Despite Flagrant Dissent of Father Hans Küng, Some Church Leaders Pay Glowing Tribute

The Swiss theologian censured by John Paul II died Tuesday at 93.

Father Hans Küng speaks at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) in Madrid, Spain, on Jan. 27, 2011.
Father Hans Küng speaks at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) in Madrid, Spain, on Jan. 27, 2011. (photo: UNED / Flickr/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

ROME — Despite his profoundly dissenting views that included questioning the divinity of Christ, rejecting papal infallibility and undermining doctrines on the Virgin Mary, warm tributes were paid yesterday by some prominent Church leaders to Swiss theologian Father Hans Küng, who died Tuesday at age 93.

Father Küng never repented of his positions, which caused him to be formally censured more than 40 years ago by the Vatican as an individual whose views are so contrary to key Church teachings that it was impermissible for him to be considered as a Catholic theologian at all. 

Father Küng was ordained to the priesthood in 1954 and came into international prominence at the Second Vatican Council, where he served as a theological adviser, but immediately afterward he began to clash openly with Rome over a range of central issues. 

“In the early days of John Paul II’s papacy the tensions culminated in a 1979 declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Küng had ‘departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith, and therefore he can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role,’” Catholic News Agency noted Tuesday. “The Congregation cited his opinions on the doctrine of infallibility, expressed in his 1971 book Infallible? An Inquiry, as one of the reasons for the move.”


Cardinal Kasper

Despite this strong official censure of Father Küng’s thought, yesterday’s tributes included respectful comments from Cardinal Walter Kasper that appeared on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

“My relationship with him was good,” Cardinal Kasper said, adding that it was always one of “mutual respect” and that they “regularly exchanged greetings and good wishes” — despite the fact that they had drifted apart over the doctrine of papal infallibility, which Father Küng rejected and that led to the revoking of his teaching license in 1979. 

In his L’Osservatore Romano tribute, Cardinal Kasper stressed that the theologian “was not only a critic of the Church or a rebel” but also “a person who wanted to bring about a renewal in the Church and implement its reform.” At the same time, the German cardinal conceded that Father Küng went “beyond Catholic orthodoxy and therefore did not remain tied to a theology based on Church doctrine, but ‘invented’ his own theology.” He quoted the Second Vatican Council theologian Yves Congar, who described Father Küng as Catholic, “but in his own way.” 

Cardinal Kasper, who first met Father Küng as a graduate student at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s, assessed Küng’s ecclesiology as “too liberal,” and said that he departed from the position of “his great teacher,” the Protestant Swiss theologian Karl Barth. 

But the cardinal, who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2001-2010, said that even though he and Father Küng differed on the doctrine of justification and ministries in the Church, they mostly agreed on the issue of “ecumenical dialogue.” 

“He was a combative man,” Cardinal Kasper said, someone who “criticized in his own way, harshly, and sometimes unjustly,” but on the other hand, “used a language everyone could understand,” especially those “who were far, or had drifted away, from the faith and the Church.” 

The German cardinal praised his work on interreligious dialogue, and his creation of a foundation to promote global ethics through the recognition of common values between religions. 

Cardinal Kasper also noted that Father Küng’s legacy includes “ideas that have become current in Germany,” even though he said he personally has “doubts about these reforms” as they include women’s ordination to the priesthood and the abolition of priestly celibacy. (Cardinal Kasper also noted differences he had with Father Küng over Humanae Vitae in another April 7 interview, with Corriere della Sera.)

He stressed that Father Küng “never even thought of wanting to leave the Church,” and recalled that Pope Francis conveyed his greetings and blessings to him “in the Christian community” when the aging priest was close to death last summer. Indeed there was a “certain consensus” on the part of Father Küng with the papal magisterium under Pope Francis, the cardinal said, adding that Father Küng was “eager for reconciliation” and wanted to die in peace with the Church. 

Referring to the frosty theological relationship Father Küng had with his former colleague at the University of Tübingen, Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Kasper said they “esteemed and respected each other but were not in agreement.” 

“I must say that Küng had spoken ill of Ratzinger in the past, and this for me was unacceptable,” Cardinal Kasper said. “However, I believe that Ratzinger’s esteem has remained even in the last months [and] I know that Benedict XVI prayed for him; the personal relationship between the two was not interrupted.”


Less Measured Tributes

Cardinal Kasper’s tribute was relatively measured compared to the tributes from some other significant Church voices, including from the Pontifical Academy for Life, headed by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. 

“Disappears a great figure in the theology of the last century whose ideas and analyses must always make us reflect on the Catholic Church, the Churches, the society, the culture,” the academy eulogized in a tweet.

Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, also a former student at Tübingen, described Father Küng as “a great impetus for the Church,” someone who “in his own way he loved her very much” and whose “prickly spirit was motivated by the desire to create that Church that the Council had desired.” 

Asked by La Stampa to explain further, Archbishop Forte, who was a special secretary to the 2014 Synod on the Family, said the Church is neither a spectator nor an opponent of humanity, but is “leaven in the mass of humanity” and “participates in the lives of people by encouraging justice and peace.” 

He added, “Sometimes there were harsh tones, but they were part of the post-conciliar troubles, perhaps necessary to shake up the process.” He said Father Küng, who was a peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council, “exasperated some people with his interventions” but added that his “profound intent was constructive.” 

Regarding relativism, Archbishop Forte said Father Küng saw truth not as “something one possesses and therefore can dispose of at will” but rather “someone who comes to us, who transforms us. In this sense it has a dynamic aspect, which was what Küng insisted on.”

In another tribute, Lucetta Scaraffia, a former editor of L’Osservatore Romano’s women’s supplement, wrote in a commentary for La Stampa that while Father Küng’s hope for a world of unified religions had failed due to Islamic fundamentalism, “his other proposals have been tacitly affirmed, also within the Catholic world, where there is no longer any talk of the need to convert.” 

Meanwhile, the head of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, said in a statement that Father Küng was a “recognized and controversial researcher” who was committed to “living ecumenism” and interreligious dialogue. Despite his conflicts with the Church, Bishop Bätzing thanked him for his “many years of commitment as a Catholic theologian in communicating the Gospel,” and said Küng left behind “a rich theological legacy.”

Jesuit Father James Martin called Father Küng a “towering Catholic theologian,” while his fellow contributor to America Magazine, Jesuit Father Roger Haight, wrote that Father Küng had an “amazingly productive career as theologian, ecumenist, religionist and finally a moral leader of humanity” and that the “Catholic Church, Christianity, other religions and all humanity in a recognizable way are his beneficiaries.” 


Critical Perspective

Counterbalancing yesterday’s tributes is the perspective of Professor Stefano Fontana, director of the Cardinal Van Thuân Observatory on the Social Doctrine of the Church. 

Writing April 7 for the Catholic website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, Fontana noted that Father Küng’s theological life was the “exact opposite” of that prescribed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its 1990 Instruction on the vocation of the theologian Donum Veritatis — namely prudence, avoidance of the media, and not to flaunt theological positions contrary to the magisterium.

Not following these prescriptions leads a theologian to think “the future of the Church depends on him, or at least above all on him,” Fontana wrote, which in turn leads to an “historicist and progressive theology.” 

Father Küng, like the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, was such a theologian, he said, adding that he was above all Hegelian — the adherer of a philosophical view that the Church was “continually becoming,” guided by the future, not the past, so that only new theological notions are valid. It is what the 20th-century French Dominican theologian Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange feared about Nouvelle Théologie, Fontana said, and of which Father Küng was “basically a child” and “even more reckless than others.” 

Furthermore, he said it is a philosophy followed by Bishop Bätzing.

“Küng,” he said, “was Swiss by nationality, but German by theology,” someone “tuned into a Vatican III and eager to meet a John XXIV.” He believed the Church was “established from below and also renewed from below,” and that this “new Church from below” had already begun.

He noted how Father Küng promoted not only contraception and women’s ordination, but also “Eucharistic hospitality” (something also pushed by Church leaders in Germany) and Father Küng “considered it untenable for the Catholic Church to have only one legitimate religion.” The Church, he believed, “had to accept the challenge of other religions’ claim to truth,” Fontana wrote. 

Internally, this meant making local Churches autonomous to honor the “richness of variety,” to be against “dogmatic arrogance,” “dogmatic rigidity” and “moralistic censorship.” The Church, he believed, had to live a “communitarian relationship” and abandon a Church “from above, obstinate, reassuring, bureaucratized.” And just as the Soviet Union rehabilitated its dissidents, so he was of the conviction that the Church “should rehabilitate her own, from [liberation theologians] Hélder Câmara to Leonardo Boff.”

“He saw the future of the Church not only in ecumenism, but also in pacifism and a new ecologism,” Fontana said. 

He concluded by asserting that Küng’s legacy lives on, most notably in today’s German Church and its synodal path. Some of his ideas are said “with greater grace,” Fontana observed, “but we find them all,” and also in the universal Church where Leonardo Boff helps write papal encyclicals (he’s contributed to Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si) and in the cause for Hélder Câmara’s canonization which is now being promoted.

“Many think that we are already in Vatican III and that a John XXIV has already arrived, Luther and Calvin have been welcomed back into the fold, Eucharistic hospitality is the norm, and women are approaching the altar,” Fontana wrote. “While the media covered his outbursts, Hans Küng was busy sowing the seeds.”