Praying for Salvific Ignorance for the Clever Hans Küng

Küng died on the fifth day of the Divine Mercy Novena, the day dedicated especially to “the souls of those who have separated themselves from my Church.”

Hans Küng speaks Jan. 29, 1973, at Amsterdam’s Dominicuskerk.
Hans Küng speaks Jan. 29, 1973, at Amsterdam’s Dominicuskerk. (photo: Rob Croes / Anefo/Wikimedia Commons/CC0)

When I first heard the news April 6 that the 93-year-old Swiss theologian and author had died, I had just finished the prayers for the fifth day of the Novena of Divine Mercy. The death of Father Hans Küng during the novena necessarily frames our Christian reaction. 

For the novena’s fifth day, Jesus had asked St. Faustina Kowalska, and through her us, to bring to him “the souls of those who have separated themselves from my Church and immerse them in the ocean of my mercy.” 

The Polish Sister of Our Lady of Mercy, in turn, begged Jesus to “receive into the abode of your most compassionate heart the souls of those who have separated themselves from your Church” and implored God the Father to “turn your merciful gaze upon the souls of those who have separated themselves from your Son’s Church, who have squandered your blessing and misused your graces by obstinately persisting in their errors. Do not look upon their errors, but upon the love of your own Son and upon his bitter Passion, which he underwent for their sake.” 

It was as if, in the midst of the scores of lengthy obituaries and elegies that immediately were being run in Catholic and secular sources, Jesus himself, who chose the time of Küng’s visitation, wanted his Church to keep two things in mind: the sad reality of Father Küng’s obstinate persistence in separating himself from the teaching of the Church, and the heartening reality that Jesus nevertheless was praying for him, and asking his Church to pray for him, that in the end, he would receive the mercy arduously won on Calvary. 

Küng was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, rising to prominence as a theological celebrity at the time of the Second Vatican Council, where he was a peritus (expert) of Bishop Carl Joseph Leiprecht of Rottenburg, Germany. Immediately before the Council, at the age of 32, Küng wrote The Council, Reform and Reunion, which played a role in Vatican II documents on divine revelation, liturgy, interreligious dialogue and religious liberty. 

At a time in which the media of the world was paying close attention to the Council and what it meant for the future of the Catholic Church, Küng became an international newsmaker. He was young, handsome and drove a sports car; he dressed in stylish business suits instead of clergy apparel; he was fluent in six languages; he spoke and wrote with vivacity, intelligence, clarity and candor; he loved the spotlight and was unabashed in slipping to the press what was supposed to be confidential. 

All of these qualities taken together, however, would never have been enough to gain him stardom had he also not been a savvy doctrinal transgressor of a flavor matching the tastes of those — in the media, academy, Church and the world — hoping for revolution in Church teaching in subjects discordant to the spirit of the age. 

Küng did not leave those crowds disappointed.

Over the course of time, he undermined and opposed Church teaching on papal infallibility, the magisterial authority of bishops, euthanasia, abortion, contraception, the inadmissibility of ordaining women as priests, the need of a priest for the valid consecration of the Eucharist, the consubstantiality of Christ with God the Father, the meaning of hell, and various aspects of Church sexual teaching, including the sinfulness of homosexual activity. He also was a persistent critic of the Church’s practice of mandatory priestly celibate chastity and an outspoken detractor of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his friend and colleague earlier in life on the theology faculty at the University of Tübingen. 

When Küng started to veer off the path of sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), the Church tried hard to work with him, so that he might use his enormous gifts to strengthen rather than subvert the Church. 

On Dec. 2, 1965, at the end of Vatican II, Pope St. Paul VI met with him for 45 minutes and, according to Küng, asked him for whom he was writing — if not for God and the Church — and urged him to put his talents at the service of the Church, even offering him a Vatican position. Küng replied that he was “already at the service of the Church,” and that he was writing not for the Pope, “who clearly doesn’t want my theology as it is,” but for those “who may need my theology.” 

After his 1968 book The Church and his 1971 Infallible? An Inquiry, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) notified him of difficulties they had found and asked him to explain how such views, especially with regard to papal infallibility, were not contradictions of Catholic doctrine. 

After unsatisfactory replies from Küng, the Congregation published a declaration stating that in those works, “some views are found that in different degrees oppose the Catholic Church’s doctrine that must be professed by all the faithful” and admonished him “not to continue to teach such views” that “destroy [the Church’s] doctrine and place it in doubt.”

The Church hoped, as the CDF wrote later, that he would “bring his opinions into harmony with the authentic magisterium.” But Küng did the opposite in multiple subsequent writings. So in 1979 the CDF, with the approval of St. John Paul, was “constrained” to declare that Küng “has 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.” 

Even though Küng remained a priest in good standing of the Diocese of Basel, Switzerland, the Church pronounced him to be teaching heresy. 

The Declaration was a devastating blow, causing Küng to lose his position in the Tübingen Catholic theology faculty — whereupon he was given a position at the University’s Institute for Ecumenical Research — and led him, by his own admission, close to a nervous breakdown. He obstinately, however, stuck to the path he was on, incapable of receiving with humility and faith, it seems, the fraternal correction of the Church. While Catholics must pursue the truth in conscience and seek to live it, that’s not the same thing as intransigently holding on to one’s opinions. 

In its Declaration, the CDF stated, “If it should happen, therefore, that a teacher of sacred doctrine chooses and disseminates as the norm of truth his own judgment and not the thought of the Church, and if he continues in his conviction despite the use of all charitable means in his regard, then honesty itself demands that the Church should publicly call attention to his conduct and should state that he can no longer teach with the authority of the mission which he received from her.”

It commented that the mission of a Catholic theologian “is in fact a testimony to a reciprocal trust: first, trust on the part of the competent authority that the theologian will conduct himself as a Catholic theologian in the work of his research and teaching; second, trust on the part of the theologian himself in the Church and in her integral teaching, since it is by her mandate that he carries out his task.” 

Since Küng had lost his trust in the integral teaching of the Church, the Church had a duty to say that it could no longer trust that he would conduct himself as a Catholic theologian.

It’s hard not to see the influence of Küng’s example and more than 50 books in the doctrinal confusion now wounding the Church in Germany and afflicting heterodox theology faculties worldwide. 

In the last 42 years of his life, while not recanting or revising any of his previous teachings and, sadly, doubling down on ones like assisted suicide — which he admitted he himself was considering as a result of Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and macular degeneration that left him largely unable to see and to write — he dedicated himself to ecumenical efforts, to interreligious dialogue and to establishing a global code of ethics based on moral truths common to various major religions — the last an initiative that won the praise of Pope Benedict and many religious leaders. 

Küng seemed to be more comfortable — and effective — in non-Catholic settings in which he was building bridges somewhat of his own genius rather than faithfully standing with the living rock on whom Christ had built his Church, which Catholics profess is the pillar and foundation of the truth (Matthew 16:13; 1 Timothy 3:15). 

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who 60 years ago was Küng’s doctoral assistant, said that although Küng had “invented” his own theology rather than developed one based on the doctrine of the Church, his heart was always Catholic even if his behavior wasn’t. Last summer, Kasper informed Pope Francis that Küng was near death and desired to die at peace with the Church. The Pope told Kasper to give Küng his blessing, something that Kasper interpreted as a “pastoral and human” reconciliation, although not a doctrinal one. 

On Calvary, Jesus cried to the Father to forgive us because we don’t know what we do. As we continue our prayers in the Novena of Divine Mercy, we ask that that plea for ignorance embrace the clever Father Küng, so that he may be admitted one day to the vision of the One who must always remain the object of sacred theology.