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Peace offering stirs new debate

NCR Staff

In a gesture of rapprochement with a theologian whose relations with the Vatican have sometimes been strained, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal official, was the featured speaker at an Oct. 27 symposium marking Fr. Johann Baptist Metz’s 70th birthday.

While some hailed Ratzinger’s action as an olive branch for church dissidents, liberal Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Küng blasted Metz for sharing a stage with Ratzinger without pressing him on issues of church reform.

Metz is known as one of Germany’s leading theological minds and the father of “political theology,” arguing that Christianity must be involved in political and social struggles. His work in the 1960s and 1970s was foundational for liberation theology, a movement criticized by both Ratzinger and the pope for allegedly stressing this-worldly political progress at the expense of eternal salvation.

Metz’s conflict with Ratzinger is also personal; in 1979, as cardinal of Munich, Ratzinger blocked Metz from a teaching appointment at the local university. Later, Metz signed a statement criticizing the Vatican’s attempts to erode academic freedom in European universities.

Kinder, gentler Vatican

Taken in concert with the January lifting of the excommunication of the Sri Lankan theologian, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, and the positive comments directed at Küng in March by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, some saw Ratzinger’s bow to Metz as evidence of a kinder, gentler approach in Rome.

“I am not 100 percent sure myself, but many of my colleagues had the impression that this [Ratzinger’s appearance] was a gesture of reconciliation toward the theological community,” Metz said in a telephone interview with NCR. “Many German newspapers treated it that way, saying explicitly that this is a new opening from Rome.”

During the one-day event in Ahaus, Germany, both Ratzinger and Metz gave speeches on one of Metz’s favorite themes, apocalyptic imagery in the Bible and its importance for Christian theology. The two men later engaged in a half-hour dialogue. Other presenters included well-known Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann and Jewish scholar Eveline Goodman-Thau.

Küng derided Metz, however, for appearing with Ratzinger without making the case for internal church reform. “It is astonishing” and “a deep scandal” that Metz “would offer the Grand Inquisitor a forum,” Küng wrote in an open letter published before the Ahaus symposium.

Küng, a professor at the University of Tübingen, Germany, lost his license to teach as a Catholic theologian when it was revoked by John Paul II. He described Ratzinger as the head of a worldwide apparatus of oppression, which “daily receives denunciations from all over the world against bishops, theologians, vowed sisters and brothers, ministers, and men and women engaged in the church, and carefully registers them all in computers.”

Paraphrasing the ancient Roman, Cato the Elder, Küng concluded his article with the exhortation, “The Roman Inquisition must be destroyed.”

Wide media attention

The encounter between Ratzinger and Metz attracted wide attention in the German media, in part because of their personal history. Ratzinger’s refusal to allow Metz to teach at the University of Munich had been cited by many observers as an early hint of the intolerance for dissent with which Ratzinger would govern the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger said during the symposium that he had come to “show respect” for Metz. News accounts called the exchanges between the two men “cordial” and “conciliatory.”

Reached at his home in Münster, Metz rejected Küng’s criticism. “Sometimes Küng conducts himself like a second magisterium. To tell you the truth, one is enough, at least for me,” Metz said. He said he was “very hurt, very disappointed, very angry” about Küng’s comments.

“One of the factors in inviting Ratzinger was to show that the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of the Catholic church are much broader than they are often understood,” Metz said. “In Germany we often find ourselves voicing our criticisms among ourselves with our back to Rome. We said no, no, we must face Rome, direct it to them, try to enter into a critical dialogue.”

According to Küng, however, it is precisely the lack of such a critical dialogue at the symposium that irked him. In a telephone interview with NCR from his office in Tübingen, Küng said that Ratzinger agreed to appear in Ahaus only with the understanding that inner-church disputes would not be discussed.

“He is the chief authority of the Inquisitorial office. It’s like having a general conversation about human rights with the head of the KGB,” Küng said.

“This is practically a capitulation to the Roman system, a kind of making peace with Ratzinger, when the real task of political theology should be to identify itself with the suffering people in our church,” Küng said.

“They are abusing talk about God to avoid dealing with problems in the church,” Küng said.

Metz said that Protestant churches have adopted many of the demands of Catholic reformers, such as women’s ordination and married clergy, but neither Protestants nor Catholics have succeeded in curbing injustice and suffering. “Thus the real root of the problem must be deeper than these internal church issues,” Metz said, and that is what the symposium was intended to discuss.

“That is of course not to say that the church must not change, not at all -- but the basic crisis we face is even more fundamental. That is what we must talk about.”

Metz also said that he had discussed plans for the symposium with “my good friend Gustavo Gutierrez,” the Peruvian liberation theologian, who “fully agreed” that it should take place.

Metz said that during question-and-answer periods, audience members raised inner-church issues, so they were not completely absent from the discussion.

Difficult questions

According to German press accounts, the first question from the audience was directed to Ratzinger. The cardinal was asked if “the suffering people” of whom he spoke were not also in the church, citing liberation theologians, homosexuals, women and Catholics oppressed by the hierarchy as examples.

Ratzinger bristled at the question. He said that political theology must remain a “dogmatic discipline” rather than a “specific political program” and asserted that the papal teaching office has intervened only “against a misunderstanding of theology.”

Dr. Tiemo Rainer Peters, a representative of the circle of Metz’s friends and colleagues who organized the symposium, responded to Küng’s criticisms during a speech at the event. Calling the article an “offensive libel,” he suggested that Küng was lashing out because of injuries he had received from the Vatican. Peters reminded Küng that Metz and his circle had suffered, too.

Peters said that “conversations among differing theologians should really be normal,” and that an exchange of views in an open forum contributed to dialogue in the church.

In the classic fashion of German scholarship, one of Küng’s lieutenants took up the challenge and is now circulating a letter in response to Peters.

Metz “offered no supporting word ... for those currents and people in Latin American liberation theology who must intentionally struggle against the pope and Ratzinger,” wrote Stephan Schlensog, an assistant of Küng in Tübingen. Schlensog criticized Metz and the symposium for not dealing with the “crisis in the church.”

In March, Küng spoke positively in response to Sodano’s praise of his work. “It’s a signal that, either now or in the future, we can have an orthodox papacy without excommunicating and silencing theologians,” he said at the time.

Küng told NCR that Sodano’s overture cannot be compared to the Ratzinger/Metz forum. “As secretary of state, and as an Italian, Sodano is certainly more flexible,” Küng said. “Ratzinger runs a partisan institution which uses all the old instruments of control to censor and silence theologians.” His appearance with Metz “should not be seen as any kind of opening or change of heart,” Küng said.

“This event was simply a very nice occasion to show Ratzinger as a smiling Inquisitor who can talk about highly theological subjects in a serene manner,” Küng said. “He thought everybody would be impressed.”

In 1979, when Ratzinger blocked Metz from an appointment at the University of Munich, his action provoked an outcry from the theological community in Germany. Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, for example, said of Ratzinger’s move, “We can truly say that sensitivity to basic human rights must still develop within the church.”

Metz later joined a number of other European theologians in the 1989 “Cologne Declaration,” which criticized the papacy for the appointment of bishops without local consultation, for overstepping its competence in doctrinal matters, and for interfering in the academic freedom of European universities.

During their dialogue, Ratzinger agreed with Metz that “the suffering of others must be the central standard of action, not only for Christians, but also in secular politics and society.” Metz in turn picked up a favorite theme of both Ratzinger and John Paul, arguing that an apocalyptic understanding of the preciousness of time should be asserted against “an intoxicating relativism.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998