National Catholic Reporter ®

January 25, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 22

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In Tubingen, good Swiss wine goes well
with an evening of Hans Küng recollections

After Küng published one especially scathing commentary on Paul VI during Vatican II, he was summoned to a private meeting with the pope in the Apostolic Palace. Paul did not want to upbraid the young maverick; he wanted to offer him a job. Küng declined, as he had other theological fish to fry. But the encounter, which happened just three days before the end of the council, illustrates the way some church leaders regard a diversity of opinions as a healthy thing.

I write this week from Tübingen, Germany, where intellectual earthquakes are as much a part of the local legacy as football titles at Notre Dame. 

     The astronomer Johannes Kepler developed his theories about the stars at the famed University of Tübingen, founded by Count Eberhard the Bearded in 1477, and Georg Hegel first pondered the Absolute here on the banks of the Nekar River. Philip Melanchthon, one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, was a lecturer at Tübingen from 1514 to 1518. On the Catholic side, intellectual energies here in the 1950s and 1960s helped prepare the way for the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

     Most pertinently for our purposes, Tübingen has for forty years been the home of Fr. Hans Küng, probably the best-known, most-published and most-read Catholic theologian of the 20th century. (Küng retired from the university in 1995-96, but is more active than most people drawing full-time pay).

     My wife and I were Küng’s guests Jan. 21 for a lecture by Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and currently the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Later we spent an enchanted evening at Küng’s home in the hills of Tübingen, drinking fine Swiss wine and listening to him tell tales.

     As is well known, Pope John Paul II withdrew Küng’s theological license in December 1979, largely over his challenge to the doctrine of papal infallibility. Küng switched to Tübingen’s faculty of ecumenical theology and continued to be one of the university’s most popular lecturers.

     I think one could make a case that few people in church history have benefited from a Vatican crackdown like Hans Küng.

     In saying this, I don’t mean to be flippant. I know that what happened in 1979 was, and remains, hurtful to Küng. He has called it “the most painful and cruel period of my life.” The episode also dismayed millions of Catholics who have drawn strength and insight from Küng’s theological writings.

     (I’m among them. When I was 17 and struggling with my faith, a priest I admire handed me a copy of Küng’s On Being a Christian. It has remained a touchstone).

     Yet the papal censure pushed his career in new and unexpected directions, into the field of world religions and global ethics. Today Küng’s Global Ethic Foundation, founded in 1991, is a major player in United Nations and international policy-making circles, pushing inter-religious understanding and the need for a spiritual contribution to globalization.

     Last year, Küng’s foundation brought Tony Blair to Tübingen. This year the guest was Robinson, and the event illustrated the potential for dialogue between people of faith and those who craft international policy. 

     In response to a question from Küng, Robinson voiced reservations about the new military tribunals created by the Bush administration to handle Taliban prisoners.

     “Countries without a strong democratic tradition will find it all too easy to copy-cat these tribunals,” she said. “It will become more difficult to make the case for due process.”

     “It’s in times of stress that we have to uphold our conventions,” Robinson argued. “Lowering human rights standards is the wrong approach to combating terrorism. We have to do with our belief in the rule of law.”

     In the afternoon, Robinson took questions at a seminar-style session with faculty and invited guests. I asked her about the seemingly intractable divide between the United Nations and the Vatican on issues of reproductive rights.

     “There are real problems. I know my colleague who runs the UN Family Planning Agency feels them very acutely,” she said. 

     Robinson suggested that Catholic opinion on these issues is not monolithic.

     “One of the pleasures for me as I move around the world is occasionally hearing an Irish accent, and often enough it’s a religious woman, a missionary,” she said. “In my experience, they understand the complexities of the issues. They understand the argument for access to reproductive rights for poor women, for example, especially in contexts of violence and rape.”

     “If the Vatican would listen to its own grassroots,” Robinson said, “they would get some very good input from people working in difficult conditions. They know well the vulnerability of women and girls.”

     Whatever one makes of her stands, the chance to bring a high-profile United Nations figure like Robinson into dialogue with experts on religion and global spirituality was a golden one. Too often these two worlds prefer to shout at one another across barricades.

     The experience made me realize that, ironically, few people have probably done more than Hans Küng to realize Pope John Paul’s dream of an “evangelization of culture.” Küng is the kind of man who can sit down with Kofi Anan and explain why religion has to be a partner in constructing a civilization of values. He can also pop down in China, or Iran, or Benin, and push religious leaders in those places to embrace a moderate, dialogical path, because he has studied their traditions and can speak from within their own frames of reference. 

     Over dinner, I had an opportunity for which legions of church historians and Vaticanisti would brave burning coals. I was able to quiz Küng, who helped shape the theological agenda of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and who has been a key figure in church politics ever since, about his forthcoming autobiography. The first volume, which ends with the council, is due out this year, with the second still in preparation. 

     We talked well into the night, with Küng offering up one ripping account after another about the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI, the German bishops, the Catholic theological community, and Rome during Küng’s student days under Pius XII. Alas, some of these stories were told under the seal of pontifical secrecy and hence cannot be revealed here.

     I can, however, give readers this anticipation of the new book. Unlike many progressives, who believe the council was betrayed by the Roman curia after everyone went home, Küng argues the failure happened during the council itself. He says that between the first and second sessions the progressive majority made a fatal compromise. They agreed to include in Lumen Gentium, the constitution on the church, a third chapter on the hierarchical nature of the church after the opening two about the church as mystery and as the people of God. That move, he believes, enshrined two contradictory ecclesiologies that destined the post-conciliar church to schizophrenia and conflict.

     This analysis may strike some as dicey, but it’s worth remembering that the church was not always so skittish about listening to its critics. After Küng published one especially scathing commentary on Paul VI during Vatican II, he was summoned to a private meeting with the pope in the Apostolic Palace. Paul did not want to upbraid the young maverick; he wanted to offer him a job. Küng declined, as he had other theological fish to fry. But the encounter, which happened just three days before the end of the council, illustrates the way some church leaders can regard a diversity of opinions as a healthy thing.

     I know, of course, that some Catholics find Küng a bit much. His tongue can be tart (he has, for example, compared the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the KGB). Some of this reflects the rough-and-tumble discourse of German academia, some his own feisty personality. Others feel that Küng’s ecclesiology is soft, perhaps influenced by all that Reformation air in the Swabian hills. It may be, too, that Küng takes a slightly dark view of the current state of church affairs. (He jokingly suggested I have been “infected” by Opus Dei because I do not believe they are scheming to control the outcome of the next papal conclave).

     Yet for all that, Küng remains a faithful priest in love with his church. His theological contributions are lasting and enormous, from harmonizing Catholic doctrine on justification with Protestant thinker Karl Barth, thus paving the way for Catholic/Lutheran détente, to the language on charisms in Lumen Gentium (first penned by Küng as a speech on the council floor for Cardinal Leon Suenens of Belgium). 

     Perhaps under a future papacy, Küng may yet be rehabilitated. In a sense the process has already begun. In a July 1998 address at Rome’s Lateran University, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and an old classmate of Küng, called his writings “beautiful pages dedicated to the mystery; faith in the river of goodness and mercy, of solidarity and willingness to help.”

     I hope to live to see a Catholic church in which Hans Küng is touted as a treasure. In my view, his impact on church of his time, as well as the broader world, is overwhelmingly positive. And that’s not just three bottles of Swiss wine talking.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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