January 1996, choosing the motto Ut sit in omnibus Christus primatum tenens, “That Christ be before everything”, inspired by the Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians, calling to mind “with this Christocentric phrase the very foundation of the Church, that is the fact that Christ is the true and proper bishop of his Church”. In June 2004 he welcomed Pope Wojtyła to Bern, where an encounter was organized with the youth aimed at “restarting evangelization in Switzerland through the transmission of faith”, which is his other great pastoral concern together with ecumenism.
His primary commitment in Basel was promoting the deepening of faith. To this end, and in view also of the Holy Year in 2000, he initiated the initiative “To Live as Baptised” aimed at reaffirming the dignity and mission of every Christian. He introduced a pastoral development plan in the diocese to encourage believers in their responsibility as witnesses, creating “pastoral spaces aimed at better coordinating the welfare of the faithful in the contemporary situation”.
From 1998 to 2006 he was Vice–President of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, and President from 2007 to 2009.
On 1 July 2010 Benedict XVI nominated him President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, of which he was a member from 2002, elevating him at the same time to the status of Archbishop.
At the end of August 2010 Benedict XVI entrusted him with the role of main speaker at the encounter with his ex–students — gathered together in the so–called Ratzinger Schülerkreis (Ratzinger Circle of Alumni) — at Castel Gandolfo, where he held two conferences, namely on the correct interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and on liturgical reform.
On 16 October of the same year he was nominated a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He is also a member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and since 2013 also of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for Bishops.
Pope Benedict XVI created him a Cardinal in the Consistory of 20 November 2010, with possession as Deacon of the church of Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore.
He has published a wide range of publications since 1978.