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Issue Date:  January 6, 2006

He could have been a contender

The charismatic Hans Küng continues to draw crowds


If he’d played his poker hand differently, Hans Küng could have been pope. The turning point in his life came when Pope Paul VI called Fr. Küng in after the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council and said, “You know you could really help the church.” The pope was hinting that Fr. Küng could get along much better in the postconciliar church if he’d just go along with the papal party in the curia.

Fr. Küng didn’t want to get along, much less go along. After creating immense enthusiasm for the council with his preconciliar bestseller, The Council, Reform and Re-Union, Fr. Küng, as a peritus (a theological expert) at the council, had done battle during the council’s third and fourth sessions with the forces of no-change inside the Roman curia that were clinging to hierarchy despite the majority’s efforts to democratize and decentralize the church.

“I didn’t want to serve the hierarchical church,” Fr. Küng told me recently during a two-day visit to Phoenix. “I wanted my writing and my research to serve the people of God.” His thinnest (but most powerful) book, Infallible? An Inquiry, hit at the heart of papal absolutism. It put him on John Paul II’s hit list, and, suddenly, Hans had to fold his hand and find another game.

Meanwhile, his colleague at the council, Joseph Ratzinger, decided to go along, and proceeded on a career path that poker players might call a long winning streak. After a brief stay at Fr. Küng’s University of Tübingen, Germany, Fr. Ratzinger became the archbishop of Munich, and a cardinal, and, four years later, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office, in Rome. Twenty-five years later, when Karol Wojtyla died, he was perfectly positioned to be the next pope.

Had Fr. Küng taken the cue given him by Pope Paul, he could have been a formidable contender -- as Cardinal Küng -- at the conclave of 2005. Cardinal Ratzinger, for all his intelligence and political skills, was (and is) a pallid, timid man with limited people skills. (I could compare him with President Richard Nixon’s security adviser, the sober Robert MacFarlane.) At the conclave, a vibrant Cardinal Küng might have been another Jack Kennedy, full of fun and alive with ideas for the church’s new frontier.

Fr. Küng, of course, found another game. He started working with leaders of the world’s great religions and founded his World Ethic Foundation in Tübingen to enlist all the major religions in the common search for peace through dialogue. “There will be no peace in the world,” he insisted, “without peace among the religions, there will be no peace among the religions without dialogue, and no dialogue without emphasis on a common ethic. Without dialogue, we shoot each other.”

In 2003, England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair came to Tübingen to give the Global Ethic Foundation’s inaugural lecture. In May 2005, Fr. Küng went to Tokyo to receive the Niwano Peace Prize, Japan’s version of the Nobel Prize.

Hans has been a friend of mine since the heady days we shared at Vatican II. I had no trouble, then, persuading him to visit Phoenix in November as part of a campaign by the Jesuit Alumni in Arizona to promote a thinking church. I was pleased to see that, at age 77, he has the same trim, athletic figure he had 40 years ago, and the same fun-filled personality and boyish smile that he shone on the reformist bishops and theologians at the council. He swims every day near his home in Tübingen, and he’s planning a two-week ski vacation this month in Austria. He did 40 laps in his pool at the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs before he went off to a dinner and 80 laps the next day to prepare for his Saturday night lecture.

Thomas Olmsted, bishop in Phoenix for the past two years, demonstrated no sympathy for the version of a thinking church of Jesuit Alumni of Arizona or for Fr. Küng’s presence either. He declined to be part of the interfaith event in Phoenix, he blocked attempts to advertise it in parish bulletins or on the diocesan Web site, and told the group it couldn’t offer complimentary tickets to seniors in six Phoenix area high schools, or to the priests and laypeople working in his office.

Olmsted explained through his chancellor that Hans Küng “doesn’t have faculties to teach as a Catholic theologian.” He was referring to a Vatican decree of 1979 that said that Fr. Küng, though still a priest in good standing, had lost his license to teach Catholic theology. That declaration had a pre-conciliar, inquisitorial whiff about it that reminded millions of Catholics of nothing so much as the church’s Index of Forbidden Books, which was abandoned at Vatican II.

M.J. Benton, owner of Essentially Books in Scottsdale, testified to Fr. Küng’s ongoing popularity. “I can’t keep his books in the store,” she said. “I’ve sold almost a hundred copies of his memoir [My Search for Freedom] in the past month, and I keep selling two of his works in paperback, Global Ethics and Women in Christianity.” Fr. Küng’s publisher, Eerdmans, reports it has “almost sold out the memoir” and is waiting with some eagerness for the second volume. Ms. Benton says Fr. Küng appeals to contemporary Americans because “he has found a peaceful way of settling differences between religions.”

By Friday night, Jesuit Alumni of Arizona had sold 550 advance tickets to Hans’ Saturday night lecture. On Saturday morning, The Arizona Republic carried a Page One story reporting the bishop’s efforts to squelch it. On Saturday night, a crowd of more than 1,100 laughing, exuberant Catholics, a good many friendly Protestants, and a scattering of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus showed up to applaud Fr. Küng’s message, that there is great good in every religion, and that people of all religions can make the world a more peaceful place. Dangerous stuff for loyal Catholics, right?

Robert Blair Kaiser covered Vatican II for TIME magazine. He spent most of the past five years in Rome working on his upcoming book, A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future. He is the acting president of Jesuit Alumni of Arizona.

National Catholic Reporter, January 6, 2006

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