Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Thoughts on the Hans Küng Interview Regarding Benedict XVI

Hello, Coffee Talkers!

My friend posted an article sufficiently interesting to make me jump right back on the Coffee Talk bandwagon, so I hope you enjoy my simple commentary on some intensely nerdy Catholic news!

Here's the scoop: Hans Küng is a Swiss Catholic priest and controversial theologian. Although I am not particularly a 'fan' of Hans Küng, I must note that  he is a very interesting person in a very interesting situation -- Fr. Küng (why does no one ever call him Father??) was very involved in the Second Vatican Council (a.k.a. Vatican II). However, in the late 1970s, Küng publicly renounced the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, and the Vatican in turn revoked his permission to officially teach Catholic theology. However, neither his bishop nor the Holy See have ever revoked his priestly faculties, so he remains a priest to this day, and in addition to administering the sacraments, he continues to stir up theological trouble and debate where he can, in informal (though still very public) ways. 

Another priest who was involved, alongside Küng, as a theological advisor to Vatican II is even better known, now as Pope Benedict XVI. As the Holy Father (I wonder if that title makes Father Küng cringe a little?) prepares for a week-long visit to Germany starting tomorrow, Hans Küng has offered an interview with Spiegel, offering sharp criticisms not only of the papacy in general, but of Benedict XVI in a number of particular ways.

Read the full interview here, if you'd like, and then I'll offer just a few of my thoughts on the interview and Küng's criticisms. I will respond intralinearly, with the interview text itself indented, and my thoughts between the interview excerpts.
SPIEGEL: Professor Küng, your former faculty colleague Joseph Ratzinger is coming to Germany this week for a state visit. Do you have an audience scheduled with him?

Küng: I didn't request an audience. I am fundamentally more interested in conversations than audiences.
Interesting way to set the tone for the interview.
SPIEGEL: Does Benedict XVI even talk to you anymore?
Küng: After his election to be pope, he invited me to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, where we had a four-hour friendly conversation. At the time, I hoped it would mark the beginning of a new era of openness. But that hope has not been fulfilled. We correspond with each other once in a while. The sanctions against me -- the withdrawal of my permission to teach -- still exist. (Ed's note: The Vatican revoked Küng's permission to teach Catholic theology in 1979 after he publicly rejected the dogma of papal infallibility.)
I'm quite sure that, after more than thirty years of living with this sanction, it is no secret to Küng what is keeping him from being able to teach with permission in the Church, especially since he and Benedict XVI are in regular contact. The Church's aim, with any sanction or excommunication, is not to keep a person permanently away from the sacraments or teaching office. Reconciliation, whenever possible, is desired.

SPIEGEL: When was the last time Benedict wrote to you?
Küng: Through his private secretary (Georg) Gänswein, he thanked me for sending him my latest book and sent me his best wishes.
Well, that was rather gracious of the Holy Father, if you ask me, especially after what Hans Küng wrote!
SPIEGEL: In your polemic book "Ist die Kirche noch zu retten?" ("Can the Church Still Be Saved?"), which was published earlier this year, you harshly criticized the pope for his anti-reformist policy.
Küng: I find it very gratifying that he hasn't ended the personal relationship despite my criticism.
Like I said!
SPIEGEL: Many Catholics feel that the Church is in a rather desolate state. The cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by priests has driven believers away from the Church in droves. What's going wrong?
Küng: If you put it that simply, I'll give you a simple answer. Ratzinger's predecessor, John Paul II, launched a program of ecclesiastical and political restoration, which went against the intentions of the Second Vatican Council. He wanted a re-Christianization of Europe. And Ratzinger was his most loyal assistant, even at an early juncture. One could call it a period of restoration of the pre-council Roman regime.
WHAT?!? Hold the phones, everybody, because this is where the interview just got ridiculous. Anyone who tells me that "John Paul II launched a program ... which went against the intentions of the Second Vatican Council" just totally lost me. And then, when I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and follow out whatever his 'logical' conclusion might be as to how JPII acted against the intentions of Vatican II, he claims that his desire for "a re-Christianization of Europe" is what stood in conflict with the intention of the Council. Oh, dear.

There are SO many misunderstandings about the Second Vatican Council, its documents, and its intentions. Now, I feel like a bit of a whippersnapper commenting on this at all, because here I am, 33-year-old post-Vatican II Leslie, criticizing 83-year-old Hans Küng who was a theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council. I guess the only thing I have going for me at this point that he doesn't is that, so  far, I have not been prohibited by the Vatican from teaching in the Catholic Church. But in all seriousness, I guess I want you all to know that I temper my remarks with a necessary humility and an understanding that I'm sure I could learn quite a lot from Hans Küng!

That said, I want everyone to understand that just because Vatican II called for a spirit of right ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue (which, by the way, was a big old deal, especially at the time the documents were first published!), this does not mean that Catholic Christians no longer accept Jesus as Christ! Naturally, we would like all people of the world to experience the joys of everlasting happiness, and we believe that salvation comes through Jesus, and is normally mediated through the Church. Does this mean that we believe that all non-Catholics, or even non-Christians (Catholics were the first Christians, for the record) are not going to be saved? No! Read my other post about it, if you'd like a better explanation. But still, we believe that if any person is granted salvation, it is through Jesus and the Church, even if that is not known to them explicitly in this life. So desiring the re-Christianization of Europe would hardly be contrary to the intention of Vatican II. Pope John Paul II was hardly calling for a new inquisition, and if I had to choose one person who lived the spirit and intentions of the Second Vatican Council as fully in this life as is humanly possible, I'd vote for our Blessed JP II any day.

Alright, I said I'd be brief, so let me move on!

SPIEGEL: When the pope comes to Germany, tens of thousands of people will cheer him at major events. Church leaders will not exactly interpret this as a symptom of crisis.
Küng: I wouldn't have anything against such events if they truly helped the Church locally. But there is a huge discrepancy between the façade, which is now being erected once again for the papal visit to Germany, and the reality. It creates the impression that this is a powerful and healthy church. It is certainly powerful, but is it healthy? We now know that these events do almost nothing for local parishes. They don't lead to more people attending services, more people wanting to become priests or fewer people leaving the Church.
I don't buy this, even for a minute. I have personally witnessed a difference in Mass attendance and involvement with parish ministries and other activities on the part of many people who just encountered the Holy Father at World Youth Day in Madrid, and many of them felt inspired by the gathering to discern priesthood or religious life, to be married in the Church, and to be more firmly committed to their Catholic faith.
SPIEGEL: Still, some 70,000 people are expected to attend the service in Berlin's Olympic Stadium.
Küng: They're not all believers; the crowd will include many curious onlookers. The believers who will attend are mainly conservative Catholics with no interest in reforms. There are also notorious young, hysterical Benedict fans who are also always present at the major papal events. Most of them are recruited from strictly conservative groups. For many people, the pope is still, to a certain extent, a positive role model and a moral force, although others feel that this aspect has suffered greatly.
Again, I cannot believe that most of the young people gathering together will be either 'hysterical' nor 'recruited from strictly conservative groups.' Baloney.
SPIEGEL: Many in the Catholic Church says that if all the reforms you call for were implemented, you would be making the church more Protestant and abandoning its Catholic nature.
Küng: The Church will undoubtedly become somewhat more Protestant. But we will always preserve our unique nature. Our global way of thinking, our universality, differentiates us from a certain narrowness in the Protestant regional churches. It should remain that way, just as the office (of the pope) should be retained. But if everything is concentrated in the office, we'll end up with a medieval vicar, a prince-bishop and the pope as absolute monarch, who simultaneously embodies the executive, the legislative and the judiciary -- in contradiction to modern democracy and the Gospel.
I'm pretty sure that Pope Benedict XVI enjoys being Catholic, and unashamedly, so do I. To be Catholic is to live in the universal faith. End of discussion.
SPIEGEL: You and Benedict are traveling along two different paths. You want to reform the Church to keep it alive. The pope is trying to seal off the Church from the outside world and increasingly restrict it to a conservative core, which may possibly survive.
I HATE this question, which is not even a question at all! It is a totally loaded and biased statement, and I could not disagree more heartily. Anyone who attended, or witnessed even indirectly, the recent events of World Youth Day would agree with me that Pope Benedict XVI is very much interested in keeping the Church alive, and literally opening it to all the people of the world, particularly the young.
SPIEGEL: Your prognosis [for the Church] sounds grim.
Küng: I think it's very important that we do not sink into pessimism. But my diagnosis has shown that the Church is sick, and it's the sickness of the Roman system. Under these circumstances, I can't just behave like an ineffective doctor and say that everything will be fine.
SPIEGEL: What would be the treatment?
Küng: The base must gather its strength and make itself heard, so that the system can no longer circumvent it. I presented a comprehensive list of measures in my book.
HA! Shameless advertisement and self-promotion of his own book as a presentation of the only comprehensive way to 'doctor' the ailing Church. Info-mercial, anyone?
SPIEGEL: More than a year ago, you wrote an open letter to all bishops in the world, in which you offered a detailed explanation of your criticism of the pope and the Roman system. What was the response?
Küng: There are about 5,000 bishops in the world, but none of them dared to comment publicly. This clearly shows that something isn't right.
Exactly. But I think the problem might not be with the 5,000 bishops.
SPIEGEL: Would another council like Vatican II help the Church?
Küng: I hope that there will be a council, or at least a representative convention of the Catholic Church.
This question is so annoying to me. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not against progress in the Church, nor am I wanting to go 'back to the good old days' to solve the problems of the Church in the modern world. However, having studied all of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I find that there is still much to be done in the way of proper implementation of Vatican II, which ended nearly a half century ago! We are still plumbing the depths of the so-called 'spirit of Vatican II,' and I'm afraid that many of the people interested in the 'spirit' have not read any of the documents!

Alright, I think I've been theologically cheeky enough for one night. Special thanks to my friend who posted this article, who I fear may be the only one who reads this now-too-lengthy blog post!

Let's pray for the Holy Father's visit to Germany, for all priests and theologians, and for all Church leaders and all of the faithful to be open to necessary reforms in the Church based on the authentic movements of the Holy Spirit.

As always, thanks for stopping by, and be assured of my prayers!

Peace and all good,


  1. Leslie,
    Just a simple and perhaps stupid question. If Fr. Kung has been told he cannot teach theology, how can he still function as a priest? Isn't our theology taught during the Mass in the homily? I guess I'm more tired that I thought because it seems like a contradiction or the splitting of a hair.

  2. Oh, I think that's a great question, actually! I'm not sure -- this is a bit outside of my area of expertise -- but I'll tell you what I do know. Yes, we do learn some theology during homilies, and I hope that Hans Kung is at least staying away from these areas of controversies in Mass if he's giving homilies these days. Not every priest is a parish priest, though, and Hans Kung is/was among them. Professors of philosophy and theology at Catholic universities are supposed to profess an oath of fidelity to the Magisterium (or teaching office) of the Catholic Church. This is based on Blessed John Paul II's document, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities. So Hans Kung wasn't a parish priest when this restriction on teaching came into play -- he was on the Catholic faculty of a university. Now, apparently, he did remain on at the university, but not on the Catholic faculty. I read that he continued to teach ecumenical theology as a member of the non-Catholic faculty (not to say that all of these faculty members weren't Catholic, of course), but I would personally not have wasted my time on such courses. As the saying goes, he who stands for nothing will fall for anything. As for a list of colleges whose professors do take the mandatum (oath of fidelity), check out Hope this is helpful!