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Obituary: Professor Hans Küng

16 April 2021


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee writes:

WHEN is a Roman Catholic theologian not a Roman Catholic theologian?

Hans Küng, who died on 6 April, personified that conundrum. A cradle Catholic, he died a Catholic priest, and in between taught theology and published more than 50 theological books. But the Vatican, while acknowledging him as a Catholic, withdrew his authorisation as a bone fide teacher of the faith; so, they might say, a Catholic, but not a theologian. Meanwhile, others effectively hailed his theology as the work of an honorary Protestant; so a theologian, but not a Catholic.

A towering figure in the intellectual landscape of the late 20th century, he has been described as the theologically acceptable face of Roman Catholicism, embracing a big-tent ecclesiology that might well embolden some to recruit him as at least an honorary Anglican!

Be that as it may, his contribution to ecumenical and interfaith studies has ensured the priority of faith commitments relative to religious affiliations, and informed one of his most celebrated maxims: no peace between nations until there is peace between religions.

Few students of theology will be without one or more of his books on their shelves, while his accessible and logically coherent style has also engaged the general reader across a range of disciplines. Such popular appeal has done as much as anything to vex those with whom he has crossed swords over the years, especially those ecclesiastical authorities to whom transparency does not come naturally.

The Roman Catholic Church, into whose ministry he was ordained in 1954, found him to be a disturbingly troublesome priest. Having been born into a Catholic family as the eldest of seven children in Sursee, Switzerland, in 1928 — his mother a farmer’s daughter and his father a shoe merchant — he was formed for the priesthood at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. After a spell as a parish priest, he was appointed Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Roman Catholic Faculty of Theology at the University of Tübingen, aged just 32, only to have his licence to hold office as an officially recognised teacher of the faith withdrawn by Pope John Paul in 1979.

The temperature had been rising ever since the publication of his doctoral thesis in 1957 on the doctrine of justification in which he saw little to choose between the teaching of his compatriot, Karl Barth, and Catholic theologies of justification. Although he acted as an influential theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council, this did little to placate his ecclesiological reservations centred on a critique of the Church as wedded to pre-Enlightenment traditions no longer tenable or serviceable in the modern world.

He was outspoken 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 declined. There has been some entertaining speculation that, had Küng accepted, he, rather than Joseph Ratzinger, his former colleague at Tübingen, might have ascended to St Peter’s Chair.

Although he remained in the priesthood, and is said to have had an easier relationship with Pope Francis than with his predecessors, his licence to teach was never reinstated. He continued to teach theology at the independent Institute for Ecumenical Research in the University of Tübingen until his retirement in 1996, but without authorisation as a representative of Catholic teaching. Those campaigning for reform in relation to such issues as priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, homosexuality, and abortion adjudged failure to reinstate him to have been a lost opportunity. Both the Church of England and the World Council of Churches expressed concern at the implications of his ban for ecumenical relations.

Camera-friendly, driving a sports car, and more likely to be wearing a suit than a soutane, he was popular with the press, and much in demand as an itinerant speaker — the demand fuelled, of course, 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 oeuvre which will determine his intellectual legacy. A prodigious author, on an extraordinarily wide range of topics, he ranks among the most prolific of contemporary theologians.

Werner Jeanrond helpfully divides Küng’s main works into three periods: first, his concentration on ecclesiological issues until 1970; second, his treatment of various articles of Christian faith (God, Jesus, eternal life) during the 1970s; and, third, his reflections on theological method and 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 featuring as a key text prescribed by many of us responsible for ministerial formation in Anglican and ecumenical training institutes ever since. Retrieving biblical emphases on the priesthood of all believers was, perhaps, Küng’s most crucial contribution to ecclesiology at that time.

Christology is central to the second phase when he argues for a Christology “from below” focused on the Jesus “who meets us today, within the horizon of the world, humankind and God, as the challenge to faith which he personally embodies”. Then what it means to respond to Jesus in today’s world is developed at length in On Being a Christian (1977).

This all begs the question whether theology as “God-talk” is at all reasonable in the light of modernity. Does God Exist? (1978) is a tour de force concluding that reality, whether seen in scientific, secular, rationalist, or religious terms, requires God if it is not to be groundless or without purpose. Furthermore, it is biblical faith in God which “is in itself coherent . . . rationally justifiable and has proved itself historically. . . [God] is himself source, centre and goal of the world process . . . proclaimed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

The third phase deals mainly with Christianity and the World Religions (1984), a topic that occupied him well into the noughties, until the onset of Parkinson’s disease took its toll.

Küng called for a global understanding of ecumenism predicated on an admission that none of us possesses the full truth, and that we are all on the way to the always greater truth. This entails interfaith dialogue, which he models by presenting introductions to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism in co-operation with leading representatives of those traditions.

Keith Ward has undertaken a careful study of recent Catholic contributions to debates around religious pluralism and diversity (Religion in the Modern World 2019). He concludes that, while Küng rejected Rahner’s concept of “anonymous Christians” as somewhat patronising, he does want to say that Jesus is the full realisation of human potential, and the normative case of divine revelation, from which other religions need to learn. But, remaining true to an abiding theme throughout his writings, Küng tries to move 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 everyone.

Küng’s promotion of a “global ethic”, support through the UN for a parliament of the world religions, and what Ward describes as “an invaluable contribution to inter-religious understanding in the modern world” must not be undervalued. But his fundamental Catholic consciousness tempered his radicalism, thus leaving others to be more adventurous when it comes to whether peace between religions is a realistic goal, or a naïve fantasy.

In 2001, Küng wrote in The Catholic Church: A short history: “I affirm the papacy for the Catholic Church, but at the same time indefatigably call for a radical reform of it in accordance with the criterion of the gospel.” So, notwithstanding an amicable discussion with Pope Benedict in 2005, he ratcheted up his criticisms of papal decisions, including the beatification of Pius IX, the lifting of excommunications of traditionalist rebels, and the handling of sexual-abuse scandals.

Küng wrote two volumes of memoirs describing in detail his theological development, and his extensive global travels to receive awards and no fewer than 15 honorary doctorates, from the universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, Dublin, and Swansea, among others. He delivered a memorable lecture at St George’s College, Windsor, hosted by the Duke of Edinburgh, with whom he debated graciously and without condescension.

Those wanting to sample Küng’s writings would do well to start with Great Christian Thinkers (1994). Here, he traces theological paradigm shifts from St Paul via Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Schliermacher to end where his career began, with Karl Barth. He writes: “The greatness of . . . a Christian theologian is measured only by whether the Christian message, Holy Scripture, God’s very Word, comes to light through his or her work.” On that measure, it has to be said that Küng comes close.

His death, on 6 April, aged 93, marks the passing of a very eminent Christian thinker who was indeed both Catholic and a theologian — but maybe not always both at the same time!

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