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Issue Date:  October 14, 2005

For bishops and 'dissidents' perhaps it's strudel time

In more than a few dioceses in the United States, Hans Küng would not be able to speak on church property. Bishops in some places are making lists of questions that guest speakers must respond to, and they are demanding that any invitation to speakers outside the small circle of diocesan officials and functionaries be vetted by the bishop.

The list of the unfit to speak on church property is growing.

Pope Benedict XVI himself apparently wouldn’t pass the orthodox purity test any more, having had a long and apparently cordial meeting with his long-time friend, arch-foe and one-time colleague Hans Küng.

Caution is advised. It would be easy to overstate the importance. Just as Benedict XVI’s Aug. 29 encounter with the head of the Lefebvrite movement did not mean a return to Mass in Latin or abandoning the church’s teaching on religious freedom, his Sept. 24 reunion with Hans Küng doesn’t mean that the pope is giving up on infallibility or birth control.

In both instances these were simple attempts to reach out, without any pretense of resolving the deep theological problems, obviously quite different in the two cases, which separate both parties from the pope.

But simplicity should not be confused with insignificance. In a church where too often dialogue is considered a form of either weakness or confusion, the model of a pope committed to keeping lines of communication open is refreshing indeed. And it is not making too much of it to note that the meeting with Küng lasted four hours, included a dinner, and was announced with a statement written by the pope and approved by Küng.

No figure in global Catholicism has been more eloquent, or more barbed, in articulating the liberal critique of the Vatican and the papacy over the last-quarter century than Hans Küng. In 1997, in an interview with this newspaper, he compared then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his capacity as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to the head of the KGB. Just before the death of John Paul II, Küng published a lengthy essay in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera chronicling what he saw as the failures and disappointments of John Paul’s papacy.

If Benedict XVI can recognize something positive in Küng’s work toward a global ethic and interfaith dialogue, despite other matters on which the two men are obviously profoundly at odds, that too sets a positive example about how leaders can emphasize the things that unite us without obscuring those which divide.

One wonders to what extent this model of papal leadership will now filter down to dioceses around the world, and perhaps especially in the United States.

What remaining reasons would diocesan bishops have, for example, for refusing to meet with members of Voice of the Faithful, whose official program is, unlike Küng’s positions over the years, deliberately non-doctrinal?

Voice of the Faithful might be perceived by some bishops as a threat, to be sure, simply because it keeps issuing calls for accountability. But its members are longtime and loyal Catholics who have decided to stay in the church and press for structural reform even in light of the horrible realities of the clergy sex abuse scandal. The bishops ought to be thanking them for staying. OK, no need to go that far, but how about just opening up a church basement now and then so they can meet?

And what about other groups -- like Call to Action and We are Church and the Women’s Ordination Conference -- all of them nervous that they’re not part of the conversation and all of them intent on staying in, even if it means grousing about things. Remember, many if not most of these folks were educated in the finest Catholic schools and universities. They know their stuff, they know the church has changed in the past and will in the future. They also know from long association with theologians and priests and bishops that even church officials talk about things that we’re all told are not supposed to be spoken about.

Everyone knows bishops can’t magically change things or make everyone happy. But how about occasionally looking past those differences and appreciating what we have in common? Many in those “dissident” groups keep the social ministries going, make sure the Sunday liturgies are prepared and teach the faith to the next generation.

No need to spend four hours together including dinner, but an hour now and then over coffee and, in honor of the pope, some good strudel, would show the world we can disagree yet get along. A little conversation might go a long way toward defusing tensions and narrowing the divides.

National Catholic Reporter, October 14, 2005

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