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Hans Küng, rebel theologian who ‘stood by the papacy’, dies, aged 93

07 April 2021


Professor Hans Küng at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, in 2013

Professor Hans Küng at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, in 2013

THE Swiss theologian Professor Hans Küng died on Tuesday, aged 93, at his home in the university town of Tübingen, in Germany.

His death was announced by the Global Ethic Foundation, which Professor Küng founded and of which he was president. “It was and remains an honor for us to continue his life’s work. We will preserve, carry on and develop it in his own sense — and bow down in gratitude to its great founder.”

Professor Küng, who was ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church in 1954, was one of the theological advisers to the Second Vatican Council, but fell foul of Rome over his questioning of the tradition, particularly after the promulgation of the birth-control encyclical Humanae Vitae. He was admonished by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in 1979 he lost his licence to teach as a RC theologian. He remained a frank critic of Rome on both theological and ethical questions and matters of practical church government into the 21st century, in his books and interviews, and as a signatory to open letters calling for church reform.

“In spite of all his struggles, he was positive about the papacy,” the President of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference and the Bishop of Basel, the Rt Revd Felix Gmür, said. Until he died, Basel was the home diocese of Hans Küng, where he was incardinated.

Bishop Gmür continued: “First of all, he was not a church critic or a pope critic, but a church-lover, even a pope-lover. I was sometimes surprised by the matter-of-factness with which he positively stood by the papacy, despite all his struggles. He found this easier with Francis than with his predecessors.”

The President of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Bishop of Limburg, Dr Georg Bätzing, said that “theological studies have lost a recognised and controversial researcher.

“Hans Küng has never failed to stand up for his convictions. Even if there were tensions and conflicts in this regard.”

Professor Bernd Engler, the Rector of the University of Tübingen, where Professor Küng taught from 1960 to 1996, said that the university had “lost a productive researcher, an extremely creative scholar, and an excellent theologian.

“With the Institute for Ecumenical Research and the Global Ethic Institute at our university, Küng has created institutions of lasting importance and thus profoundly shaped the university. With his globally recognised commitment to church reforms and the dialogue between religions, he has made a significant contribution to the international reputation of the University of Tübingen. “

The German RC priest Fr Stefan Hippler wrote the book God, AIDS and Africa at the height of the AIDS pandemic and was supported by Professor Küng when he ran into trouble with the Church. Fr Hippler said: “The world lost a great theologian, a faithful Catholic priest, and a warrior for truth and hope that this world has a meaning.

“I feel the Church failed to rectify their error of withdrawing his credentials to teach in the name of the Church.”

The Anglican theologian Dr Paula Gooder, who is a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC III), paid tribute to Professor Küng. She posted on Twitter: “Sorry to learn of the death of Hans Küng. A brilliant ecumenical theologian who often thought outside the box (like arguing that the reformation was an over reaction). I found his writing often inspiring and always thought provoking. May he rest in peace.”

In an interview with the Church Times in 2012 (Features, 26 October 2012), Professor Küng spoke of his work on the Second Vatican Council, which began when he was 34.

“The Council was really epoch-making because it attempted to integrate two paradigm changes at once,” he said. “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.”

The Council could have “achieved everything thoroughly”, he said, were it not for obdurate opposition by the Roman Curia (the Vatican civil service).

In the interview, Professor Küng described the creation of the Ordinariate by Pope Benedict XVI as “the last step in a completely wrong policy by the Roman Church. . . Fishing in Anglican waters for priests or bishops offers absolutely no gain for either Church.”

He also said that Pope Benedict XVI had “tried to sabotage” the work of ARCIC, ignoring its report on primacy and authority because “officials in the Vatican said there was too much Küng theology in it.”

Were it not for this obstruction, he said, there would have been “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.”


Obituary to follow

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