Encounters with Hans Kung
Frank Hoffman, of Drury, South Auckland, has called twice on the famous Swiss theologian, Hans Küng, – in 1975 and this year. He reports on Küng’s struggles with Rome and his wonderful ecumenical endeavours.
Hans Küng has lived and worked for many years in Tübingen, near the Black Forest, in Germany. I have been there twice and visited Küng each time. Tübingen has a refreshing environment: it’s a place dominated by the young, away from the rat race atmosphere of many German cities. It is a major University town, a little like Dunedin. In the market place you see the young people miming and playing music, while displaying a healthy disrespect for authority!
The resident population is barely 20,000, but it doubles when the students are in residence. The University is spread throughout the city, and the university life permeates the old buildings. Like that other famous university city, Heidelburg, it lies on the River Neckar. The University of Tübingen celebrated its 500th birthday a few years ago. The reason for my visit in 1975 was to see my brother, who was the Professor of German literature there.
Tübingen has one of the principal Theology Faculties in Germany. The town lies between Catholic and Lutheran areas of Germany. Most of the theological ‘chairs’ are endowed by the churches, but the churches work together. The chair of Fundamental Theology, which Küng had held at Tübingen, is endowed by the Catholic Church with an absolute right to appoint the Professor as well as to sack him. When in the early ’60s he had been offered this position, probably the youngest theologian ever to be selected for this task at a university which prides itself on its diverse theological facilities, it was principally because he was so highly thought of by his peers.
Shortly after Küng’s move to Tübingen, Cardinal Leibricht wanted to ‘borrow’ him as his advisor at the Vatican Council. The authorities saw this as a tribute to the University and agreed to let him go. But after the Council, Küng decided to say publicly what he needed to say, even if it cost him this job he loved.
At the time of my first visit in 1975, Küng’s position as Professor of Dogmatic Theology was ‘under threat’ from the Vatican, among other things because of the critical views he had expressed in his book Infallibility, an Inquiry. Küng had been to New Zealand in 1973. He had just written his book, The Council and Reunion. Since we had heard him in Auckland, my wife and I determined to go and visit him again in Tübingen.
I recall that we discussed with him the threat he was under of losing his Professorship. He said that what he would miss most would not be the loss of his job and salary but the loss of what he loved most – training young, gifted students who were preparing for the priesthood.
I asked him if he would remain in the priesthood, if the church moved against him. He said that he must stay, because if he was to work for change in the church it could only come from within. He was loyal to his vocation. Since that time I myself have sometimes felt like leaving the church in despair, but the example of Hans Küng has helped sustain me as a Catholic.
Küng was eventually sacked by the church from being Professor of Dogmatic Theology in 1980, and lost his licence to teach. But at once the University made him head of the Ecumenical Faculty, where he remained until his retirement in 1996. In that post he was simply carrying on the ecumenical work that he had been doing during his years of teaching dogmatic theology.
Four months ago I went back to Europe and visited my brother’s widow in Tübingen. I wanted to see Hans Küng again, but I was told it might be difficult. Just before my arrival, Küng and Cardinal Lehmann had been received with acclaim by the many thousands who had attended a Catholic Congress in Ulm.
An open discussion with Küng under the heading ‘Dialogue at the Sickbed’ had been arranged at the invitation of the Cardinal, who obviously shares Küng’s concern over the crisis the church needs to address. Cardinal Lehmann is President of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference and is highly respected in Germany. The German press has treated Küng’s meeting with Lehmann at Ulm as a great step forward. Catholics and Protestants rejoiced at this initiative.
All the ground floor of the building where Küng now lives is taken up by the headquarters of the Global Ethic Foundation, which he founded. The students thought that I would have difficulty getting past Küng’s secretaries. But when I phoned it was Küng who answered, and when I said I had come from New Zealand, he said at once he would see me. When I arrived at the house, he welcomed me and put me at ease by inviting me to sit out on the balcony looking over his beautiful garden.
Sitting opposite this man on his balcony, I felt here is a person motivated by an earnest desire to help bring an ailing church back to health. I reminded him of my visit in 1975, when he already lived in the shadow of dismissal from his chair of doctrinal theology.
So how had he felt, I asked, when this dismissal actually happened a full four years later? “I have shown in the last 25 years that one can get on well in the world without a Roman driver’s licence when one has earned an international one instead. I have fought for and won a freedom which has enhanced my credibility within my church and outside it.”
I noted he had been encouraged by Cardinal Lehmann, in Ulm, to speak openly of his vision for the future of our church. So how had he responded to that?
“ For the church in the 21st century it seems to be the most important task to strip off the eggshells of the 11th century (the celibacy rule, clerical tutelage, papal centralism and absolutism), and to replace those mediaeval church practices by reflecting instead on the constantly relevant Gospels.
“ Instead of the personality cult of a ‘façade’ church, I would like to see more effective help for the many parishes in Germany who have no priests. Instead of closing doors we should be opening windows, as John XXIII did. We need a pope who is Gospel orientated. My hope is the next pope will be more of a John XXIV than a John Paul III.
“ Our present pope, on his travels, advocates justice, peace and dialogue. Hopefully the next pope will realise these in the church itself. Contrary to the intentions of Vatican II, the Catholic church, under John Paul II, has returned to an authoritarian system with totalitarian traits.
“ Critical theologians have been muzzled, there is discrimination against women, discussion of key topics is prohibited, mutual participation in the Eucharistic meal with other Christians is prohibited, the desires of the people are ignored, and denunciations are encouraged. The bishops should regain their voice so that they will be known as leaders of their dioceses recognised by the people of God, rather than ‘sacristans of the Vatican’.”
Küng had been summoned to Rome after the Council and offered advancement. He declined because he would not “sell his soul for the sake of power in the church”. Otherwise he might today have been Cardinal Hans Küng! “I could not have taken a different road,” he said, “It was not just for the sake of freedom – which I value – but for the sake of truth. Cardinal Ratzinger took the other road. I hope he is now as happy and contented as I am”.
He told me about his travels in his new work for establishing a Global Ethic, and how he had gone beyond Christian ecumenism and had visited the East to make contact with the other great world faiths. Küng maintains that without peace between the religions of the world there can be no peace between peoples. He felt his vocation was to work for this peace. I think that Küng, being a person of great faith, used his dismissal as an opportunity for a new vocation. It was his moment of kairos, of new beginning.
K üng is not bitter about the way the church has treated him. I found him very cordial and he put me at ease. He looks to me to be a contented human being. He told me he was very pleased with his meeting with Cardinal Lehmann and hoped that it wouldn’t end there. He felt that people in Germany expected more. Not all the German bishops, however, would be happy with the Cardinal’s initiative.
Küng pulls no punches. He is a Swiss, and the Swiss are like the Scots: they say what they think without beating about the bush! Both Küng and Schillebeekx were summoned to Rome. But Küng would not go until he knew what he was being accused of. Küng is not a diplomat, like Cardinal Koenig or Schillebeekx. So he was censured. Yet in his book Infallibility, an Inquiry he is careful not to debunk the principle of infallibility, but only to question certain aspects and propose definitions which could make this controversial dogma more acceptable.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tübingen and spoke with Hans Küng, he endorsed the need for Küng’s foundation. When the students booed Tony Blair, Küng apologised, but Blair said: “Don’t worry; I get worse treatment back home!”
I feel we in New Zealand could contribute substantially to Küng’s new enterprise. We could certainly make it better known here. I am also keen that the concerns of the Global Ethic Foundation should extend to care of the earth.
I wrote to Küng’s successor, Karl-Josef Kuschel, suggesting the Foundation should embrace this too. He agreed and promised to send me further material, concluding: “Our environment should not be thrown as fodder to the Moloch of economy”.