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Hans Küng: an ageing enfant terrible going nowhere

Even at Vatican II, he was regarded as ‘incendiary, superficial, and polemical’. The contrast with Pope Benedict XVI is stark

By on Thursday, 12 May 2011

Hans Küng is pictured in his office in Tübingen, Germany, in 2008 (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

Hans Küng is pictured in his office in Tübingen, Germany, in 2008 (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

How important is the personal character of individual theologians to the intellectual conclusions at which they arrive? Consider, first, the character of the Jesuit Henri de Lubac, who according to Cardinal Avery Dulles, even throughout times of great adversity,

…remained staunchly committed to the Catholic tradition in its purity and plenitude. He humbly and gratefully accepted what the tradition had to offer and made it come alive through his eloquent prose and his keen sense of contemporary actualities. His eminent success in enkindling love for Christ and the Church in the hearts of his readers stemmed, no doubt, from his own devotion, humility and selfless desire to serve.

This humble gratitude for the traditio had a profound effect on his assessment of the post-conciliar years. De Lubac, wrote Cardinal Dulles, perceived in postconciliar Catholicism “a self-destructive tendency to separate the spirit of the council from its letter … The turmoil of the postconciliar period seemed to de Lubac to emanate from a spirit of worldly contention quite opposed to the Gospel.”

De Lubac was, of course, a peritus (appointed by John XXIII to advise him personally) at the Second Vatican Council. Afterwards, he published a Vatican II diary, which contained an interesting assessment of two of his fellow periti, Fr Joseph Ratzinger and Fr Hans Küng. It is uncannily perceptive; and it enables us to look in a new way at the theological discord between them, which grew so much over the years, as being not only a difference of intellectual analysis, but as deriving also from a profound difference of character: the young Fr Ratzinger is portrayed as one whose powerful intellect is matched by his “peacefulness” and “affability”. Fr Küng, by contrast, is described as possessing a “juvenile audacity” and speaking in “incendiary, superficial, and polemical” terms. These quotations are made in a recent article by Samuel Gregg, who goes on to remind us of what happened to these two later: “Ratzinger emerged as a formidable defender of Catholic orthodoxy and was eventually elected pope. Küng became a theological celebrity [nice one] and antagonist of the papacy.” Küng had his licence to teach Catholic theology removed after he denied papal infallibility: but he is still a Catholic priest in good standing, a fact which puzzles many: I suspect he has not been forcibly laicised because it is just what he would like to happen: his claim to a liberal martyr’s crown would then be unassailable.

The contrast between the two men was pointed recently when both men brought out books on the same day: the Pope published his Jesus of Nazareth, part II; and Küng, the “theological celebrity” published what sounds like his usual (to use de Lubac’s words) “incendiary, superficial, and polemical” anti-papal and anti-Catholic ravings. According to one report:

Controversial Swiss-born Catholic theologian Hans Küng on Wednesday launched a new book attacking papal authority and calling on rank-and-file Catholics to seize control of the church from its clerical masters…. Speaking at the book launch in Tübingen, Germany… the 82-year-old said Jesus Christ would not like today’s Catholic Church. “If Jesus of Nazareth returned, he would not prohibit contraceptives, he would not shut out divorced people, and so on,” Küng said.

He charged that the curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, had come up with a long series of rulings over the centuries that opposed the teachings laid down in the Christian New Testament. He said Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II had reinforced this.

In the book, he argues that resistance to church doctrines that are “obviously against the Gospels” is a duty. Küng said this included Catholic parishes insisting on keeping their priests after they marry, even if church law declares the man is no longer a priest. He said the church could only saved by the faithful taking over responsibility for their church.

So, nothing new there, then, except Küng’s question, the book’s title: Can the Church Still be Saved? To which the answer, surely, is that the first thing it needed to be saved from is him and his like; and that thanks to the last two popes it has already been, however much remains to be done. That at least has been achieved: the routing of what Küng and his pals (as part of their programme of unceasing self-promotion) insolently termed the “alternative magisterium”.

What’s wrong with Küng, and what’s right with Pope Benedict, emerges absolutely clearly from the contrast between their respective understandings of the person of Christ Himself. As Gregg puts it, “from [the pope’s book] Jesus of Nazareth’s first pages, it’s clear Benedict is focused upon knowing the truth about Christ as He is rather than who we might prefer Him to be”. Küng’s Jesus on the other hand “is one who would apparently disavow his own teachings on subjects such as marriage because they don’t conform to 21st-century secularist morality. Instead, Küng’s Christ faithfully follows the views of, well, progressive post-Vatican II German theologians”.

There’s another contrast between the two men. At 82, Küng is finished, intellectually. He is consumed by anger; all he can do is repeat himself. But Pope Benedict’s mind and spirit grow ever deeper. He is not angry, but serene. His books emanate from a man who is still travelling, ever more profoundly, into the Mystery of Christ, whose Vicar he truly is, may God be praised.

So, the contrast between their views of Christ is, in the end, also a contrast between the characters of the two men. Hans Küng’s character was already very evident by the time of the Council itself, and not just to de Lubac; a fellow progressive has recalled how he called him aside one day, after he screeched to a halt in a bright red sports car, to warn him: “Hans, you are becoming too evident.” The story was recalled last year in an open letter to Küng from George Weigel published in First Things:

As the man who single-handedly invented a new global personality-type – the dissident theologian as international media star – you were not, I take it, overly distressed by your friend’s warning. In 1963, you were already determined to cut a singular path for yourself, and you were media-savvy enough to know that a world press obsessed with the man-bites-dog story of the dissenting priest-theologian would give you a megaphone for your views. You were, I take it, unhappy with the late John Paul II for trying to dismantle that story-line by removing your ecclesiastical mandate to teach as a professor of Catholic theology; your subsequent, snarling put-down of Karol Wojtyla’s alleged intellectual inferiority in one volume of your memoirs ranked, until recently, as the low-point of a polemical career in which you have become most evident as a man who can concede little intelligence, decency, or good will in his opponents.

He was responding to another open letter from Küng himself, to the bishops of the world – who had of course been panting for his guidance (not) – neatly summed up by the Irish Times in its standfirst: “Pope Benedict has made worse just about everything that is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church and is directly responsible for engineering the global cover-up of child rape perpetrated by priests, according to this open letter to all Catholic bishops”.

Of that, I say nothing: read it for yourself, then read George Weigel’s whole article in First Things. To the Irish Times standfirst Weigel says simply this:

I recognise that authors do not write the sometimes awful subheads that are put on op-ed pieces [actually the Irish Times’s is quite accurate]. Nonetheless, you authored a piece of vitriol – itself utterly unbecoming a priest, an intellectual, or a gentleman… That grotesque falsification of the truth perhaps demonstrates where odium theologicum can lead a man. But it is nonetheless shameful.

Shameful, indeed: and there will be no shame from its author. But what do you expect from a self-constructed theological celebrity, who knows that his media strategy absolutely depends on maintaining and escalating ad infinitum his own brazen impenitence?

  • The Raven

    Remind me, what terrible “consequences” have been visited on Fr Küng? The revocation of his license to teach Catholic theology does not seem to have materially impacted upon his earnings (nor his role as the “go to” rentaquote for the secularist press); the. CDF hasn’t revived the rack as a means of dealing with recalcitrant theologians; he hasn’t been laïcised or even, so far as I can tell, disciplined by his bishop.

  • RJ

    Interesting comment on the effect of reading de Lubac: I find the same with Pope Benedict – he is not just writing theology in the academic sense but something which exudes and inspires faith and prayer.

  • Martin

    Hans Kung has strengthened the faith of very many people with his open, inclusive, broadminded approach.

  • Josephsoleary

     It is not about money, you know. Kung is a priest in good standing and his academic stature has grown because he keeps at his task while others have chosen silence or just been lazy.

    The really damaging “consequences” are for the health of Catholic theology. The enrolment at grad schools of theology in the US is down by 25% for Catholics, only 6% for Protestants.

    No one wants to pursue research in an atmosphere inimical to academic freedom. No one wants to teach Catholic theology.

    Several Catholic theologians have been forced to seek employment in Protestant schools or even to join another Church. It was just not possible for them to pursue their vocation and use their gifts in the Cathollc world.

  • Josephsoleary

    A neo-con is easy to define: someone who advocated the 2003 war with Iraq. 

  • Josephsoleary

    Let’s not forget that when Weigel was  chanting the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld mantras, Hans Küng gave a luminous account in Der Spiegel of the 6 reasons why an invasion of Iraq would not meet Catholic criteria of a just war. The Swiss theologian was of one mind with the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury on this. It is not for nothing that he was awarded the prestigious Niwano Peace Prize here in Tokyo in 2005.


    “An aging enfant terrible going nowhere?” Balderdash! Kung is 82. Not “aging,” Mr. Odd, but “aged.” “Going nowhere?” He’s published six times as many books (and more impressive books) as Joe Ratzinger, so I’d say he’s already “been there.” Would you describe an Einstein at the end of his days, after his distinguished scientific breakthroughs, the first of them, the theory of relativity while a young man, as “an aging enfant terrible going nowhere?” I respect Hans Kung. I do not respect Joseph Ratzinger nearly as much as I used to after his sacking of Bishop Morris in Australia. Papalofascism? I think so. Robert Blair Kaiser

  • The Raven

    Let’s unpack that a bit:

    In the US, as in the UK, academic faculties are, on the whole, dominated by people that have followed followed Küng and people of a similar theological outlook. To judge from the numbers you quote, the consequences are that young people are turned off studying a subject that is shaped by such a predominantly modernist outlook.

    I note that the numbers have declined far less steeply in the Protestant institutions and would be inclined to point out that many US Protestant denominations have retained a markedly conservative theological outlook (I note that the denominations that have embraced “progressive” theology, like TEC and some Lutheran groups, are seeing an even steeper decline than we are).

    I note that some theologians have had to change church because their beliefs are not compatible with Catholicism. That is a shame, but orthodoxy is only so elastic.

  • Josephsoleary

    You may be right and that only fundamentalists are seeing a rise in numbers of faithful and theologians.

    A discussion can be found here: 

  • Ken Purdie

    But don t disagree too much on “Pray Tell ” Raven ,they will remove you. They do not like dissent from their views! Yes its unbelievable! 

  • Ken Purdie

     Oh goody Father. I am not a Neo-Con! Deo Gratias.

  • Josephsoleary

    Have you actually been removed or is this supposition? 

  • The Raven

    Who said anything about fundamentalists?

  • The Raven

    To be honest, Ken, I have to avoid “Pray Tell”, as I have a long standing allergy to smugness.

  • Josephsoleary

    Hans Kung is very popular with women, whereas men  dislike him — his big ego clashes with their own, and his success inspires envy in his fellow-theologians. Hans is one of the very few male Catholic theologians who have written well about women. Naturally one could not expect anything like this from Ratzinger.

  • Josephsoleary

     Vatican II speaks of the infallibility of the faithful and of their priestly, prophetic and kingly roles. But Ratzinger’s Vatican gives no opportunity to the faithful to speak. Or it defines the faithful narrowly — along the lines of Opus Dei, NFP fans, and mass rallies.

  • Josephsoleary

     Hans Kung condemns the Vatican’s “merciless extremism” on abortion:

  • Dale Price

    Thank you for making your imprecision my problem.  That’s always pleasant.  Last time I checked, humor meant “the ability to perceive, appreciate, or express what is funny, amusing, or ludicrous” or 
    “the expression of this in speech, writing, or action.”  Granted, it also means “any fluid or fluidlike substance of the body,” so perhaps you mean the Swiss theologian’s aqueous is well-balanced.

    I’ll decline to engage you on your gossipy change of subject to the Pope.  Though I certainly understand the motivation–the prospect of having to defend Kung against the charge of ungracious, prickly egocentrism would send the most accomplished barrister straight to the scotch.

  • Ken Purdie

    Anything I post on there no longer sees the light of day. I can t say I lose any sleep over it.  Rita and Fr Roff, Enfants Terribles.he he

  • Jason Clifford

    Having read books by Pope Benedict XVI and having read the rants of Kung I believe you have that completely backwards.

    The Holy Father repeatedly shows himself to be able and willing to fearlessly consider what others have written and to give very honest responses. He enters into the kind of conversation with others, particularly those who do not share his beliefs and faith, that leaves them certain that they have been heard and understood properly even if he is clear that he does not agree with them.

    Benedict’s two volumes of Jesus of Nazareth absolutely prove this – particularly the first volume with it’s conversation with Rabbi Jacob Neusner.

  • Josephsoleary

     I thought the dialogue with Neusner was selective and almost opportunistic. Kung dialogues more widely with Jews:

  • Josephsoleary

     What name do you post under?

  • Dale Price

     Though, I suppose, fairness should compel me to acknowledge that Kung is a sharp man (in all senses of the word), capable of writing first class material (e.g., “Does God Exist?”).  But he carries too many lovingly-nursed grudges to write clearly about Catholicism these days.

  • Josephsoleary

    You surely do not need to look up a dictionary to know the meaning of common expressions? Humor can mean:A person’s characteristic disposition or temperament: a boy of sullen humor. Kung is a man of good humor.

    Ungracious, prickly egocentrism — so what? — you don’t judge theology by personality. And some accuse Ratzinger of equally grave character defects.

  • Josephsoleary

    Put it like this: Kung’s faults hurt no one but himself; Ratzinger’s negative mindset has hurt us all for the last 30 years. He embodies a hurting, dysfunctional Church.

  • Josephsoleary

     Actually Ratzinger wrote something similar about conscience versus the Pope.

    When a Pope taught that slavery is natural and lawful, at the very moment when abolitionists were beginning to succeed, would it not have been right to resist him?

  • Ken Purdie

    Negative mindset?? Please expand. 

  • Ken Purdie

    I do not post any more. In fact I no longer even look on it. It is so disloyal, and infact, one ore two of the regular posters are personally insulting. Naming no names. 

  • Ken Purdie

    As the late great Alice Thomas Ellis said..” There is nothing more cross, than a crossed liberal”!

  • Ken Purdie

    Funny, you do not know how to spell “humour “. Affected by America in more ways than one it would seem.

  • Josephsoleary

    Just read his notorious Messori interview. His SP, a document of doubtful legality, is the fruit of decades of solipsistic ranting against the new liturgy. His Jesus book scotches the prophet Isaiah as one who was deluded about peace and justice. His Regensburg speech managed to say that Islam only produced violence. Since about 1970 he has a disapproving and suspicious look in his eyes — depressive, paranoid, control freak.

  • Josephsoleary

     I think you must have posted under a nickname. Some of my posts failed to go through for the reason that I forgot their simple rule:  only posts with your full name are accepted.

  • Tomans

    Good heavens, is he still alive?

  • Nick

    Of course he is. Just yesterday he wrote a rant about how the Church should baptize in name
    of Gramsci, Foucault and Marcuse. And sodomy, adultery and abortion should be sacraments.

    I really admire his courage. He has the bravery to stick it to the man. That is why the media hates him.

    He is not like Ratzinger, that superficial midget that writes everything the media wants to hear.

  • Nick

    (Before you freak out, I’m just making fun of  Josephsoleary).

  • Nick

    >  Hans Kung is very popular with women,

    Any evidence of that, or is that just your observation?

    On the subject of abortion, for example, slightly MORE women than men are pro-life. Despite the extremely vocal hard feminists, most women have a heart and love babies.

    Legalizing abortion is as much “for women” as soviet socialism was “for the poor”.

    By the way, Hans Kung supports baby-murder.

  • Nick

    > Anyone who speaks his mind without fearing the consequences is an
    exception in the modern church and
    >  shows the gospel virtue of parrhesia.

    Yest. Like John Paul II, who would preach the gospel under the threat of communism. His life was attacked twice.

    Or Benedict XVI, who preaches the gospel despite the media hatred and slander of him.

    Not Hans Kung, who wraps political correctness with a Christian language and gets rich in the process.

  • Nick

    > Type your comment here.The really damaging “consequences” are for the health of Catholic theology.
    > The enrolment at grad schools of theology in the US is down by 25% for Catholics, only 6% for
    > Protestants.

    Oh, Catholic vs Protestant? Let’s play that game.

    On one side we have Anglican communion, the Episcopal “church”, the Presbyterian Church and other Kung-like liberal protestant “churches”. In the US, these groups diminished from 50% to 18% of the population in a few decades; they are not simply declining, but collapsing.

    On the other side we have the Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Evangelicals. All growing.

  • Nick

    Oh, Benedict’s “negative mindset” hurts us.

    I mean, it is not like he was the great friend of John Paul II the great, a cheerful man loved and now venerated by the youth.

    It is not like the youth partied when Benedict was elected.

    It is not like the Catholic Church is growing, while the Kung-like liberal Protestant Churches are collapsing.

    Finally, it is not like benedict XVI is an intellectual giant – not only on philosophy and theology but also on social sciences.

    Really, Benedict XVI is a midget who only complains. He compensates for his intellectual deficiencies (poor sod!) by calling names and complaining all the time. He loves to write insulting open letters.

     Hans Kung on the other hand is a genious, well-humored, polite, which is why the Christian youth loves him. What’s more, he is brave and speaks  against the tide, which is why socialists, feminists, and journalists hate him. He is a very suffering man, but he manages to be cheerful.


  • Nick

    > His Regensburg speech managed to say that Islam only produced violence.
    What? Have you even read it? I did.

    > Since about 1970 he has a disapproving and suspicious look in his eyes — depressive, paranoid, control
    > freak.

    WHAT!? Can you possibly be even serious?

    Really, who are you? How old are you? Are you per chance a revolted 68er, angry because your dream of a free-sex-and-abortion Church has not materialized and never will?

  • Nick

     If Kung didn’t spend 80% of his time insulting the Church and John Paul II personally, you could complain about ad hominem.

  • Nick

    From my reading of the Bible, prophets are usually brave men who endure much suffering to denounce the evils of the world. They defy the spirit of the world and preach what God wants.

    I have never heard of a prophet who spent his time speaking precisely what people wanted to hear (“divorce is good! Abortion can be accepted!”) and got rich for it.

    If that is a prophet, then we have 100s of prophets in Holywood.

  • Nick

    > Hans Kung has strengthened the faith of very many people with his open, inclusive, broadminded
    > approach.

    Strengthened the faith? By preaching for abortion?

    We are supposed to have faith in God, not faith in the devil.

  • Nick

    You don’t seem to have all the facts of Australia.

    Lay Catholics are, in fact, puzzled about why is the Pope so soft-hearted with loony bishops.

  • Michael C.

    People like Hans Kung are more interested in getting attention through dissent than being true to God and His Church.  But I guess that was what his generation was all about – me me me.   Very sad.

  • Ken Purdie

    Of course Christians would content that it is abortion that is merciless. 

  • Ken Purdie

    Good God. I am beginning to wonder if you really are a Priest.
     Anyone who has heard the Holy Father speaking realises just what nonsense you spout. I had the privilege of hearing him in Scotland. Without exception his sermons and speeches in the UK were a joy to listen to. The Westminster Hall speech was so good as to be off the radar.
     I suggest you read his book “Light of the World”. If its not too late for you, you may be pleasantly surprised.

  • Ken Purdie

    Originally from Cork( perhaps the late Bishop Lucey traumatised him!) He now works in Japan as a Priest believe it or not!

  • Ken Purdie

    They were under my name.  

  • Josephsoleary

     Not all Christians. Do you stand with the Brazilian bishop who would force a raped 12 year old to bear her child under pain of excommunication, or with the US bishop who condemned a hospital for aborting to save the mother’s life?