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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?

  • Josephsoleary

     I merely demonstrate that the kind of personality defects you folk find in Kung can also be found in his colleague of Tubingen days. His reaction to the students in 1968 was negative and neurotic. Both men are of course excellent priests, and both can give sunny sermons.

  • Josephsoleary

     Ratzinger’s negativity is as notorious as Kung’s vanity. I first got the full brunt of it when I read his misnamed book of 1981, Theologische Prinzipienlehre — Theological Doctrine of Principles. The book is little better than a constipated rant. He spent a lot of pages undercutting the status and authority of episcopal conferences (obviously he could not bear the freedom with which they responded to Paul VI in 1968) — since then episcopal conferences have been thoroughly emasculated by the Vatican (see what I mean when I say Ratzinger’s negativity hurts us all); he also accused Catholic communities who fail to produce vocations to celibacy of not being worthy to have priests at all. It would be nice to reread Matthew Fox’s NCR letter, “Dear Brother Ratzinger” which shows how dysfunctional the church family has become.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

    All Christians, and indeed all people of goodwill. The 5th commandment is unambiguous.
     I can think of no medical reason where DIRECT abortion can be certain to save a mothers life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

    You merely demonstrate a profound dislike for the present Holy Father. Not quite sure what a “sunny sermon” is.
     How long have you been in Japan? No-one in Ireland seems to have heard of you.

  • Josephsoleary

    I suppose you merely demonstrate a profound dislike for Kung? I dislike neither of them as men; I find their personalities bearable. But I do dislike the policy that JP2 and B16 have enacted, because I see it as a betrayal of many aspects of Vatican II, beginning with episcopal collegiality.

  • Josephsoleary

     No need to mock Bishop Lucey — he was a much-loved bishop.

  • Josephsoleary

    The basic point I make here is that Oddie and his followers substitute ad hominems for mature theological discussion, a technique that can easily boomerang. There are pros and cons on both sides of the Ratzinger-Kung debate, which the Vatican have failed to shut down. 

  • Josephsoleary

     But if some medical reason unknown to you would save the mother’s life by aborting the child, directly, you would unhesitatingly say, “let the mother die!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

    Very funny that “the episcopal conferences have been thoroughly emasculated by the Vatican. Of course it could be argued that the Church has been thoroughly emasculated by V2, and liturgies thereafter.
     You clearly have not read anything The Holy Father has written since he was chosen by the Holy Spirit. 1981 was 30 years ago. People change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

    He is who he is. He has an agenda. I do not know him, so I cannot comment. Like or dislike does not enter into it. I dont know the Holy Father either, but he is who he is too, his personality is irrelevant. When he was A Cardinal I had my doubts. But those have evaporated in the last few years.He gets very bad press, mostly undeserved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

     I am not sure Dr Oddie has any followers, in that sense. Unlike “Fr ” Kung. Who seems to like the little limelight he has left.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

    I was nt. He was a very good Bishop, and infact  I know some of his family.  

  • Josephsoleary

    You should not mock Kung either. as you do by calling him “Fr” in inverted commas. Mockery is catching. 

  • Josephsoleary
  • Nick

    >  since then episcopal conferences have been thoroughly emasculated by the
    Vatican (see what I mean when I say Ratzinger’s negativity hurts us
    all)

    In what sense did he “emasculate” episcopal conferences?

    At least in Brazil (which I know), the local Church was pretty crazy; they had forgotten God and dedicated themselves wholly to politics, and atheistic socialist politics at that. They supported violent Marxist bands that broke the law, practiced invasion and vandalism, and often killed people.

    When blessed John Paul the Great sent Joseph Ratzinger here, so that he took some mild action, things became slightly better. Priests are again preaching love of God, instead of hatred against the bourgeoisie.

    Faithful Catholics wonder “why is the Holy See so slow”?

  • Nick

    > Do you stand with the Brazilian bishop who would
    force a raped 12 year old to bear her child under pain of

    > excommunication

    1)  If I am thinking of the same case as you, the girl was not excomunicated. Only the adults were, specially the baby-butchers – I mean, “doctors” .
    2) The bishop did not excommunicate anyone; he merely _informed_ that intentionally dismembering babies cause excommunication latae sententiae.
    3) The innocent babies absolutely did not deserve to be butchered because of the sin of his father. I am perplexed that people even entertain this thought!
    4) I don’t know if the girl understood what happened. But one day she will. Then the trauma of being raped will be added to the trauma of knowing two babies were dismembered inside her body.

    > or with the US bishop who condemned a hospital for
    aborting to save the mother’s life?
    Direct abortion is always wrong. On the other hand, treatments that are necessary to save a woman’s life, can be accepted even if they _indirectly_ cause the baby’s death, provided certain conditions are met. One of the conditions is that every attempt is made to save the baby’s life.
    If that US hospital chose to simply butcher the baby, than they absolutely need to be condemned.

  • Nick

    Abortion for me unmasks the evil of liberation theology.

    These maniacs claim that they defend the “weak and oppressed”.
    Then they support that the most weak people, the babies, be killed by the most gruesome way – dismemberment. Inside their mother’s womb.

  • Nick

    What the modernist loons propose is not “consultation” of the faithful.

    They propose full democracy! They propose for example that bishops be chosen by vote.

    This is ridiculous. Democracy is good in civil government because government is compulsory, so it should reflect the will of the people.

    Church on the other hand is voluntary. If you don’t like the will of God, then leave. It is your choice to follow God or not; but don’t try to change God to suit your passions.

    In fact, if you want demoracy in Church, why not simply joining a democratic “church”. I suggest the episcopalians.  But be quick! They are collapsing. They spent decades aborting all their babies, and now in their “church”  there are only a handful of people, all elderly.
     

  • Josephsoleary

    Since 1978 people have been talking about “brutti tempi nella chiesa” – Ratzinger has been making this weather since 1981.  

  • Josephsoleary

    What a silly rejoinder. The book was called Der Islam. It was hailed by the ex Archbishop of Canterbury as a tour de force from the greatest living theologian. 

  • Josephsoleary

    “Get out of the Church if you don’t like it!” Why is it always rightwingers who reach for this gambit? What do they fear? Would you say the same to the poster below who complained that Vatican II emasculated the Church? Sadly the Catholic Herald does a very good job in telling many younger Catholics to get out of the Church — it is not the place for them.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Really? Most of my family and acquaintances date the bad times in the Church to the 60s and the post concilliar “reforms”.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Forgive me if I am unimpressed by the recommendation of George Carey.

  • Josephsoleary

    His vast works on Judaism, Islam etc, and his global ethic movement, clearly reveal a very industrious man who does not spend his time on insults. But indeed he laces his critique of our restorationist papacy with rather waspish personal comments.

  • Josephsoleary

    Calling for common sense and dialogue on this complex issue has nothing to  do with what you claim. Your moral panic does not help anyone.
     

  • Josephsoleary

    Fatima or Medjugorje leads you to premature “Christ or Satan” conclusions on every issue.

  • Josephsoleary

    You missed the great period of Vatican II. Most Catholics were very happy with the Council, as polls of the times show (as if it needed to be shown).

  • Josephsoleary

    But has the Church in Brazil not lost half its membership since Ratzinger et al. clamped down on the kind of thing represented by bishops such as the following? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A9lder_C%C3%A2mara 

  • Josephsoleary

    You decide what priests are in good standing, scoffing at priests you disagree with by mocking their ordination.

    You decide that Vatican II emasculated the Church.

    Kung is trailing far behind you in the arrogance stakes!

  • Josephsoleary

    True, Voice of the Faithful calls for lay election of bishops. Kung probably does not go so far. The idea of elected bishops is of course no innovation in Catholicism. In the early church it happened that the people shouted for the man they wanted made bishop, e.g. Ambrose of Milan.

  • Josephsoleary

    In the US hospital case the baby would not have survived either. The Catholic administration argued that their step was covered by Catholic morality. The bishop who condemned them seems to be a trigger-happy pro-life fanatic. Anyway, you can rest happy in your moral convictions: the 12 years old victim of rape and incest — must be forced to bear her child; the mother who will die giving life to a  child who cannot survive outside the womb — must die. Nick’s self-image as a good Catholic boy with a pat answer to everything will shine all the more brightly.

  • Nick

    > Calling for common sense
    Common sense tells that murder of an innocent person is heinous; doubly so if the person is a baby; even worse if the person is your own child.

    > and dialogue
    Except that they use “dialogue” as an euphemism for “make abortion propaganda”. Worse, they do it in the name of the Church.

    Let’s put the shoe on the other foot: if instead of calling for the murder of babies, some people in the Church were calling for the murder of dissident theologians, how would you feel?

  • Nick

     “rightwinger” – do you really have to see politics in everything? People who are faithful to Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium are _orthodox_, no “rightwinger.

    Second, it does make sense to leave the Church if you don’t believe in Tradition and Magisterium. In fact, staying does not make sense; cynical me thinks that Hans abortion Kung stays in the Catholic Church because, if he joined the episcopalians, he wouldn’t sell many books and wouldn’t get as much money.

    “episcopalian author defends abortion”  – so what?

    “Catholic theologian defends abortion” – Let’s read him!

  • Nick

     And speaking out against the greatest evil in the XXI century is not moral panic.

    Do you call anti-slavery abolitionism of the XIX century “moral panic”?

    The Catholic defense of life is merely a question of priorities. 50 million babies are butchered per year, worldwide.

  • Nick

    So what? The conciliar documents are OK.
    The problem  is that certain people were displeased that Vatican II _did not_ enact the changes they wanted. Vatican II _did not_ turn the Church upside down.

    So certain people created the bizarre fiction of “Spirit of Vatican II”. According to their theory, the Council Fathers did want to turn the Church upside down, but were not “brave enough” to put it in writing. So these people set out to destroy the Church under the authority of the “Spirit of Vatican II”.

    One of the consequences is that vocations for priesthood, marriages and confirmations _plummeted_.

    Thankfully, God gave us John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI. The Church is on the right track again.

    By the way, the number of priests is rising again. Lay movements are exploding. Liberation theology is dying. Coincidence?

  • Nick

    I know nothing about Medjugorje.
    And while I do believe in Fatima, that is not the reason for opposing abortion.
    I opposed it before knowing what Fatima was.

    Regarding abortion and Satan:

    God is the author of life.

    Satan introduced human death.

    What’s more, Satan enjoys turning sacred things upside-down.

    Now, what is an abortion? The woman’s womb, that wonderful source of life, is turned into a place of butchery. It is hard to think about _anything_ that would please the devil more than abortion.

  • Nick

    I don’t have the statistics but, as far as I know: no.

    In fact, the Church recently is seeing a revitalization, in which the charismatic renewal plays an important role. And coincidentally, the people of charismatic renewal spend their time loving God, instead of hating the bourgeoisie.

    Love if fertile.

    Hatred is barren.

     

  • Nick

    > Anyway, you can rest happy in your moral convictions:
    the 12 years old victim of rape and incest — must
    > be forced to bear her
    child

    Let’s try to apply some logic.

    The premise is  “A man has raped a girl”.
    The conclusion is “two absolutely innocent babies must be dismembered and then tossed away as hospital trash”

    Can you go from the premise to the conclusion?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

     A pro life fanatic=Christian=opposed to murder.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

    LOL, three words come to mind. Pot, Kettle and black.

  • Nick

    Put another  way: why take a tragic situation of rape,
    and make it even worse with murder?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

     All Christians and people of goodwill.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Purdie/1162381995 Ken Purdie

     How twisted that post is.Sick.

  • http://catholicismpure.wordpress.com The Raven

    Joe,

    Most Catholics of that generation, with whom I’ve spoken, tell me that they were genuinely excited by the promise of the Council but felt that what came after it was emphatically NOT what they had been promised.

    Looking at the Council documents and comparing that to the clericalist manner in which the “deforms” of the Council were carried out, I can see their point.

    If you really think that the changes to the Mass and reordering of churches would have been carried out if the laity had been fully consulted on the changes then you are living in a different world to the rest of us.

  • Nick

    And the stifling of lay movements.

    In Brazil, cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns stifled a certain lay association (which involved the charismatic renewal). He was afraid that those lay movements “did not care about the struggle of the poor” and they could compete (and win) with the Marxist “eclesial base communities”.

    I other words: cardinal Arns was not a Christian, but a Marxist; he did not care about faith, but only about “class struggle”. And since the faithful _did_ care about faith, he had to stifle them.

    Oh, and the way sacred images were taken away from churches, which started to look like anything but churches. The faithful absolutely _did not like_ it.

    Liberation theologians support the participation of the faithful only if the faithful are orthodox Marxists and don’t lose time with things like “Rosary”, “eucaristic adoration”, “consecration to our Lady” and other things that distract from class struggle.

  • Nick

     Thank God for blessed John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI!

  • Josephsoleary

     You seem very happy to see a woman and her child die. In fact the woman’s life was saved. No thanks to you.
     It seems clear that there is something to discuss here and that the pro-life fanatics have shut down rational discussion.

  • Josephsoleary

    Merely reflects the sickness of the extremism that Kung denounces and that you blindly defend. “Let the woman die!” are your own words in fact. 

  • Josephsoleary

     Your hatred of Cardinal Arns (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulo_Evaristo_Arns) and your panic about Marxism stem from rightwing attitudes, not from the Gospel.

  • Josephsoleary

    I see this “blessed” title will be used in an obnoxiously political way.  I see that the decline of Catholicism in Brazil has been halted by the Vatican’s new encouragement of charismatic movements that are imitated from the successful protestant churches. Catholic charismatic renewal was certainly an occasion of grace in the 1970s, but it quickly lost its steam and was co-opted by traditionalists. It will not bring a definitive solution to the Church’s problems, because it is too narrowly focused.