Obituary: Professor Hans Küng
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Saxbee writes:
WHEN is a Roman Catholic theologian not a Roman Catholic theologian?
Hans Küng, who died on April 6th, embodied this mystery. As a cradle Catholic, he died a Catholic priest, taught theology in between and published more than 50 theological books. The Vatican recognized him as a Catholic, but revoked his permission as a trustworthy teacher of the faith. so one could say a Catholic but not a theologian. Meanwhile, others hailed his theology as the work of a volunteer Protestant; so a theologian, but not a Catholic.
He is a pre-eminent figure in the intellectual landscape of the late 20th century and has been described as the theologically acceptable face of Roman Catholicism. He includes a big tent ecclesiology that might encourage some to at least recruit him as a volunteer Anglican!
Be that as it may, his contribution to ecumenical and interreligious studies has ensured the priority of religious commitments of faith and has shaped one of his most famous maxims: No peace between nations until there is peace between religions.
Few theology students will be on their shelves without one or more of his books, while his approachable and logically coherent style has kept the general reader engaged in a number of disciplines. Such a popular appeal has done just about anything to anger those with whom it has crossed swords over the years, especially those ecclesiastical authorities who do not take transparency for granted.
The Roman Catholic Church, into whose service he was ordained in 1954, found that he was a troubling priest. After he was born into a Catholic family in Sursee (Switzerland) in 1928 as the eldest of seven children – his mother a farmer's daughter and his father a shoe dealer – he was founded for the priesthood at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. After serving as a pastor, he was appointed Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Roman Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen at the age of only 32 to withdraw his license as an officially recognized teacher of the faith from Pope John Paul in 1979.
The temperature had risen since the publication of his doctoral thesis on the doctrine of justification in 1957, in which he could hardly choose between the teachings of his compatriot Karl Barth and Catholic theologies of justification. Although he served as an influential theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council, this did little to allay his ecclesiological reservations, which centered on a criticism of the Church linked to pre-Enlightenment traditions that are no longer tenable or unsustainable in the modern world were useful.
He was open in his criticism of papal infallibility in general and the birth control encyclical of Pope Paul VI. In particular. Incidentally, Pope Paul had offered him a post in the Vatican, which he refused. There has been some entertaining speculation that, if Küng had accepted, he might have risen to the Petersstuhl instead of Joseph Ratzinger, his former colleague in Tübingen.
Although he remained in the priesthood and had an easier relationship with Pope Francis than with his predecessors, his license to teach was never restored. Until his retirement in 1996 he continued to teach theology at the independent Institute for Ecumenical Research at the University of Tübingen, but without authorization as a representative of Catholic teaching. Those advocating reform on issues such as priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, homosexuality and abortion said the failure to reinstate him was a missed opportunity. Both the Church of England and the World Council of Churches have expressed concern about the impact of its ban on ecumenical relations.
He was camera-friendly, drove a sports car, and wore a suit rather than a cassock. He was popular with the press and in great demand as a traveling speaker – demand was of course fueled by his volatile relationship with the Vatican, which tended to define his academic and public reputation. But it is the sheer breadth and depth of his theological output that will determine his intellectual legacy. As an outstanding author on an extraordinarily wide range of topics, he is one of the most productive contemporary theologians.
Werner Jeanrond helpful divides Küng's main works into three periods: First, his concentration on ecclesiological questions until 1970; second, his treatment of various articles of the Christian faith (God, Jesus, eternal life) in the 1970s; and thirdly, his reflections on the theological method and the dialogue between Christianity and other world religions and between religion and culture since 1983.
The Church (1967) and Infallible? (1970) dominate the first period – the former is prescribed by many of us as the key text that has since been responsible for ministerial formation in Anglican and ecumenical training institutes. Obtaining biblical emphases on the priesthood of all believers was perhaps Kung's most important contribution to ecclesiology at the time.
Christology plays a central role in the second phase when he advocates a Christology “from below” that focuses on Jesus, “who meets us today on the horizon of the world, humanity and God as a challenge to faith he embodies personally ”. What it means then to respond to Jesus in the world today is fully developed in On Being a Christian (1977).
All of this raises the question of whether theology as “God's speech” is at all sensible in the light of modernity. Does God Exist? (1978) is a tour de force that concludes that reality, whether scientific, secular, rational, or religious, requires God if it is not to be unfounded or pointless. Furthermore, it is the biblical belief in God that is “inherently coherent. . . rationally justified and has historically proven itself. . . (God) is himself the source, center and goal of the world process. . . proclaimed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "
The third phase is primarily concerned with Christianity and the World Religions (1984), a subject that preoccupied him until the 1990s, when the Parkinson's disease outbreak took its toll.
Küng called for a global understanding of ecumenism based on the admission that none of us have the full truth and that we are all on the way to ever greater truth. This includes an interreligious dialogue which he models by presenting introductions to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism in collaboration with leading representatives of these traditions.
Keith Ward has carefully examined recent Catholic contributions to debates on religious pluralism and diversity (Religion in the Modern World 2019). He concludes that while Küng rejected Rahner's concept of "anonymous Christians" as somewhat patronizing, he still wants to say that Jesus is the full realization of human potential and the normative case of divine revelation from which other religions must learn. In his writings, however, Küng remains loyal to an enduring theme and tries to shift the Catholic view from “ecclesiocentrism” to “theocentrism”. God, not the church, is the one who saves, while the church remains a symbol of salvation for all.
Kiing's promotion of "global ethics", the support of a parliament of world religions by the United Nations and what Ward describes as "an invaluable contribution to interreligious understanding in the modern world" should not be underestimated. But his basic Catholic consciousness tempered his radicalism and made others more adventurous when it comes to whether peace between religions is a realistic goal or a naive fantasy.
In 2001 Küng wrote in The Catholic Church: A short story: “I affirm the papacy for the Catholic Church, but at the same time I tirelessly demand radical reform according to the criterion of the gospel.” Despite a friendly discussion with Pope Benedict in 2005, he intensified his criticism in papal decisions, including the beatification of Pius IX, the lifting of the excommunication of traditionalist rebels and the handling of sexual abuse scandals.
Küng wrote two volumes of memoirs in which he described in detail his theological development and his extensive travels around the world to receive awards and no less than 15 honorary doctorates, including from the Universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, Dublin and Swansea. He gave a memorable lecture at St. George's College, Windsor, moderated by the Duke of Edinburgh and with which he debated in a friendly and non-condescending manner.
If you want to try Küng's writings, you should start with Great Christian Thinkers (1994). Here he follows the theological paradigm shift from St. Paul to Origen, Augustine, Aquin, Luther and Schliermacher until the end of his career with Karl Barth. He writes: “The size of. . . A Christian theologian is judged only by whether the Christian message, the Holy Scriptures, God's Word, come to light through his work. "In this respect it must be said that Küng comes close.
His death on April 6th at the age of 93 marks the death of a very important Christian thinker who was both Catholic and theological – but maybe not both at the same time!