Küng Letter provides opportunity for reflection
Fr Kevin Hegarty
In 1962 the Catholic bishops gathered in Rome for the first session of the Second Vatican Council.
Among the theologians advising them were two young men, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger, dubbed by their senior colleagues as “the teenage theologians”.
Now, almost fifty years later, both men, now in their eighties, are still significant figures in Roman Catholicism. At the time of the council they were colleagues and friends at the University of Tubingen in Germany. It was through Küng’s instigation that Ratzinger was appointed to the theology faculty.
Their paths have diverged over the years. To paraphrase the words of the poet, Robert Frost, for both men two roads diverged in a wood and their choices have made all the difference for their subsequent careers.
Joseph Ratzinger, disturbed, it is speculated, by the student riots in Europe of the late sixties, retreated from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and began to espouse a conservative theology at variance with the spirit of that seismic event in the history of the Church. He rose rapidly through the ecclesiastical ranks, becoming Archbishop of Munich, an influential Cardinal in Rome and is now Pope Benedict XVI.
The spirit of the Second Vatican Council has been the lodestar of Hans Küng’s life. As the Vatican curia worked to stifle its reforms, he became its most persistent critic.
He has paid the price. In 1971, in a celebrated book, ‘Infallible? An Enquiry’, he questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility, promulgated at the First Vatican Council in 1871. Infallibility, he claimed, was a man-made concept rather than something instituted by God. The Vatican responded by stripping him of his licence to teach theology in a Catholic faculty. He remains, however, a priest “in good standing,” to use a coy Church phrase.
Recently Küng addressed a powerful and provocative letter to Catholic bishops where he states that the Church “now finds itself in the worst credibility crisis since the Reformation.” The mismanagement of sexual abuse cases is the final straw. It “has given rise to an unprecedented leadership crisis and a collapse of trust in Church leadership.”
He does not spare his old friend, Joseph Ratzinger. They remain in contact. Shortly after Ratzinger became Pope, he invited Küng to the Vatican for a four-hour conversation. For Küng, this lengthy dialogue created the hope that his former colleague “might find his way to promote an ongoing renewal of the Church and an ecumenical rapprochement in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council,”
The letter reflects his profound dismay that this has not happened. While he praises Benedict’s “helpful” encyclical on faith, hope and charity, he argues that the Pope has failed to meet “the major challenges of our times.”
He criticises him for his failure to develop positive relationships with Protestants, Jews and Muslims. He feels that the Pope has missed an opportunity “to help the people of Africa by allowing the use of birth control to fight over-population and condoms to fight the spread of HIV.”
He is disturbed by Benedict’s rapprochement with the bishops of the Pius X Society, who were consecrated illegally and who reject the liturgical and theological reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
He paints a gloomy picture of the Catholic Church in the developed world. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life have declined not just quantitatively but qualitatively. Church attendance has severely declined. There are many empty seminaries and rectories; “more and more parishes are being merged, often against the will of their members, into ever larger ‘pastoral units’, in which the few surviving pastors are completely overtaxed.”
In the latter half of the letter he urges the bishops not to remain silent: “When you feel that certain laws, directives and measures are counterproductive, you should say so in public. Send Rome not professions of your devotion but rather calls for reform.”
He goes on to encourage bishops to bypass the Pope’s authority and begin implementing “needed reforms” at national and regional level, such as allowing married priests. They should demand the convening of an ecumenical council to confront the crisis that is enveloping the Church.
I believe that this important letter can provide an opportunity for reflection, by clergy and laity, throughout the Church. It has the air of prophecy about it. It is time for the church to bring this august theologian in from the cold.