Hans Küng: Not missing an opportunity

I finally got around to reading Hans Küng’s “Open Letter” in the Irish Times the other day. I thought I had better read it before reading George Weigel’s reply.

Certainly it was completely scurilous of Prof. Küng to provide the Irish Times with the opportunity to run a by-line which read:

Pope Benedict has made worse just about everything that is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church and is directly responsible for engineering the global cover-up of child rape perpetrated by priests, according to this open letter to all Catholic bishops

. Every statement of that by-line is false – except perhaps for the bit following “according to” etc.

But Küng’s letter covers much wider ground than that in which the Irish Times is interested. It is nothing less than a manifesto for everything he has written and called for in the last 45 years since the close of the Council. Wiegel’s reply is on the money, focusing as it does on the divergent interpretations of the Second Vatican Council represented by Joseph Ratzinger’s Ying and Hans Küng’s Yang. He also replies to the charges enunciated in the by-line. But he treats only very lightly two other lists in Küng’s letter: his complaints against Benedict’s pontificate and his agenda for the reform of the Church.

The list of complaints are a collection of what the media likes to call Benedict’s “gaffs”. Most of these have been simply and summarily dealt with by Sandro Magister (The passion of Benedict: Six accusations, one question). They are accusations of “missed opportunities” launched by someone who, as Weigel puts it so well, has “not been paying much attention”. They are the newspaper headlines without the background (or consequent) facts. He talks of “missed opportunities”, when in fact, Benedict has not “missed” any of these “opportunities” but has built upon them constructively in the last five years.

Opportunity One: rapprochement with the Protestant churches

Missed is the opportunity for rapprochement with the Protestant churches: Instead, they have been denied the status of churches in the proper sense of the term and, for that reason, their ministries are not recognized and intercommunion is not possible.

Küng claims the Holy Father has denied Protestants “the status of churches in the proper sense of the term”. This is, of course, not a reference to anything that has happened during BXVI’s pontificate, but to Dominus Iesus issued in 2000 by the CDF (admittedly, under Ratzinger’s watch). In the last ten years, as a result of this “gaff”, there has been an enormous and fruitful amount of attention given to ecclesiology in ecumenical theology, mostly as a result of this. It is an important and essential element of the discussion, without which ecumenism would really have little or no meaning. As for the statement that “their ministries are not recognized and intercommunion is not possible”, well, that can hardly be laid at Benedict’s door. I think discussion of this matter began with Leo XIII over a hundred years ago, and unfortunately there has been little that might be called progress in the years since. Things were looking brighter for a patch – say from the 1930’s till the mid-70’s – but the adoption of women’s ordination by a very large proportion of protestant communions (including women bishops) has muddied the waters even further. We know what Küng’s position is on this matter, but it is not the position of the Catholic Church – or the Orthodox Churches for that matter. All commentators alike are agreed that Benedict has done much for rapproachment with the Orthodox, and unfortunately – given the gulf between Orthodox and Protestant ecclesiologies – it is extremely difficult to seek both at the same time (the greatest amount of work on seeking a shared ecclesiology has, be it noted, been done with the Orthodox, who at least have one). The fact of the matter is that Küng favours ecumenism with Protestants – Benedict favours ecumenism with the Orthodox. And fair enough too, given the high degree of shared faith we have with the latter, and the fact that the overwhelming number of non-Catholic Christians in the world are Orthodox.

All of which is not to say that Benedict has not also done a lot of positive work with building rapproachment with Protestants – although not with the variety that Prof. Küng would like to favour. The dialogue with Pentecostals is bearing surprising fruit, and Benedict’s own emphasis on Christology and Augustinian expressions of faith have led to many admirers of his teaching within conservative Protestant folds also.

Opportunity Two: long-term reconciliation with the Jews

Missed is the opportunity for the long-term reconciliation with the Jews: Instead the pope has reintroduced into the liturgy a preconciliar prayer for the enlightenment of the Jews, he has taken notoriously anti-Semitic and schismatic bishops back into communion with the church, and he is actively promoting the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of not offering sufficient protections to Jews in Nazi Germany.

Well, “long-term reconciliation [of Christians] with the Jews” is precisely that: long-term. So long term, in fact, that it is in reality an eschatological hope. The relationship between Christians and Jews – or even Catholics and Jews in particular – can always be improved, but there will always be “issues”. It was St Paul’s hope that the “dividing wall” had been broken down in Christ, but ironically Christ himself has been, from the very beginning, the point of division between Christians and Jews. Over the centuries we drifted far apart and great hostility grew up between the two religions – at least from the Christian side. Catholics have done a lot to better that situation over the last fifty years, but it will always be one of those family relationships where disagreements will arise. Such are the traditional Good Friday prayer, the lifting of the excommunication of the Lefebvrist bishops, and the ongoing cause of Pius XII. None of these were or were intended as attacks upon the Jewish people. On the contrary, Benedict has continued warm relations with the Jews. He has made official visits to three Synagogues, an official trip to Israel, invited a rabbi to address the Synod of Bishops. These are not the actions of someone who has “missed the opportunity” for enhancing relationships with the Jews. Contrary to Küng’s accusation, Benedict sees Judaism as far more than “only the historic root of Christianity”, although he is right to say that Benedict has not endorsed the “two-paths-of-salvation” theory that some have in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. This is because the Catholic Church has not endorsed this theory.

Opportunity three: with Muslims in an atmosphere of mutual trust

Missed is the opportunity for a dialogue with Muslims in an atmosphere of mutual trust: Instead, in his ill-advised but symptomatic 2006 Regensburg lecture, Benedict caricatured Islam as a religion of violence and inhumanity and thus evoked enduring Muslim mistrust.

He didn’t, but I’m not going to argue that case here. Suffice it to say that Catholic Muslim dialogue has never been at a deeper or more sincere level than it is today, and part of this is a direct – if unexpected – outcome of the Regensburg lecture. Küng cannot possibly be ignorant of the high level of dialogue that has emerged between the Vatican and Muslims during the aftermath of Regensburg and through the Common Word Project, so I can only think that he is being deliberately duplicitous here in making this accusation.

Opportunity Four: “reconciliation with the colonised indigenous peoples of Latin America”

Well, I don’t know anything about that. It surprises me that it is an area which Küng highlights at this point. Perhaps he is better informed on this issue than I am. But it is a “left-field” accusation.

Opportunity Five: “to help the people of Africa by allowing the use of birth control to fight overpopulation and condoms to fight the spread of HIV”
Again, the reason the Pope hasn’t endorsed condoms as a means of fighting HIV in Africa (or anywhere else or that matter) is not only the questionable success of the strategy, but fundamentally because the Catholic Church does not endorse the use of condoms in sexual relations. Is Küng forgetting who the Pope is and what his role in the Church is? It certainly isn’t to make up the rules as he goes along.

Opportunity Six: “to make peace with modern science by clearly affirming the theory of evolution and accepting stem-cell research”

I wasn’t particularly aware that the Church was at war with “modern science” nor that “affirming the theory of evolution” was the business of the Church any more than affirming the doctrine of Creation is the business of science. Prof. Küng seems a little confused here. As for “stem-cell” research, as Weigel points out, the Church has nothing against stem-cell research – just against destroying living human embryos in order to obtain said stem-cells. I wonder why Küng singles out this issue? There are plenty of other bioethical subjects he could have named. Same conclusion, of course.

Opportunity Seven: “to make the spirit of the Second Vatican Council the compass for the whole Catholic Church, including the Vatican itself, and thus to promote the needed reforms in the church.”
Okay, and – as Weigel recognises – this is where the whole thing was headed from the start and the rest of what he talks about is largely his idea of “reform”. It is almost as if he is using the current situation in the Church as an excuse to push this old agenda. For Benedict on the Second Vatican Council, see Weigel’s comments. For the rest of us, we recognise that Benedict is completely a pope of the Council. Just ask any traditionalist Catholic. Heck, just ask the Lefebvrist bishops why they are not currently in full communion with the Catholic Church. Should be obvious, I would have thought.

But the problem with calls to “reform” is always, as Chesterton noted, that the would-be reformer is usually right about what is wrong in the Church but wrong about what is right. In this case, it would seem that Prof. Küng doesn’t even get right what is wrong.

Does the Church need “reform”? Well, yes, probably, and in many different areas – but what do we mean by the word? I prefer the Catholic idea of “ecclesia semper purificanda” to the Protestant idea of “ecclesia semper reformanda”, but let’s not quibble about that. A lot of people at the moment are looking for “reform” at the top of the Church, with “the hierarchy”. I see the need far more fundamentally to be in our parishes and schools at a local level: a need for a thorough-going reform (or purification) in the area evangelisation and catechesis. The New Evangelisation, no less. And that isn’t something that I just point the finger and say “they should be doing that”, but I look at what I can be doing to make a difference in the Church.

But the “reformers” are scathing about such things. Küng’s list looks like it was culled from Catholica’s website (although in reality the influence is probably the other way around). There is a theme in his “reforms”, which seems to be all about lessening the governing and magisterial role of the Papacy.

Actually, I agree with him when he says:

Too many in the church and in the episcopate complain about Rome, but do nothing themselves. When people no longer attend church in a diocese, when the ministry bears little fruit, when the public is kept in ignorance about the needs of the world, when ecumenical co-operation is reduced to a minimum, then the blame cannot simply be shoved off on Rome. Whether bishop, priest, layman or laywoman – everyone can do something for the renewal of the church within his own sphere of influence, be it large or small. Many of the great achievements that have occurred in the individual parishes and in the church at large owe their origin to the initiative of an individual or a small group. As bishops, you should support such initiatives and, especially given the present situation, you should respond to the just complaints of the faithful.

But I don’t agree with his solution (probably because we disagree on what actually needs reforming). As I said, evangelisation and catechesis, using our God-given talents faithfully in authentic vocations, these are the things that every “bishop, priest, layman or laywoman” is called to do. But this cannot be done rightly in a spirit of opposition to the Successor of Peter. The Catholic Church is Catholic BECAUSE it acts in communion with the Petrine Ministry, not counter to it or regardless of it.

This is where Küng is seriously confused. He asserts that:

Unconditional obedience is owed to God alone: Although at your episcopal consecration you had to take an oath of unconditional obedience to the pope, you know that unconditional obedience can never be paid to any human authority; it is due to God alone. For this reason, you should not feel impeded by your oath to speak the truth about the current crisis facing the church, your diocese and your country.

That is a direct rejection of the meaning of the vow in the episcopal ordination rite. Bishops vow unconditional obedience to the Bishop of Rome not as a “human authority” but as one authorised to speak in the name of Christ for his Church. No where else in the letter is is Küng’s agenda so clear. It is thoroughly Protestant in its appeal, EXCEPT that at least the Protestant reformers put the Scriptures up as an alternative authoritative source of directives concerning God’s will. Küng doesn’t even do that. It is all very well to say that one should be “obedient to God not man”, but how, in Küng’s book, does one determine what is or what is not the will of God? From the mouth of his servant, Fr Küng?

But we get the crux of the matter with the final demand in Küng’s reform: “Call for a council”. It really is a bit of a let down. In this letter, as if we needed it, we are reminded that Küng is a thorough-going 15th Century conciliarist. He seriously suggests a return to the idea from the Council of Constance of 5 year ecumenical councils. It is quite clear that he hasn’t even stopped to consider the practical, let alone theological, problems with such a scheme. Let alone the logistics of housing the 5000+ bishops, has he even paused to think of what a drain on the time and energy of bishops such a regular series of councils would require? When would they ever be in their dioceses? It is the job of a bishop to govern his diocese – not the universal Church. THAT is why we have the ministry of Peter.

But Weigel is right, it all comes down to a question of what the Second Vatican Council was all about. Benedict has one idea, and Küng another. Never the twain shall meet. It is a bit sad that Prof. Küng should choose to use the current situation in the Church as an opportunity for reworking his vendetta against the Office of the Papacy. That, it appears, is one opportunity that Küng at least has not missed.

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8 responses to “Hans Küng: Not missing an opportunity

  1. Given the number of very dubious bishops (just look at recent resignations worldwide – I wish that thereby all the dead and rotten wood’s been cleared out, but I mustn’t fantasise), and the terrible record of many in the episcopate in the matter of covering up child abuse instead of dismissing criminal priests, it is risible to imagine that going over to a synodal model of Church governance would do anything but exacerbate the present very real problems within the Church. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that, with honourable exceptions, many bishops are terribly mediocre.

    Of course, Küng is right when he fondly imagines the outcome of such Conciliarism, since the Anglican Communion in the West has shown us all what happens when dogma and discipline becomes a matter of majority vote, when such decision making becomes disengaged from the deposit of faith we have from Revelation (mediated through Scripture and Tradition), when the authority and normative nature of what has been passed down is lost. (Of course, the Orthodox do cleave to tradition, and so have no problems with synodal governance, which in their case does not involve any innovation in doctrine or practice.) Many Catholic bishops – just like many Catholic priests – would love to dump the dogmas and disciplines they no longer believe, just as many Catholic layfolk have done.

    Ask a sample about any of the usual list of controversial topics, and this will be found to be true: it’s not that the majority of Catholics believe that women can’t be ordained (for example), it’s that “the Vatican” says they can’t, and prevents it, and so (“until the next Pope finally relents”) all continue to bide their time, not being sufficiently agitated about the subject to, say, join the Anglicans instead. In matters well within local control (e.g. private use of contraception, preaching all manner of strange ideas, playing fast and loose with sacramental rites), the clergy and laity do as they please, restrained only by what external boundaries are still enforced (e.g. clergy may not marry, and if they preach or say Mass utterly outrageously, they will after many years eventually get told off, as happened in South Brisbane).

  2. I should have added, again (sorry!) Anglicanism in the West shows us what happens when Christians descend the slippery slope: collapse in Christian belief and practice. The same, albeit less so, is true of Western Catholicism, because, while Rome has held back the changes that many would prefer, so much slackness and indifference has become de facto the norm that objective measures such as Mass attendance, baptisms, Church marriages, etc. all show a relentless decline, and Catholics, whether nominal or even practising, observe mores more or less indistinguishable from those of society at large; similarly, what were only a few generations ago unquestioned Catholic beliefs are now not even known about – a catechised Catholic of yesteryear knew far more about their Faith, and actually believed it too, when compared with the “baptised pagans” (to quote a priest) who now occasionally come to the Sacraments.

  3. Brian Coyne (blessings upon him) is quite right to be concerned about this slide into practical atheism, but draws what are the wrong conclusions: that if only Bp Spong’s rejigging of Christianity were accepted and promulgated, all and sundry would embrace, well, not much of anything exactly, but at least folks’ tender consciences wouldn’t be upset by the nasty ol’ Vatican telling ’em they were naughty.

  4. Paul G

    I confess I’m making this comment without reading your post, David. I skimmed through Hans Kung’s “open letter” a few days ago and seemed a grab bag of every complaint he could think of. I frankly can’t be bothered going through it point by point.

    I love the self importance of the “open letter” thing. Probably thats the only way he has of sending any letters to the RCC.

  5. William Tighe

    I agree with Joshua: contemporary Anglicanism and Anglican churches are the death’s head, the memento mori, of ideas such as Neo-Conciliarism (with a “democratic” twist), the idolization of the Zeitgeist (the “Spirit of Vatican II”) and “aggiornamento” (if separated from a Patristic resourcissement, and become an end in itself). Thank God for these Anglicans, for they (and their Lutheran equivalents, if to a lesser extent) show Catholics who have eyes to see what not to do, what mistakes not to make and how not to capitulate to the Zeitgeist!

  6. I’ve often wondered, and even asked friends of mine, ex-Anglicans who are now Catholics, whether they have a horrible creeping sensation of déjà-vu about the collapse in morals, doctrines and discipline in the Catholic Church, since they would have seen much the same (except worse) in the gradually-crumbling Anglican Communion that they had left.

  7. Paul G

    I was prepared to regard Kung as at least a serious thinker until I read this. I also am amazed by the puffed-up self importance of calling it an “open letter”. Mate…. its a newspaper column.