Kung vs. the Vatican: who really won?

  • October 31, 2008
{mosimage}Hans Kung: Disputed Truth, Memoirs II, by Hans Kung (Novalis, 556 pages, $37.95 hardcover).

After his highly publicized dinner meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on Sept. 24, 2005, the world wondered whether a “tamer” Hans Kung — a more benign, less pugnacious public theologian — would emerge. And, in fact, all was smiles and mutual compliments afterwards.

But Disputed Truth, the second volume of Kung’s memoirs, puts a convincing end to that possibility. Kung, now 80, remains a lion in winter, raging at a church that failed to recognize “the truth” of his theology, even as the rest of the world lauded his brilliance and courage. For the retired Swiss theologian from the University of Tubingen in Germany, temporal laurels are only ammunition in his lifelong battle with the Vatican. Every positive newspaper headline, every letter of praise, every laudatory review of his books is drawn upon to build his case: that Kung is right.

{sa 0826499104}But Kung also remembers every slight, every critical reaction to his theology, every person (friend or foe) who would question his work and conduct in his decades-long guerrilla war. Friends who question Kung don’t remain friends for long; they join a growing list of — in Kung’s eyes — traitors, fools or quislings who succumb to Vatican blandishments and sinecures.

Volume I, My Struggle for Freedom, recounts Kung’s life growing up in Switzerland, becoming a priest and theologian, starting an academic career that soared from the start. The book ended in 1968 after his stint as expert at the Second Vatican Council and the beginning of his theological ventures that caused him to run afoul of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Volume II picks up where the first book ended. It ends in the early 1980s with a promise of a third volume to come.

In 1968, Kung is a world-famous theologian. His picture has appeared on the cover of Time, his lectures are much-anticipated affairs and all the serious newspapers want to interview him. He is seen as a prophet of the spirit of Vatican II, a reform theologian who questions priestly celibacy, the ban on contraception, the refusal to allow divorced Catholics who have remarried from receiving Communion, who even questions the dogma of papal infallibility itself. These are heady days for all those who pray for a dramatic transfiguration of the Catholic Church into a modern institution with modern sensibilities.

But the pendulum is already swinging back. In 1968, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae confirms the ban on artificial contraception. Already, he has repeated the ban on priests marrying. And Kung himself finds his own work under suspicion at the Vatican.

His book, Infallible, An Enquiry provokes a critical reaction at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and his subsequent books, On Being a Christian and Does God Exist? come under similar scrutiny for their departures from orthodox doctrine. Though they hit the best-seller lists around the world, the hierarchy is not amused.

Over the next decade, Kung plays a cat-and-mouse game with the CDF, carrying on a long correspondence with Vatican officials and German bishops, dodging “colloquiums” that Kung firmly believes will really be an inquisition. In between the skirmishes with the church he continues to teach, write and speak all over the world. Trips to the Third World open his horizon to the possibility of interfaith dialogue and he starts to work with colleagues of other faiths to build common understanding around the world.

But the net keeps tightening. Tired of what they see as evasions and stonewalling, Vatican officials work in concert with the German bishops’ conference to finally, in 1979, take away Kung’s licence to teach Catholic theology. It is a nightmare for the theologian who, despite his fondness for being the “bad boy” of Catholic theology, cherishes his position within the church. Over the next few months he fights gamely to either retain his missio, or at the very least continue to teach.

Neither Kung nor the Vatican get exactly what they want. Kung is forced to resign from the Catholic faculty at Tubingen, but ends up keeping a teaching position. The Vatican has finally censured Kung, but fails to get him fired and the ham-fisted manner in which the decision is announced — a few days before Christmas of 1979 — is a public relations disaster.

Kung is philosophic about his struggles. He strives to forgive, but can never forget. And among those he will never forget is one Joseph Ratzinger, theologian, colleague, bishop, cardinal and now Pope Benedict XVI. Throughout the book Ratzinger floats in and out of the action like a ghost. Even when he is not physically present and there is no evidence he even cares about whatever issue is at hand, Kung suspects Ratzinger is pulling the strings behind the scenes.

In fact, this obsession with Ratzinger is one of the most curious aspects of the book. Kung spends pages speculating about his conservative rival, about his childhood, his graduate work, his colleagues and what he is doing when he’s out of sight. For all the evidence Kung presents, a reasonable person could easily conclude that Ratzinger had better things to do than constantly scheme to undermine Kung’s career. But, when it comes to his rival, Kung is not a reasonable man.

By the last chapter, Kung has reached a stage in his life where his own unquenchable optimism and self-confidence have allowed him to move on. He will start the Global Ethic Foundation and set his sights on interfaith dialogue.

It’s hard, reading this book, to be terribly sympathetic toward Kung. He has had a remarkable career and his fame was probably fostered more than it was hindered by his notorious battles with the Vatican. And his constant need to question the motivations and character of all those who disagree with him suggest he would be a difficult friend, let alone enemy.

But the church needs people like Kung even when they are wrong and disagreeable. Sometimes they can also be right.

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