Hans Küng is at it again. The Holy Father, he says, is a ‘schismatic pope’ who has effectively deposed himself: what’s he up to now?

Hans Küng at his office in Tubingen, Germany, in 2009 (CNS photo)

What on earth is Hans Küng up to now? He has mounted yet another assault on the Pope (every time he does this, he simply confirms one’s view that the Pope is right about whatever it is) over his willingness to heal the breach with the SSPX. But his tactics this time are very strange indeed. He says that since the SSPX bishops were invalidly ordained (not illicitly, invalidly) to accept them back into the mainstream of the Church would make him a schismatic pope, and that since, according to Catholic teaching a schismatic pope loses his office, he is very close to deposing himself. He is, in other words, arguing exactly like an extreme reactionary schismatic: it’s a kind of liberal sedevacantist argument.

But what on earth is all this stuff about the SSPX bishops and clergy being “invalidly” – rather than simply “illicitly” – ordained? It’s not as though Küng has a reputation for being particularly demanding over the criteria for validity. This, after all, is the theologian who argued in the Guardian only three years ago that the ARCIC documents provide the basis for a prompt recognition of Anglican orders, “which Pope Leo XIII, back in 1896, with anything but convincing arguments, had declared invalid” (my italics). From that, he continued, “follows the validity of Anglican celebrations of the Eucharist. And so mutual Eucharistic hospitality would be possible; in fact, intercommunion.” So, Anglican bishops and clergy, he thinks, are already validly ordained; and SSPX bishops and clergy are, on the other hand, definitely invalidly ordained, and a pope who accepted them as Catholic bishops would be a schismatic pope.

I hesitate to speculate on the possibility of the onset of senile dementia (a dangerous accusation from someone of my own advanced years) but the only other plausible explanation is that Küng has developed, late in life, a somewhat ponderous sense of humour. But no, the article (on the Tablet blog, surprise, surprise) is clearly absolutely serious: he means it. Bishop Fellay and the others are not bishops at all: Rowan Williams and his colleagues definitely are.

So, what are Küng’s arguments? This is what he claims: “According to Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Pontificalis Romani recognito [sic] of 18 July 1968, the ordinations of bishops and priests undertaken by Archbishop Lefebvre were not only illicit but also invalid.” Well, you can access Pope Paul’s Apostolic Constitution here; and I defy you to find any mention whatever in [ital] Pontificalis Romani Recognitio of Archbishop Lefebvre or the SSPX, or any reference, indeed to any criterion by which his ordinations might be supposed invalid. What the document concerns itself with are the form and content of the sacrament of Holy Order, and the sources in Catholic tradition and Conciliar teaching of the new ordinal, its coherence and greater simplicity and comprehensibility: it certainly doesn’t seek to cast doubt on any ordinations carried out under the old rite. And yet Küng claims that it specifically declares Lefebvre’s ordinations “not only illicit but also invalid”. It just doesn’t. Did he suppose we wouldn’t check? The facts, of course, are that, as the La Stampa site Vatican Insider puts it, “In truth, while everyone agrees about the fact that the priestly and Episcopal ordinations carried out by Lefebvre after his suspension a divinis and his excommunication in 1988 are “illicit”, practically no one expressed any serious doubts over their “validity”: the ordinations were celebrated by a bishop who was in apostolic succession and according to the rite used by the Catholic Church up until the post-conciliar liturgical reform.”

How are we to react to all this? Probably not too seriously; very few Catholics any more take Küng seriously; he is not the threat he once was, when the Church was fighting for its life against the great hijack of the Council by the “spirit of Vatican II” boys, back in the 70s and 80s. The Hermeneutic of Continuity as usual has it right: this is a “light-hearted moment”. Fr Finigan ends his comment with a splendid little joke, which I hadn’t heard before:

I think we can … regard it as certain that Pope Paul VI did not intend to declare ordinations subsequently carried out according to the older form to be henceforth invalid. Küng’s charge that they are, is simply one of the more absurd consequences of the hermeneutic of rupture.

But the fun is only just beginning with this claim. He veers away from the allegation of invalidity of orders to make the further claim that if Pope Benedict accepts the SSPX bishops into the Church, he will be committing an act of schism. Let us not be distracted by Küng’s implied assertion that the SSPX bishops are not already part of the Church. (We can all safely accept that they simply lack regular jurisdiction and canonical status.) Küng’s target is not the SSPX but the Holy Father.

Not only does he warn the Holy Father that he will become a schismatic, he spells out the consequence of this: “A schismatic pope loses his position according to that same teaching of the constitution of the Church.”

Thus the great liberal Hans Küng joins the ranks of the sedevacantists. You may well doubt whether he would agree to the theory of some, that Cardinal Siri was really elected Pope and not Cardinal Roncalli, but you could be tempted to speculate whether a homely Bierkeller in Tübingen might be the place to add to the list of the Popes at large. (Perhaps Martin VI in honour of another German who could tell everybody what was wrong with the Pope.)

Fun as such speculation might be, I think it would be mistaken. I happen to know, from an unimpeachable source inside the Vatican, leaked to an Italian journalist and thence to my late Auntie Eileen, that Hans Küng was indeed invited to become Pope when the conclave of 1978 became deadlocked. When telephoned with an offer of the post, he declined, saying: “No. I would prefer to remain infallible.”

Funny old Küng; I expect we’ll miss him when he’s gone. Meanwhile, he is still a useful yardstick, both of how far the Church’s regeneration has actually come under the present Holy Father’s guidance, and also of the increasingly apparent absurdity of those from whose influence we suffered for so long.