Friday, April 16

Obituary of Hans Küng | Catholicism

The Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng, who died at 93, was only 11 months older than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. For three years in the mid-1960s, the two worked together in harmony at the University of Tübingen in southwestern Germany; Küng had recruited Father Joseph Ratzinger, as he was then. But in terms of his views on the church of which they were both members, the two were separated by centuries, Küng commented in 2013. Benedict, at the time the head of Küng, was, he said, “living intellectually in the Age Half” .

There are some Vaticanologists who like to speculate that, had things turned out differently, it might have been the smart, charismatic and handsome Küng who ended up in charge at the Vatican rather than the shy and unworldly Ratzinger. In 1962, just eight years after being ordained, Küng was impressed enough to be appointed by Pope John XXIII as expert (expert advisor) at the benchmark Vatican Council II, who for the next three years devoted himself to the task of reforming the church.

Historians of the gathering later judged that, despite his relative youth and lack of seniority, Küng was influential in shaping his closing statements that sought to bring Catholicism to the modern world. While the council was in progress, he was appointed to the newly created chair of dogmatic and ecumenical theology at Tübingen, and also became the first director of the university institute for ecumenical research; he had previously been a professor of fundamental theology there (1960-63).

The need for Catholicism to build bridges and relationships of equality with other churches and religions was one of the key themes of the council. To that end, in collaboration with the young Ratzinger, he founded the journal Ecumenical Studies.

But the high hopes created by Vatican II were quickly dashed. In 1968, Küng frowned upon the insistence of Paul VI, John’s successor, that all “artificial” contraception (that is, anything that worked) was sinful. The Pope was said to have previously tried to tame Küng by offering him a position in the Vatican. He declined. It might have been the first step on a ladder to the top, but it had more to it than that. The gap between Küng and Rome continued to widen.

Pope Benedict XVI in papal robes, hands clasped, visiting a mosque
Pope Benedict XVI and Küng were colleagues at the University of Tübingen for three years, but then they took divergent spiritual paths. Photograph: Patrick Hertzog / EPA

In 1971, his book Infallible? An investigation dismissed the official teaching (though only since 1870, Küng noted) that on certain matters of faith and morals the pope could speak infallibly. It resulted in an eight-year dispute with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that it described as similar to being targeted by the Inquisition. In 1979, under the relatively new and theologically conservative Pope John Paul II, Rome withdrew Küng’s license to teach theology at a Catholic university.

It was certainly a blow. The decision was widely criticized. More than 1,000 students held a candlelight vigil in Tübingen, while the Church of England and the pan-Protestant World Council of Churches expressed serious concern about the implications of Rome’s actions on inter-church discussions. However, the Vatican would not change its mind, so the authorities of Tübingen had to remove the Küng chair from the Catholic faculty there and put it, as well as the ecumenical institute that it directed, under the jurisdiction of the university senate.

In this way he continued to teach there until his retirement in 1996. For the rest of his life, his martyrdom at the altar of uncompromising ecclesiastical leadership raised Küng to the voice of many Catholics (in some polls, most of them in the West) who remain within the fold but cannot conscientiously follow the official line that opposes women priests, married priests, sex outside of marriage, and same-sex relationships.

Although he never liked wearing the title of Father and avoided clerical garb in favor of well-cut suits, Küng continued to serve as a priest within the church. The extent of his influence is difficult to measure, but in a recent interview the comedian Frank Skinner quoted Küng’s comment that “the church is on the way to the truth but it goes down dead ends along the way” as part of the reason it remains a practicing Catholic.

“For many Christians,” wrote Küng’s biographer, British journalist Robert Nowell, “perhaps especially for those who were not in communion with Rome, there was always something too good to be true about Hans Küng. It combined the same qualities that many of the critics of the Catholic Church have considered totally incompatible: passion for the truth and loyalty to Rome, an open-minded willingness to accept the fruits of critical inquiry, and adherence to what was seen from the outside. as a closed dogmatic system “.

Born in the town of Sursee, northwest of Lucerne in Switzerland, Hans was the eldest of seven siblings, two of whom were boys. They named him after his father, a shoe merchant; his mother, Emma (née Gut), was the daughter of a farmer. At the age of 11, he felt called to the priesthood and, he recalled in My Struggle for Freedom, a 2002 memoir, that thereafter he stopped sitting next to his girlfriend on the train to school, having previously kissed her only once. time.

Photo of Kung lit from above by a church pillar, looking into the light, with two microphones in the foreground
Küng in 1968. He did not like to wear the title “Father” and often preferred suits to office clothes. Photograph: Getty Images

He studied at the Gregorian University in Rome, where his intellectual abilities were quickly recognized during his training. The two subjects he chose for his thesis, the atheistic humanism of Jean-Paul Sartre (at the time on the church’s banned books index) and the theology of the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth, were an early sign of his broad perspective of Faith. .

Ordained in 1954 at Saint Peter’s, he did more academic work before spending 18 months in parish work in Lucerne. Pushed to the limelight by the Second Vatican Council, the photogenic Küng (he also drove a sports car) went on international speaking tours and ties with various theological institutes in the United States. While there, he was invited to the White House to meet with President John F Kennedy, the first Catholic to hold the post.

In 1968, at the height of student protests across Europe, Küng and Ratzinger parted ways, the latter so unsettled by the unrest that he withdrew to a more conservative university. When they met again, during lunch at the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo in the summer of 2005, it was at the invitation of the new Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul II had refused to see Küng more than a dozen times, but Ratzinger was eager to point out that the church under his leadership could be a bigger store than before.

However, it was not large enough to accommodate Küng, whose interests had expanded considerably since his license was withdrawn. His literary output was always prodigious, with more than 50 titles to his name, but from 1979 he was increasingly drawn to looking beyond his own backyard, with studies of Islam, Mozart, the relationship between science and religion. , and the biggest question of all. for those in your line of work: if God exists. Upon his retirement in 1996, he established the Stiftung Weltethos / Global Ethics Foundation in Tübingen to promote cooperation and dialogue between religions around the world.

Despite the impression this self-assured, intelligent, and slightly vain priest may have given, Küng was not one of nature’s rebels. His chosen approach would have been to work from within, but the Catholic church in its heyday was intolerant of such dissenting voices among its priests. If the choice was silence or an awkward internal exile, he was not going to bite his tongue.

When questioned about his nonconformist role in the history of modern Catholicism, he remained fond to the end of quoting another of his heroes, Pope Gregory the Great: scandal arises than abandon the truth. “

Hans Küng, priest, theologian and author, born March 19, 1928; died on April 6, 2021

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