THE public career of Hans Küng, who died on Tuesday, pivoted on 18 December 1979, when Professor Küng’s licence to teach was revoked by the Vatican. It could be argued, however, that the true pivot was 2 December 1965, when Pope Paul VI asked him for whom was he doing theology. Küng grasped the import of the question: “My theology obviously isn’t for the Pope (and his followers), who clearly doesn’t want my theology as it is.” Instead, he resolved, he would do theology “for my fellow human beings . . . for those people who may need my theology”. From that point, the Swiss reformer turned rebel — although, as with most rebels, he argued that he was keeping alive the spirit of the former king, in this instance John XXIII.
Küng’s subsequent relationship with the Roman Catholic Church exposed the true nature of liberalism. Caricatured as a lack of commitment to anything, an “anything-goes” approach to the challenges of life, its character is often defined by the opposition that it encounters. The balance of views entertained by liberal thinkers tends to exclude those who have no interest in balancing their views with those of others: sometimes extreme radicals, but, on the whole, conservatives and reactionaries. It was no surprise that the issue of papal infallibility became such a bone of contention for Küng, and on this issue, as on many others, Roman infallibility was met with Swiss implacability. These were not dry political arguments, however. Küng’s concern was for nothing less that the souls of his fellow Catholics, and their release from what he saw as harmful impositions by a hierarchy that had turned its back on the insights of modern science and thought. His campaign for the revision of Humanae Vitae — which was not itself technically an infallible pronouncement, but presented rather as if it might be — persisted into the present papacy.
As Küng’s influence dwindled — or, rather, was choked off — in his own Church, it grew among Anglicans and those working to find common ground between the religions. Had he been an Anglican, however, he might well have caused as much discomfort to our own hierarchy. His vision was more radical than that of many Anglicans, and in books such as Christ Sein, published in English in 1977 as On Being a Christian, he presented a vision of Catholicism shorn of much of its traditional dogma and philosophical expression, and with its power structures seen as ripe for dismantling as an example to those of the world. An archbishop, just as a pope, attempting to keep the supertanker under his charge on a straight course through the narrows, would as likely order off the bridge an officer who suggested that the concept of a tanker was all wrong, and what the Church needed to be was a flotilla of small boats answerable to the winds of the Spirit. Küng discovered early that possibly being right did not lead to being popular. His unpopularity with the officers, however, helped to win over many of the crew.