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Dr Küng prescribes

21 February 2014

Robert Nowell  looks at  'saving' the RC Church


Young Saviour: Salvator Mundi by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio is oneof the paintings discussed by Francis Ames-Lewis in a chapter on the last project by Leonardo da Vinci for his patron the Marchioness of Mantua, who requested a "young Christ of about12 years old"- in Isabella and Leonardo: The artistic relationship between Isabella d'Este and Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1506 (Yale, £25 (£22.50); 978-0-300-12124-7)

Young Saviour: Salvator Mundi by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio is oneof the paintings discussed by Francis Ames-Lewis in a chapter on the last project...

Can we save the Catholic Church?
Hans Küng
William Collins £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

THE Swiss theologian who came to the notice of the British public with a programme of reform suitable for the Second Vatican Council has now returned to this theme with a programme for getting the Church out of the mess it has got itself into thanks to Rome's persistent efforts to undo what the Council achieved. He analyses what he sees as the various wrong turnings that the Western Church has taken in its long and not always very edifying history, and then sets out his plans to set things right.

Even those sympathetic to his desire for a Church far more in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II rather than one reverting to the defects and shortcomings that made that Council necessary may cavil at some aspects both of his diagnosis and his proposed cure. He upbraids the Church for seeking independence from the secular authorities, and yet ignores the fact that the Church is essentially a rather subversive organisation that calls into question many of the assumptions on which our secular society rests (even if, for too much of its history, the Church has been only too happy to endorse some of the more dubious aspects of human behaviour).

He rightly points out that the Reformation had the effect of leaving the Roman Catholic Church completely on the back foot, defending the indefensible until it was too late, and then rather shamefacedly coming to terms with new insights, but rather skates over the corollary: the way in which obedience to the church authorities (rather than to the truth that it is their essential task to uphold and proclaim) became the cardinal virtue. He upbraids Pope John Paul II for appointing yes-men as bishops, but ignores the fact that this process began with Pope Paul VI and the sabotaging of the Dutch hierarchy for the crime of taking Vatican II seriously and setting up the Dutch Pastoral Council (which, among other things, called for an end to compulsory clerical celibacy, and the opening up of the Church's ministry to women).

As might be expected, these are steps that Hans Küng would like the Church to take, but he seems to ignore the underlying and probably subconscious motive for maintaining clerical celibacy and ruling out the ordination of women: the need for cultic purity, a concept that regards sexual activity as somehow defiling, so that a priest who has happily been making love to his wife on Saturday night is in no fit state to preside at the eucharist on Sunday morning, while women are ruled out by menstruation. What seems to be neededis not rational theological argument, but Freudian psychoanalysis.

Other steps that he suggests include a return to the original practice of the election of bishops by the clergy and people of the diocese. Here, oddly, Küng does not mention Rosmini, who, in the setting of mid-19th-century Italy (hardly a democratic country), worked out a feasible system for achieving this; nor does Küng address the impact on such elections of the web, and the distortions it could produce.

Küng also includes a weird encomium for the contraceptive pill, apparently oblivious both to its side-effects (food intolerance, headaches, and now, it seems, encouraging glaucoma) and to the fact that human beings managed to limit their families even before the development of reliable mechanical means of contraception: in 19th-century France, the birth rate dropped fairly dramatically, to the horror of both Church and State, in my view because at the end of the 18th century the French peasantry got the land, and French inheritance law meant that property was divided equally between the heirs. So peasant families wanted only two children, in the hope that each would marry someone else, inheriting half a smallholding.

Küng's publishers ought to be ashamed of themselves. There is no index, and there are no footnotes (and I mean footnotes) to explain references that Küng, writing in the context of the German-speaking world, takes for granted, but which need some explanation for outsiders: who, for example, is Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, or Karlheinz Deschner? The translator is named not on the title-page but only in "A word of thanks" preceding the preface to the English editionof a work first published in German in 2011.

There are a few gross mistakes that any competent publisher ought to have picked up: we are told that in the Eastern Church the clergy can marry, which they can't: married men can be ordained priests, but once they are ordained they cannot marry; we learn of the emergence in 1378 of "two competing lines of Catholic popes" (where were the Protestant ones?); Edmund Burke is described as an Englishman; and the definition of papal infallibility is dated to 1871. Swiss place-names are given in their German form: Basel, St Gall, Tessin. The adjective "medieval" is always given an initial capital letter.

Nevertheless, this is a book worth reading and mulling over.

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