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One Council, two interpretations

26 October 2012

The Vatican will not allow Hans Küng to teach Roman Catholic theology, but that does not stop him talking tough about Vatican II and his old friend, the Pope. He talks to Andrew Davison 

Out of step: above: in 1979, Professor Küng was stripped of his missio canonica, his licence to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian,
but remained as professor of ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen, until his retirement in 1996, and is still a Roman Catholic priest

Out of step: above: in 1979, Professor Küng was stripped of his missio canonica, his licence to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian,
but remained...

PROFESSOR Hans Küng is one of the only two surviving theological advisers to the Second Vatican Council, launched 50 years ago this month. The other is Josef Ratzinger. These two men have since taken different paths: one is Pope Benedict XVI, the other is among the Pope’s most strident critics.

Both, however, are great lovers of music, and it was music that brought Professor Küng to London on 7 October. He came to hear a new work, Weltethos (“World Ethics”), by the English composer Jonathan Harvey, for which he had written the libretto. It was performed at the Royal Festival Hall (Arts, 12 October),

Its theme has dominated Professor Küng’s thinking for two decades: the shared, or “global” ethics of the world religions. The premise of universal fellowship behind the libretto reflects the optimism of the Council. Professor Küng is a Vatican II theologian to his bones, not least in what he describes as its “humanism”. To hear him describe his participation in the Council is to be reminded of William Wordsworth praising the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Dr Küng was 34 years old when the Council began, and the youngest of the theological advisers (or periti). Dr Ratzinger was 35. Both had been ordained in the 1950s. “When you had lived for seven years in Rome in the time of Pius XII, as I had, you saw the difference. Before, it was a time of lethargy and stagnation, but then an old Pope [John XIII] came along, opened the doors of the Church, and let the breeze in.” It was a brief golden age: “a time when we were all happy to be Catholics”.


“THE Council was really epoch-making because it attempted to integrate two paradigm changes at once,” he says. “The Catholic Church had been a Church of the Middle Ages. . . The Council tried to integrate the paradigm of the Reformation, with its high esteem for the Bible, a liturgy for the people, appreciation of the Church as the people of God, and vernacular language all of which were the demands of the Reformers, with a second paradigm change, of the Enlightenment and modernity. . .

“We affirmed, after a long period, such principles as religious freedom and freedom of conscience. . . The Council was the first solemn acknowledgement that the progress of modernity did not come from the Devil, but from humanity.”

He believes that the Council could have “achieved everything thoroughly” were it not for obdurate opposition by the Roman Curia (the Vatican civil service). “There are still many in the Curia, and there were then, who see the Council as an epoch-making failure [from which] only 100 years of labour will correct what John XXIII achieved with his Council.

“They tried from the beginning to obstruct everything about the Council which was progressive. The tragic situation of the Council was that there was always a battle  behind the scenes and on the floor of St Peter's — between the great majority, who wanted to have change and renewal, and the small group of the Roman Curia who were supported by very conservative people such as Archbishop Lefebvre and others, who left to make their own Church afterwards. This hindered the Council from making consistent decrees. There were compromises all the time.”


PROFESSOR KÜNG singles out contraception as one such issue on which there was inconsistency. And this was the subject that provoked him to write the book, Infallible? An inquiry (1971), that was forever to set him at odds with the Vatican. He wondered why Pope Paul VI pushed the commission behind Humane Vitae to a conservative conclusion, which it did not seem inclined to support.

He recalls a private discussion with Paul VI, when the Pope told him that he had to overrule the mind of the commission because “he was not able to go against the earlier consensus of the bishops. It was a case for him not so much of sexuality as of infallibility. So we were unable to correct ourselves. . . A Church who supposes that she can say some things infallibly can make infallible mistakes, and cannot correct them.”

Professor Küng and Pope Benedict  once close friends  differ in their interpretation of the Council. In Professor Küng's assessment, “People like Ratzinger emphasise a hermeneutics of continuity: that the Council finally did nothing new; it just made clear what tradition said.

“But this is impossible. There would not have been such long discussions if it had only been continuity. No, of course, the Council was about rupture. Over the question of religious freedom, we said the opposite [to] the popes of the 19th century, who had condemned religious freedom, and human rights.”

This might make Professor Küng sound pessimistic, but he is quite the opposite. On every front, “the Council achieved undeniable progress . . . and has been a tremendous success. There is no other faith community that has changed, worldwide, in a few years, as the Catholic Church was able to.”


WHAT, then, about conservative trends in the Roman Catholic Church today  the reintroduction of the Tridentine rite, for instance? “It will not succeed,” he says. “We are in a period of restoration, with the second of two ‘Popes of restoration’  the Polish and the German Pope  but they have not been successful at all. For instance, they tried to change the sexual ethic in their traditionalist way, but they have had no success . . . but it gives us many troubles.”

He admits that the conservative wing is strong, and believes that the Roman Curia has tried to control the Church since the Council. Crucially, it controls the nominations of “streamlined” Roman bishops. “The nomination system of bishops is practically like in a totalitarian system, like the Communist party. They have to follow the Roman line exactly.”

Worse still, “The oath of bishops in the Roman system is comparable to the oath of German generals under Hitler,” he says. “At their consecration, bishops have to proclaim obedience to the Pope without any conditions. But obedience without condition should be given only to God. [Consequently] there is absolutely no dissent in the Catholic episcopate [anywhere in] the world.”

Professor Küng turns his attention to Roman Catholic relations with the Anglican Church. He says that the creation of the Ordinariate is “the last step in a completely wrong policy by the Roman Church”.

Anglicanism is “a rather successful combination of the mediaeval paradigm, and the Reformation paradigm”, he says. Roman Catholics “could have learned something from them”. Instead, they have set out in the “opposite” direction. “Fishing in Anglican waters for priests or bishops offers absolutely no gain for either Church.”

The Pope may speak of the value of “Anglican patrimony”, but, Professor Küng says, he has already rejected the best that we have to offer, by thwarting the reception of the ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) documents, especially on authority in the Church.


PROFESSOR KÜNG is concerned for the future of the Anglican Church. “You need a new optimism, and to make the right decisions,” he says. He thinks Anglicans have made some mistakes the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, for example. “It would have been fair if he had refused, for the sake of the great part of the Communion,” he says. “People had good intentions, and I would not want to denigrate them, but they made a lot of unnecessary problems.”

But, even on this topic, the Pope is never far from the discussion. Perhaps surprisingly, Professor Küng holds him responsible for certain problems in the Anglican Communion. They “were provoked by Rome”, because Pope Benedict rejected any notion of a “media via” and “tried to sabotage” the work of ARCIC.

“If the Pope had agreed with the ARCIC documents, the whole situation would be different. . . Both Churches could have been able to learn,” and the Anglican Communion would have a more robust global ecclesiology. Instead, the report on primacy and authority was ignored. Why? “Because officials in the Vatican said there was too much Küng theology in it.”

Were it not for this obstruction, he believes, we would have “unity between the Pope and the Anglican community, on a serious basis, supported by the Bible and the great Catholic tradition that we share.

“Anglicans would have acknowledged a partial primacy of the Bishop of Rome . . . and Rome would have acknowledged a significant autonomy of the Anglican Communion.”

Here, Professor Küng is at his bluntest: “If Pope Benedict wishes to do something good before the end of his life, he should read the ARCIC papers and affirm that this is good way to proceed.”


ANGLICANS might respect Vatican II, but can we really call it an ecumenical council, given that it comprised only Roman Catholic bishops? He thinks so. “It was a council of the whole Church, because in the time of John XXIII there was no polarisation.” His face lights up: “John XXIII was a spiritual leader who gave [us] confidence that we were on the right track. Now, though, we are on the wrong track, and the greater part of the Catholic Church has no confidence in the Pope, and little confidence in the bishops.

“If they are still in the Catholic Church, they identify with the parish priests, and the local people.” If only, he says, the Pope would return to “the Christian message the message of Jesus himself . . . and correct the Middle Ages”.

With modernity on the agenda, our discussion turns to sexuality. In a widely syndicated 1979 article in The New York Times, he attacked Pope John Paul II. Professor Küng had been provoked by a speech that the Pope gave in Washington, DC, in which he “denigrated” those who use contraception and “condemned homosexuals" so strongly as to trouble Professor Küng deeply.

“The next day I said to my colleagues: ‘Now we have to act; we cannot accept this.’” The concern is still current, and Professor Küng raised the topic when he met Pope Benedict soon after his election. On the other hand, he warns, “we have to take seriously that there are serious Christians who think differently.”

He believes that the liberal-minded must play a long game. Right now, a bishop who is determined “to live together with his partner in the bishop's house harms the cause much more than many other things”. Although, he says, it may be necessary to “convert whole African dioceses to a new vision of sexuality”, this cannot be done “by force”.

He refers to his own Swiss homeland, which needed many decades of argument before women were fully enfranchised (they did not get suffrage at federal level until 1971). “If you want to change something, you must change it from below,” he says. Authoritarian tactics, he thinks, are as much a danger for the Left as for the Right.


ON THE part played by women in the Roman Catholic Church, Professor Küng is clear that “we will have no ordination of women while we have the law of celibacy. That law perpetuates a pagan misogyny, which rejects not only women, but sexuality in general.”

As a prelude, he calls for “a better knowledge of the New Testament among Catholics, particularly of the role of women as leaders, and even as apostles, in the early days of the Church. . . Jesus was not at all conservative the opposite was true: he had women in his following. If the Roman Catholic Church were as feminist as Jesus was, we would be in a much better situation.” Instead, we live with the legacy of women's being “pushed out and marginalised”.

Asked what women bishops would bring to the Church, he answers with a single word: “Humanity.”

That is high praise from Professor Küng. We are back in his dream of a global, humanist ethic. He has enjoyed his stay in London, he says, and not least because of time spent over a drink with friends. Gentlemen's clubs are “good for drinking”, he says in closing, “but not for the [eucharistic] supper”.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.

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