National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

By Hans Küng
Eerdmans, 544 pages, $32
Hans Küng reflects on an embattled life

Memoirs describe a much criticized but always loyal Catholic


Carmelite Fr. Roland Murphy (God be good to him!) and I were standing in line to board the bus that would take the editors of the journal Concilium from Munich to Chemsee for our annual dinner. A gnome-like French theologian turned to us and, eyes blinking through thick spectacles, murmured, “Le Pere Küng, c’est tres pietist, non?” At our last session that day Fr. Hans Küng had delivered a fervent statement that Catholics ought to go Mass every Sunday, not to escape sin, but because it was a sign of their Catholic faith.

“You see, Roland,” I said when we stopped laughing. “Like I say, Hans is not only a Catholic, he’s a conservative Catholic.”

I remembered that incident vividly as I read with fascination the first volume of his memoirs. I would have expected a sturdy Swiss burgher from one of the Catholic cantons of Switzerland to support the Sunday Mass custom. My judgment of that day still stands: In most respects Hans Küng is not only Catholic but a conservative Catholic. In the days when an imprimatur was required for a theology book, he scrupulously sought one for each of his books. He remains Catholic. He remains a priest. He argues for the Catholic tradition -- already alive in the first century -- and for continued human existence after death. His dissent is from theological method that ignores exegesis and history and from authoritarian governance styles that in fact stand in the way of the church’s appearing to much of the world as a sacrament of the love and grace of Jesus. Critical of the exercise of authority, Hans Küng is and always has been a staunch defender of the church.

He is undoubtedly the most influential Catholic theologian, indeed the most influential Catholic scholar, of the last half-century, not to the theological profession, which has marginalized him, but to the rest of the world. His stubborn refusal to leave the priesthood and the church have frustrated all the efforts of his enemies in the Vatican to act as though he no longer exists. Some of the historians of the Second Vatican Council have tried to pretend that he wasn’t there. They will not be happy with his “inside story” of the council in this the first volume of his memoirs -- a vivid account of how the curia and especially the Holy Office fought bitterly and sometimes successfully to frustrate the wishes of the vast majority of the council fathers and then took back their control of the church after the fathers went home.

Anyone who does not know the story of the euphoria and depression, the hopes and the disappointments, the elation and the anger of the council years would do well to read this book and to understand how those who opposed the council -- or more precisely their successors -- are now running the church. It would also be useful to note that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sometime friend and colleague of Küng, now practices as head of the Holy Office (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) the various techniques that he vigorously condemned during the council.

Küng was the wunderkind of those years. Nine years after his ordination he was already a professor at Tübingen and the author of a worldwide best-seller, The Council, Reform, and Reunion, which had enormous influence and in effect predicted the agenda that the majority of the fathers supported. How then did he become the outcast of the theological and the curial establishments? He was brilliant, hardworking, charming, handsome, witty, popular and he wrote bestsellers that made a lot of money. So of course, one had to hate him, envy him, distort his work and try to destroy him. At the Concilium meetings -- hardly the most pleasant experiences of my life -- I was shocked by the undisguised envy of Küng among many of our colleagues. I had not expected great theologians to be such miserable human beings.

As the years went on, many of the reviews of his work emerged from a wonderland in which it had become legitimate to distort completely what he had written and to take it for granted that no one would complain (not excluding some reviews in this journal). Hans would try in vain to explain what he had meant and the critics, either in the journals or in Rome, would then proceed to distort his explanations.

Hans should have been cherished as a man who had made an enormous contribution to the council and to the church. Instead he has endured a fearsome beating through the decades. He has survived what most of us would not be able to survive -- even though he has never really understood (or so it seems to me) the vicious power of envy. If there are occasional flashes of anger in his memoirs, they are understandable.

The conviction that has marked his career is summarized in a single paragraph of this first volume:

“Everything that indisputably manifests itself as un-freedom in the church is not a revelation of the good, clear essence of the church but a revelation of its dark, evil perversion. In the light of the message on which it bases itself, the church in its inner being should be a sphere of freedom. A church that proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ shouldn’t bring people servitude but freedom: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5.1) … Freedom is a gift and task, a notoriously difficult task: For the threat to freedom from within is in fact far more dangerous than the threat from outside. In the threat to freedom from the outside world the Christian can find protection, refuge and freedom in the church … But in the threat to freedom in the church from within, Christians can find protection, refuge and freedom only in solitude within themselves -- in the refuge of their free consciences.

There is much darkness in the church currently, yet the freedom and honesty to which Hans Küng has dedicated his life will win out. You cannot repeal an ecumenical council, no matter how hard you try. You can erode it at the fringes as Ratzinger has tried to do but that won’t make it go away.

Moreover, as I argue in my book The Catholic Revolution, the council, by approving changes in the church, destabilized the structures (behavior patterns and motivations supporting them) of post-French Revolution Catholicism. The church, we were told, should not change, will not change, cannot change. Only it did. Church leadership, in a major strategic blunder, tried to repress the energies the council released and lost its credibility. The structures that once permitted repression exist no longer. The dark forces still control the Roman curia, only their control is worthless because few listen to them any more. Turncoats like Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper probably feel that Küng is now totally irrelevant when in fact they are the ones who are irrelevant.

Yet even within the curia there is an occasional voice that understands him. A couple of years ago, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, proposed a reconciliation with Hans Küng. His writings, Sodano, wrote are “beautiful pages dedicated to the mystery, faith in the river of goodness and mercy, of solidarity and willingness to help.”

Küng welcomed the prospect of reconciliation, but nothing came of Sodano’s proposal. Yet it is time and long past time the institution recognize that, as I believe and Sodano implies, Küng is indeed a loyal and conservative Catholic.

Fr. Andrew Greeley’s forthcoming books are The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in Old Wineskins and the Second Vatican Council (University of California Press) and Priests: The Sociology of a Profession Under Attack (University of Chicago Press).

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

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