After Küng published one especially scathing
commentary on Paul VI during Vatican II, he was summoned to a private meeting
with the pope in the Apostolic Palace. Paul did not want to upbraid the
young maverick; he wanted to offer him a job. Küng declined, as he
had other theological fish to fry. But the encounter, which happened just
three days before the end of the council, illustrates the way some church
leaders regard a diversity of opinions as a healthy thing.
|I write this week from Tübingen,
Germany, where intellectual earthquakes are as much a part of the local
legacy as football titles at Notre Dame.
The astronomer Johannes
Kepler developed his theories about the stars at the famed University of
Tübingen, founded by Count Eberhard the Bearded in 1477, and Georg
Hegel first pondered the Absolute here on the banks of the Nekar River.
Philip Melanchthon, one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, was
a lecturer at Tübingen from 1514 to 1518. On the Catholic side, intellectual
energies here in the 1950s and 1960s helped prepare the way for the Second
Vatican Council (1962-65).
Most pertinently for
our purposes, Tübingen has for forty years been the home of Fr. Hans
Küng, probably the best-known, most-published and most-read Catholic
theologian of the 20th century. (Küng retired from the
university in 1995-96, but is more active than most people drawing full-time
My wife and I were Küng’s
guests Jan. 21 for a lecture by Mary Robinson, the former president of
Ireland and currently the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Later we spent an enchanted evening at Küng’s home in the hills of
Tübingen, drinking fine Swiss wine and listening to him tell tales.
As is well known, Pope
John Paul II withdrew Küng’s theological license in December 1979,
largely over his challenge to the doctrine of papal infallibility. Küng
switched to Tübingen’s faculty of ecumenical theology and continued
to be one of the university’s most popular lecturers.
I think one could make
a case that few people in church history have benefited from a Vatican
crackdown like Hans Küng.
In saying this, I don’t
mean to be flippant. I know that what happened in 1979 was, and remains,
hurtful to Küng. He has called it “the most painful and cruel period
of my life.” The episode also dismayed millions of Catholics who have drawn
strength and insight from Küng’s theological writings.
(I’m among them. When
I was 17 and struggling with my faith, a priest I admire handed me a copy
of Küng’s On Being a Christian. It has remained a touchstone).
Yet the papal censure
pushed his career in new and unexpected directions, into the field of world
religions and global ethics. Today Küng’s Global Ethic Foundation,
founded in 1991, is a major player in United Nations and international
policy-making circles, pushing inter-religious understanding and the need
for a spiritual contribution to globalization.
Last year, Küng’s
foundation brought Tony Blair to Tübingen. This year the guest was
Robinson, and the event illustrated the potential for dialogue between
people of faith and those who craft international policy.
In response to a question
from Küng, Robinson voiced reservations about the new military tribunals
created by the Bush administration to handle Taliban prisoners.
“Countries without a
strong democratic tradition will find it all too easy to copy-cat these
tribunals,” she said. “It will become more difficult to make the case for
“It’s in times of stress
that we have to uphold our conventions,” Robinson argued. “Lowering human
rights standards is the wrong approach to combating terrorism. We have
to do with our belief in the rule of law.”
In the afternoon, Robinson
took questions at a seminar-style session with faculty and invited guests.
I asked her about the seemingly intractable divide between the United Nations
and the Vatican on issues of reproductive rights.
“There are real problems.
I know my colleague who runs the UN Family Planning Agency feels them very
acutely,” she said.
Robinson suggested that
Catholic opinion on these issues is not monolithic.
“One of the pleasures
for me as I move around the world is occasionally hearing an Irish accent,
and often enough it’s a religious woman, a missionary,” she said. “In my
experience, they understand the complexities of the issues. They understand
the argument for access to reproductive rights for poor women, for example,
especially in contexts of violence and rape.”
“If the Vatican would
listen to its own grassroots,” Robinson said, “they would get some very
good input from people working in difficult conditions. They know well
the vulnerability of women and girls.”
Whatever one makes of
her stands, the chance to bring a high-profile United Nations figure like
Robinson into dialogue with experts on religion and global spirituality
was a golden one. Too often these two worlds prefer to shout at one another
The experience made me
realize that, ironically, few people have probably done more than Hans
Küng to realize Pope John Paul’s dream of an “evangelization of culture.”
Küng is the kind of man who can sit down with Kofi Anan and explain
why religion has to be a partner in constructing a civilization of values.
He can also pop down in China, or Iran, or Benin, and push religious leaders
in those places to embrace a moderate, dialogical path, because he has
studied their traditions and can speak from within their own frames of
Over dinner, I had an
opportunity for which legions of church historians and Vaticanisti
would brave burning coals. I was able to quiz Küng, who helped shape
the theological agenda of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and who
has been a key figure in church politics ever since, about his forthcoming
autobiography. The first volume, which ends with the council, is due out
this year, with the second still in preparation.
We talked well into the
night, with Küng offering up one ripping account after another about
the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI, the German bishops, the Catholic theological
community, and Rome during Küng’s student days under Pius XII. Alas,
some of these stories were told under the seal of pontifical secrecy and
hence cannot be revealed here.
I can, however, give
readers this anticipation of the new book. Unlike many progressives, who
believe the council was betrayed by the Roman curia after everyone went
home, Küng argues the failure happened during the council itself.
He says that between the first and second sessions the progressive majority
made a fatal compromise. They agreed to include in Lumen Gentium,
the constitution on the church, a third chapter on the hierarchical nature
of the church after the opening two about the church as mystery and as
the people of God. That move, he believes, enshrined two contradictory
ecclesiologies that destined the post-conciliar church to schizophrenia
This analysis may strike
some as dicey, but it’s worth remembering that the church was not always
so skittish about listening to its critics. After Küng published one
especially scathing commentary on Paul VI during Vatican II, he was summoned
to a private meeting with the pope in the Apostolic Palace. Paul did not
want to upbraid the young maverick; he wanted to offer him a job. Küng
declined, as he had other theological fish to fry. But the encounter, which
happened just three days before the end of the council, illustrates the
way some church leaders can regard a diversity of opinions as a healthy
I know, of course, that
some Catholics find Küng a bit much. His tongue can be tart (he has,
for example, compared the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to
the KGB). Some of this reflects the rough-and-tumble discourse of German
academia, some his own feisty personality. Others feel that Küng’s
ecclesiology is soft, perhaps influenced by all that Reformation air in
the Swabian hills. It may be, too, that Küng takes a slightly dark
view of the current state of church affairs. (He jokingly suggested I have
been “infected” by Opus Dei because I do not believe they are scheming
to control the outcome of the next papal conclave).
Yet for all that, Küng
remains a faithful priest in love with his church. His theological contributions
are lasting and enormous, from harmonizing Catholic doctrine on justification
with Protestant thinker Karl Barth, thus paving the way for Catholic/Lutheran
détente, to the language on charisms in Lumen Gentium (first
penned by Küng as a speech on the council floor for Cardinal Leon
Suenens of Belgium).
Perhaps under a future
papacy, Küng may yet be rehabilitated. In a sense the process has
already begun. In a July 1998 address at Rome’s Lateran University, Cardinal
Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and an old classmate of
Küng, called his writings “beautiful pages dedicated to the mystery;
faith in the river of goodness and mercy, of solidarity and willingness
I hope to live to see
a Catholic church in which Hans Küng is touted as a treasure. In my
view, his impact on church of his time, as well as the broader world, is
overwhelmingly positive. And that’s not just three bottles of Swiss wine
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