Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 3: May / June 1998
Hans Kung: Vatican Rehab or Challenge to Change?
Some speculate whether Swiss theologian will be next "prodigal son"
On January 30, in another in a long series of sharp attacks on the Holy See, dissident theologian, Father Hans Kung also denounced the bishops of Germany for accepting the decision of Pope John Paul II that Catholic counselors should not provide the certificates of counseling required of women seeking abortions.
Kung accused the German bishops of "servile obedience" to the "Roman Kremlin", and said that by accepting the pope’s decision, they had lost their "credibility" and their "apostolic franchise." He called for "tenacious resistance" against the authority of Rome, which he said was based on "half-truths" and "camouflage", and hinted that the German bishops were motivated by their desire to become cardinals.
Kung has accused the pope of imposing a "rigid, stagnating and despotic rule in the spirit of the Inquisition". Two years ago he called for a new pope who would "save the barque of Saint Peter from sinking" by changing the teaching on women priests, married male priests, divorce and birth control.
But a only few weeks later, speaking to a German radio audience, Kung expressed pleasure that on his 70th birthday (March 19), he had received greetings from Archbishop Karl Lehmann, the head of the German bishops’ conference, and from the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
In an April 7 news report, Kung said he would no longer defend some of his past criticisms of Pope John Paul II, and that he is hoping for a "conciliation" with the Holy Father.
He said that some of his criticisms of the Pope "may have seemed harsh", although he added that he did not think they were "unjust" or even "incorrect". He insisted that he only wanted to convey his message accurately.
Kung said that he would like to meet with thepope and said that he had learned from the Holy Father’s teachings on peace, ethics, and world religions.
Since 1979, Kung has been banned from teaching as a Catholic theologian at Tubingen University because of his outspoken rejection of papal primacy and other key Catholic teachings.
Some journalists attributed this slight thaw in Kung’s relentless hostility to the pope to recent friendly gestures from Rome. Their speculations were inspired primarily by a Vatican lecture quoting the theologian.
Cardinal Sodano’s Address
On March 25, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, quoted Father Kung approvingly in a lecture to journalists on the subject of Church renewal and reform at the Lateran Palace in Rome.
In his lecture, Cardinal Sodano reportedly said that the Church needed "continuous great reform from within — not just small adjustments — and must adapt to contemporary world culture".
A report in The Tablet, a liberal Catholic journal published in London, said that Cardinal Sodano said Kung’s writings contained "beautiful pages dedicated to the Christian mystery, and that the cardinal hinted that an amnesty for Catholic dissidents might form part of a millennial relaunch of the Church. The Tablet, taking a cue from the Italian newspaper La Reppublica, questioned the cardinal’s motives in what it viewed as a Vatican "rehab" of Kung.
However, a first-hand report of the Secretary of State’s talk said the address was aimed at two different groups, offering each a different message. The first message was addressed to all men of good will, asking them, not for an act of faith and love for the Church, but for an honest acknowledgment of the fruitfulness of the Church as a reality present in history. It was in this context that Cardinal Sodano quoted Kung. This passage from the cardinal’s lecture follows:
[The Church’s] marvelous propagation, her stability, notwithstanding persecutions, schisms, heresies; the heroic sanctity of her members, notwithstanding the misery (indigence) of others, place before you serious questions. Is it not possible, perhaps, that this is the coming to pass of the promise made by Christ to his disciples, before going forth to heaven: "I will be with you to the end of the ages"? A historical balance of the twenty centuries of Christianity makes such a question rise spontaneously.
Recently the German theologian Hans Kung has sought to respond, in his book Christianity, Essence and History. At the end of his voluminous study, after a long historical excursus, [Father Kung] dedicates some beautiful pages to the mystery of Christianity, saying:
"Why is this Christianity always seen, despite all the non-Christian elements of her history? In fact, this religion has continually inserted herself in new cultural scenes, like a great river, which begins in some part in a modest way."
According to the eye-witness account, in context the Kung quote conveyed the idea that the holiness of the Church is historically visible in some mysterious way.
Cardinal Sodano then presented his second message, this time directed to believers. He asked them always to love the Church. He quoted the tombstone of an old priest, which had only the words "dilexit ecclesiam" [He loved the Church] and said it was a synthesis of the priest’s life.
"Personally, I would be happy if on my tomb this phrase could be completed in this way: "He loved the Church, and sought to make her loved’", the cardinal concluded.
It seems possible that the friendly quote and the birthday greetings from the Vatican may have been intended as a challenge and an invitation to Father Kung to "put off the old man" of dissent and disobedience — a personal call to conversion, change and reform. There would undoubtedly be much rejoicing if this happens.
Helen Hull Hitchcock
(Helen Hull Hitchcock is Editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and founder of Women for Faith and Family.)