INTELLECTUAL GIANT Influential theologian Hans Küng, who passed away earlier this month. He is pictured here in 2011 receiving one of the 15 honorary doctorates he was awarded during his lifetime. Pic: Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia
Outspoken Swiss theologian’s liberal reformism continues to challenge Catholic conservatism
Fr Kevin Hegarty
On Friday, April 16, one of the most influential theologians of the last century was laid to rest in Germany. For well over half a century, Hans Küng campaigned for liberal reform in the Catholic Church. He criticised church policy on governance, liturgy, papal infallibility, contraception, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, mixed marriages, abortion and homosexuality.
A prolific author, he published over 50 books. While theology was his main subject, he also wrote on modern art and music, psychology, feminism, anti-semitism, racism, economics and the environment. His intellectual range was vast, his knowledge was impressive and his writing style was accessible. Three of his major works, ‘The Church’, ‘On Being a Christian’ and ‘Does God exist?’ are classics of contemporary christian theology.
Hans Küng was born in Switzerland in 1928. One of seven children, his father was a prosperous shoe merchant while his mother, a farmer’s daughter, ran the home. He studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained in 1954. After a short interlude in parish ministry in Lucerne, he returned to study in Rome and Paris, winning several academic accolades.
In 1960, he was appointed a Professor of Theology in Tübingen University in Germany. It was his base for the rest of his life.
In 1959, Pope John XXIII surprised the Catholic world by calling the Second Vatican Council to ‘let some air into the church’. He wanted it to engage positively with the impulses of the modern world.
Küng was chosen as one of the theological experts at the council which opened in 1962 and lasted for three years. He and Joseph Ratzinger were regarded as ‘boy theologians’ by their elderly colleagues. The two became friends, and Küng helped Ratzinger procure a professorship at Tübingen University.
Later their paths diverged. Ratzinger, disturbed by student protests in the late 1960s, retreated into theological conservatism. He was rewarded by rapid promotion in the Church, eventually becoming Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. There was a partial reconciliation between the two men when Küng accepted Benedict’s invitation to lunch in the Papal Palace Castel Gandolfo.
Küng’s first book, ‘The Council, Reform and Reunion’, helped provide the intellectual frame work for the Second Vatican Council. His theological fingerprints are evident in the documents on liturgy, the Church in the modern world and ecumenism. According to the religious affairs expert Peter Hebblethwaite: “Never again would a theologian have such influence.”
After the council, Küng’s desire for further reform in the Church led him into confrontation with the Vatican. He wanted to remove the Church’s ban on contraception and the requirement for priestly celibacy. He argued that the Church had existed for a thousand years without this mandatory imposition.
He strongly supported the ordination of women to the priesthood. In his last book, ‘Can We Save The Catholic Church?’, he wrote that there are no theological reasons preventing such reform: “The exclusively male composition of the quorum of Jesus’ twelve apostles has to be understood in the socio-cultural situation existing at that time. None of the traditional reasons for the exclusion of women – e.g. women having brought sin into the world; the woman being created in second place after the man; the woman not being created in the image of God like the man; the woman not being a full member of the Church and the menstruation taboo – can be ascribed Jesus; they testify only to a deep-seated theological denigration of women … Jesus and the early Church were ahead of their time in holding women in high esteem; in contrast, the Catholic Church today lags far behind the times, and behind other Christian Churches where female pastors and bishops have fulfilled their roles very successfully.”
From the late 1960s, the Vatican examined Küng’s writings with hawk-like intensity. Küng’s 1971 book ‘Infallible? An Inquiry’ brought the confrontation into the open. He claimed that the doctrine of papal infallibility, adopted in 1871, was flawed and not supported by scriptural authority. He gave several examples of papal mistakes over the centuries. Incidentally, the then Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, was amongst these who opposed promulgation of the dogma in 1871.
Küng’s unwillingness to retract his views on papal infallibility, allied to other radical interventions, resulted in the Vatican removing his licence to teach theology in a Catholic faculty. Tübingen University came to his rescue by appointing him to an alternative position as Professor of Ecumenical Theology. He was not to be silenced.
Views on Hans Küng reveal the divisions in the Catholic Church today. For many traditional Catholics he is a heretic. For liberal Catholics like myself, he remains an icon and inspiration.