Hans Küng: an ageing enfant terrible going nowhere

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?