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Umm, yes please!

I’ve got to say, this recent open letter from Hans Kung to the bishops of the Roman Church is quite arresting. Whether one agrees with every point Kung makes or not, I think the common quasi-catholic tendency to dismiss Kung as a half-baked liberal is simply laziness and disingenuity. As far as I’m concerned, as Protestant who longs for mutual openness, recognition, and unity between all Christians, Kung’s words here are, on the whole, right on.


  1. Theophilus wrote:

    I like what he says about conciliation between Protestants and Catholics, particularly the bit about intercommunion. As an Anabaptist who does not want to be restorationist, I am obliged to tolerate an awful lot of theological and practical differences among those with whom I commune. But Küng really is a rather standard liberal Protestant in every single one of the positions he stakes out, both on ecclesial practice (intercommunion, collegiality, celibacy) and ethics (stem cells/abortion, birth control). Moreover, it is my understanding that the handling of clerical abuse of children was only transferred to Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2001, shortly after which time the hammer came down harder on abusers than it ever had before – arguably not nearly hard enough, but Ratzinger is arguably the best of a bad bunch in this regard. Küng’s insinuation that all clerical abuse cases went through Ratzinger since 1981 is therefore demonstrably false. So inasmuch as he is saying some (and only some) things here that I am glad to hear coming from a prominent Roman Catholic, I doubt that he is going to get all that much of a hearing. The patterns of growth in the Roman Catholic Church are tilting against Küng’s liberalizing impulses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a new council in the next few years would look more like Trent than Vatican II.

    Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    It’s refreshing to read Kung again, even though I very much doubt that his suggestions will inspire much in the way of reform. I, along with many other Catholics, don’t see much good coming out of the latest sordid episode. As Theophilus points out, some of the trends in the RC over the last few decades have been decidedly reactionary, thanks in no small measure to Benedict’s predecessor.

    I have to take issue, Theophilus, with your characterization of some things in Kung’s letter as “standard liberal Protestant.” Perhaps I missed it — and if I did, mea culpa — but I didn’t see any support for abortion. His support for contraception is limited to the use of condoms to fight the spead of AIDS. (Though I’ll grant that Kung does, in fact, contest the official ban on contraception.) Moreover, I don’t quite understand why you describe his positions as “standard liberal Protestant.” Liberal Protestants may indeed hold the positions Kung holds, but do they have a copyright on them? I affirm many of Kung’s positions, but I certainly don’t consider myself a liberal Protestant. Is that phrase supposed to be doing some sort of polemical work?

    I also have to contest your defense of Ratzinger. As Kung points out, it was Ratzinger who, in May 2001, put abuse cases under the “secretum pontificium.” If that’s not obstruction of justice, I don’t know what is. And his reaction to the outrage over these cases — “petty gossip,” he called it — exhibits a haughty insousiance that’s only possible when you put the safety of the hierarchy over truth, justice, and charity. As usual, The Old Boys Network identifies itself with the Church.

    While Kung will probably be dismissed as an old Vatican II fogey, and while reaction reigns in the hierarchy and among many Catholic intellectuals, there are less observable forces of change lower down in the ecclesia. Nicholas Kristof has a column in this morning’s NYT about nuns and priests who minister to the poor and the sick — in other words, people who are too busy actually living the Gospel to shield pedophiles or embrace anti-Semites. They’re far more inspiring than the gerontocracy in Rome. Many of them embody the best in liberation theology, which I predict will experience a long-overdue and much-deserved revival.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  3. Theophilus wrote:

    Gene, the abortion comment was inferred from Küng’s advocacy of stem cell research, which as far as I know is only criticized in the Roman Catholic Church inasmuch as it is embryonic stem cell research, which destroys the embryo and thus comes into play as an element in the abortion question.

    The liberal Protestant bit does serve something of a polemical function, though not so much in my own voice. From some of the readings I’ve done in Catholic corners of the blogosphere, a significant chunk of the changes that are proposed for the RC Church are changes that would “Protestantize” that institution (such as married clergy, greater collegiality at the expense of the papacy, etc.), and are thus not genuinely “Catholic” solutions. Given that these types of people tend to be on the more conservative side of things, the Protestants they choose as their foil are the liberal ones. Certainly, I don’t believe that liberal Protestants have a monopoly on these sorts of views, but inasmuch as those views are generally characteristic of liberal Protestants, it’s hard to prevent the label from sticking.

    As far as Ratzinger goes, putting abuse cases under the “secretum pontificum” was a bad idea. But generally speaking, he’s getting hammered personally for a lot of institutional problems that are far more troubling than his own actions. The latest news suggests that other cardinals were far more aggressive in protecting child molesters, and gained the support of Pope John Paul II in their efforts to do so. This is not to excuse Ratzinger, but rather to expose that Küng demonstrated carelessness regarding his statements about the pope (and by the way, the “petty gossip” comment has not been attributed to the pope himself either) and that this harms his credibility among those who he is trying to reach.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  4. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Theophilus, I take your point about the larger institutional inertia that made the coddling of abusers so easy. I also second your focus on JP II, whose portrayal in any future, serious history of Catholicism in this period will not be flattering. It’s both appalling and mildly amusing to watch conservatives, who once thought JP II the greatest thing since Christ, now throwing him under the bus. Some of us never thought highly of JP II, and I’m afraid we’re being vindicated.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink
  5. myles wrote:

    Yes, Christians should strive for, as you say, “mutual openness, recognition, and unity between all Christians”, but does that mean applauding that Kung is the one calling for it? I’m glad he’s writing this, but I can’t take Kung seriously on most things.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  6. Daniel wrote:

    I’m pretty sure that’s where the “petty gossip” phrase came from in this context. It originated from the Pope himself. So i’m not sure what you mean by suggesting it hasn’t been attributed to the Pope.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Nathan Smith wrote:

    “Missed is the opportunity to make peace with modern science by clearly affirming the theory of evolution and accepting stem-cell research.”

    I also wonder about stem-cell research in this context. I presume that embryonic stem cell research is what is being discussed here (otherwise, what’s the big deal?). Insofar as embryos are the only source for embryonic stem cells, I can’t see such research ever squaring with an anti-abortion position. It seems like an odd thing to bring up in this letter.

    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    I’m not sure Kung isn’t operating as a pretty conventional Catholic liberal in this letter. I’m not dismissing the legitimacy of his overarching critique, but I’m really not impressed with the letter as a whole. I wonder about several comments within it.

    1. Missed is the opportunity for rapprochement with the Protestant churches: Instead, they have been denied the status of churches in the proper sense of the term and, for that reason, their ministries are not recognized and intercommunion is not possible. Intercommunion is not possible, that is true, until we “separated brethren” come around to the RC understanding of the Eucharist, which entails the RC understanding of the sacrament of orders. I don’t anticipate that happening anytime soon. However, it is not accurate to say either that “their ministries are not recognized” or that “they have been denied the status of churches in the proper sense.” What do either of those charges mean? The “subsists in” clause, if that is what Kung’s referring to, does not deny that they are churches; rather, it maintains that all the marks of the true church subsist in total and together only in the RC church. That is a more limited claim, and its reiteration under Benedict XVI was reportedly prompted by a paper circulating in Rome that the RC church was the only “true church,” a position which the “subsists in” argument challenges and corrects.

    2. …he has taken notoriously anti-Semitic and schismatic bishops back into communion with the church, and he is actively promoting the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of not offering sufficient protections to Jews in Nazi Germany… I don’t know all the details of the first part here, and there do seem to be some strange moves afoot from time to time. However, the second part can’t be taken seriously as stated, since (1) being “accused” obviously does not constitute established guilt, and (2) more recent historical scholarship has debunked a lot of the charges against Pius XII (though not, in my opinion, to full satisfaction – however, he clearly was not anti-Semitic).

    3. The fact is, Benedict sees in Judaism only the historic root of Christianity; he does not take it seriously as an ongoing religious community offering its own path to salvation. Why would the leader of the largest Christian ecclesial community acknowledge salvation apart from Christ? Do we really want to affirm this as stated?

    4. Instead, in his ill-advised but symptomatic 2006 Regensburg lecture, Benedict caricatured Islam as a religion of violence and inhumanity and thus evoked enduring Muslim mistrust. Oh, come on – are we still trotting this out? It was an academic discussion, during which Benedict quoted scholarship. How does this charge still have any credibility with anybody who knows anything about the situation? Clearly, Benedict can be accused in this instance of the absent-minded naivete of many academics, but that’s a far cry from anti-Islamic rhetoric.

    5. <He promotes the medieval Tridentine Mass by all possible means and occasionally celebrates the Eucharist in Latin with his back to the congregation. While having the Mass in the vernacular has its merits, to be sure, so does having it in a language that is not currently bound by identification with particular nation-states. More importantly, I’m reminded of a point Steve Long made in class one day regarding the bishop/priest with his back to the congregation: at least there, he is participating with the congregation, albeit at their head, rather than presiding over it, detached. The bishop/priest, with back turned toward the congregation, faces Christ as they do, and participates as a member of the faithful in a more embodied manner. I think there’s some merit to that argument.

    6. Celibacy: I don’t doubt for a moment that Kung understands the issue deeply, but for most readers of this or the mass media, issues of defrocking and/or celibacy treat the priesthood, with little regard for or understanding of the Sacrament of Orders, as mere employment. Celibacy is a job requirement; defrocking = firing. However, the fact is that RC theology views it as akin to marriage. Celibacy is chastity; defrocking = divorce. These issues are not so easily dismissed.

    I think Kung is right at a number of points, and I’m pretty critical of RC institutions at points he doesn’t even mention. But I just want to make sure we are all mindful of some of the other considerations involved.

    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Brad A. wrote:

    Sorry – first sentence of #5 should be in italics.

    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  10. Daniel wrote:

    Hey Brad,

    In response to point number 3. I think Kung is suggesting that Benedict is objectifying Judaism, rather than treating it as a living dynamic religion that is “offering its own path to salvation”. Now, I’m not sure what Kung was intending, obviously, but I don’t think we need to read the sentence as suggesting that all religions offer “salvation” in the Christian understanding of the word. Rather, that Judaism is a religion that purposes a path towards salvation, within it’s own understanding. Whether the path Judaism, or any other faith for that matter, is ontologically correct or not isn’t really the point of the letter. I think Kungs point is that Judaism (and Jews) is (are) more than merely the genealogical predecessor(s) of Christianity.

    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  11. Brad A. wrote:

    Fair point, Daniel. Thanks. I wonder, though, about the original context of Benedict’s comment to which Kung is referring. I don’t recall a specific document mentioned (by Kung), and popes don’t usually issue teachings on other religions qua religions – they’re not in the business of religious studies, after all. The purpose would have been to discuss it within the context of Christian teaching, in some fashion or form, so understanding the Christian perspective on Judaism would have been at issue. If that is all correct, then we’re back to my objection to Kung. Or, at the very least, to the point that Kung needs to make himself much more specific and precise instead of leveling blanket charges.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 5:54 am | Permalink
  12. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Um, I’m pretty sure that official Roman Catholic teaching does in fact deny protestants the status of the name “church,” which is why “ecclesial communities” is used instead.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  13. Brad A. wrote:

    Yep, you’re right on the technical term “church” for Protestants. Kung’s point is a pretty technical point, which most readers won’t get (Protestant or Catholic), and I was trying to draw out the nuances, namely that Catholicism does not claim to be the “true church” to the exclusion of Orthodox (who can be called “churches”) and Protestants. Indeed, it is recognized that the church exists outside the Catholic Church and can exist in Protestant ecclesial communities to less full degrees. Kung’s phrase “their ministries are not recognized” seems to in certain senses contradict the Catholic teaching that even by Catholic standards, “elements of sanctification and truth” can be found there.

    I was also taking issue with Kung’s statement because it reads, in the context of that part of the letter, like Benedict is responsible for this development.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  14. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I guess it depends on what Küng means by “ministries” and “recognized.” Küng’s intention is not to downplay the RCC teaching that elements of sanctification and truth can be found in Protestant ecclesial communities, but just to point out that their “ministries” (i.e., Eucharist and episcopate) are not “recognized” (i.e., Eucharist is not efficacious b/c it is not linked with historic teachings/tradition). The reason why the RCC doesn’t call Protestant ecclesial communities churches is precisely because the RCC does not recognize these ministries as legitimate. For the RCC without a right-understanding of the Eucharist and an episcopate with certain historic-links to the early church, your gathering doesn’t constitute church.

    I don’t think this is just a matter of nuance here, Brad. This is a very real rejection of protestants and I don’t think we should downplay this as if this is all just a matter of knit-picking about terminology. It seems to me that the fact that the Orthodox church gets the honorable title of “church” says something significant about the terms continued importance for the RCC.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink
  15. Brad A. wrote:

    The formal doctrine is not that the true church does not exist in Protestant ecclesial communities, but that such communities cannot be called “churches” since said communities are separated from proper apostolic succession, among other things.

    I acknowledge your points, I really do. If by “ministries” Kung means precisely the sacraments as practiced (or mis-practiced) in Protestant contexts, then I get the statement. But I also know that while official teaching delineates certain things – and you’re quite correct about that, although the reason Eucharist is not efficacious has more precisely to do with the sacrament of Orders and not just general “teachings/tradition” – Catholic theologians in good standing have been more nuanced. Fr. Joseph Komonchak, a leading Catholic ecclesiologist in good standing, remarked in a speech a couple of years ago that the church in Robert Duval’s movie “The Apostle” can be considered a truer church than some RC churches today (much to the chagrin of certain of our faculty). The point is that while there is one teaching, it doesn’t come from Benedict, and it’s not without debate and nuance as to how it’s worked out. I don’t think that comes across in Kung’s statement.

    In any event, this isn’t even my main concern with the letter. I just didn’t think the average reader of that letter would be aware of the context, and Kung doesn’t provide much, if any.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  16. Philipp wrote:

    The problem of the letter is not its content, but its occassion and the author. In every conceivable crisis the RCC has found itself in in Europe, especially German-speaking Europe, Kueng has stated and demanded the exact same things he fills this letter with. We, Europeans, even non-Catholic ones, have heard him everywhere on this. TV stations and newspapers are glad to present him as the “main critic of Roman Catholic hierarchy” everytime anything critique-worthy happens. And Kueng is happy to oblige, with the self-same assaults on Catholic sexual morality and failures in ecumenism. It’s not that it’s not right. It just gets a little tiring, and leaves the impression that Kueng could use his gifts and presence in a much better way. If you’ve grown up with Kueng always being present as the main exponent of critics in the RCC, this letter just leaves you with the impression that he loves to hear himself say how right he was all along. And that’s a pitty, for him and for the church.

    Friday, April 23, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  17. Theophilus wrote:–vatican-defends-pope-against-petty-gossip

    Other media attributed the line to Cardinal Angelo Sodano. I made my comment on this basis. However, you’re right; the pope used the same phrase about a week earlier. I stand corrected, and troubled.

    Friday, April 23, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

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