Hans Küng and Pope Benedict,
old friends and archrivals
have a cordial meeting

By John L. Allen Jr.
NCR Rome correspondent



In a dramatic gesture of reconciliation, Pope Benedict XVI met Sept. 24 with his former colleague and longtime nemesis, Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng, a fiery liberal who once compared then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with the head of the KGB in his capacity as the Vatican's top doctrinal enforcer.

In 1979, Küng's license to teach Catholic theology was revoked by Pope John Paul II, a decision in which Ratzinger played a role as a member of the German bishops' conference. In the years since, Küng has been a leading critic of both many of the doctrinal positions espoused by Ratzinger, and the investigatory procedures by which they are enforced.

During a four-hour session that stretched over dinner, the two men essentially agreed to disagree on doctrinal matters. The pope offered warm praise for Küng's efforts to foster dialogue among religions and with the natural sciences, while Küng expressed support for the pope's commitment along the same lines.

"It's clear that we have different positions," Küng told NCR in a telephone interview from his home in Tübingen, Germany. "But the things we have in common are more fundamental. We are both Christians, both priests in service of the church, and we have great personal respect for one another."

A Sept. 26 statement from the Vatican did not say who had requested the meeting, but said that it took place in a "friendly climate" and that Benedict XVI offered special support for Küng's efforts to build a Weltethos, or a moral framework based on values shared among religions which can also be recognized by secular reason.

That statement, Küng told NCR, was prepared personally by the pope and shown to Küng for approval prior to release.

Both parties agreed, according to the statement, that it did not make sense to go into the "persistent doctrinal questions" between Küng and the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

"We should not have delusions," Küng said of what the meeting suggests about the pontificate of Benedict XVI. "His stances on church policy are not my own."

Nevertheless, Küng said, he regards the meeting as a "sign of hope for many in the church with the same vision as mine."

He described the session as "very joyful," with "no reproaches, no polemics."

Küng said he did not request that Benedict XVI restore his license to teach Catholic theology.

At one level, the meeting was a reunion of old friends who taught together at the famous German theology faculty of Tübingen during the 1960s. In fact, it was Küng who hired then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger at Tübingen, luring him away from a position in Münster; the two men served together as periti, or theological experts for the German bishops, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), where they were part of the broad progressive majority. At Tübingen they had a standing weekly dinner appointment on Thursday evenings to discuss a journal that they edited together.

At the beginning of Vatican II, the then-Cardinal of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, who would bring the council to a close as Pope Paul VI, predicted that two figures who came to prominence in those years would be heard from in the Catholic world -- Küng and Ratzinger.

At another level, however, the Sept. 24 meeting represents an encounter between the two leading symbols of the Catholic left and right in the post-Vatican II period. Küng, known for his fierce public challenges to papal infallibility and other doctrines, has long been a darling of Catholic liberals, while over his 24 years as the Vatican's top doctrinal official Ratzinger became the champion of the church's conservative wing.

The pope's decision to meet Küng, and the warm tone of their encounter, will be widely seen as a gesture of reconciliation with the theological community, and more broadly with liberal factions of Catholicism.

Küng told NCR that he wrote to the new pope to request a meeting roughly a week after his April 19 election. He said he had repeatedly requested a meeting with John Paul II, both before and after the 1979 decision to revoke his license as a Catholic theologian, without response.

Benedict responded quickly, Küng said, and a date was fixed for the period when the pope would be at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, something Küng said he had proposed so the setting would be more relaxed.

"It's rare to have a dialogue at this intellectual level," Küng said. He said the two men also shared memories of their Tübingen days in a "very serene" atmosphere.

In terms of substance, Küng said the two men found agreement on matters of social policy, the relationship between faith and reason and between science and religion, and the need for Christianity to collaborate with other world religions in building what Küng has termed a "global ethic."

"It's not that we agree on everything," Küng said. "But the pope has great empathy for the problems of the world, and wanted to give a positive sign."

Küng said the pope is obviously aware that the meeting would attract attention, and consciously chose to use it as a gesture of "openness."

In some ways, it's difficult to know whether to be more surprised that Benedict granted the meeting, or that Küng took it.

In 1997, another German Catholic theologian who has often been at odds with Ratzinger, Johann Baptist Metz, celebrated his 70th birthday with a symposium in Ahaus, Germany. Ratzinger was on the program, and the two men spoke fondly of one another.

"Many of my colleagues had the impression that this [Ratzinger's appearance] was a gesture of reconciliation toward the theological community," Metz said.

Küng, however, derided Metz for appearing with Ratzinger without making the case for internal church reform. "It is astonishing" and "a deep scandal" that Metz "would offer the Grand Inquisitor a forum," Küng wrote in an open letter published before the Ahaus symposium.

"He is the chief authority of the Inquisitorial office. It's like having a general conversation about human rights with the head of the KGB," Küng said in an NCR interview at the time.

"This is practically a capitulation to the Roman system, a kind of making peace with Ratzinger, when the real task of political theology should be to identify itself with the suffering people in our church. They are abusing talk about God to avoid dealing with problems in the church."

It was all a bit much for Metz.

"Sometimes Küng conducts himself like a second magisterium. To tell you the truth, one is enough, at least for me," Metz said, adding that he was "very hurt, very disappointed, very angry" about Küng's comments.

Küng was unrepentant.

"This event was simply a very nice occasion to show Ratzinger as a smiling Inquisitor who can talk about highly theological subjects in a serene manner," he said. "He thought everybody would be impressed."

Küng told NCR that his Sept. 24 encounter with the pope was different.

"We presupposed different positions on a number of issues, from the understanding of apostolic succession and other matters," he said.

Küng's 1997 reactions reflect the checkered history between Küng and Ratzinger.

There is no figure anywhere in the world more associated with Vatican II, both its promise and its perils, than the 77-year-old Swiss theologian. His book The Council, Reform and Reunion, was widely perceived as the unofficial template for Vatican II. "Never again would an individual theologian have such influence," wrote the late Vatican expert Peter Hebblethwaite. In the years since, Küng has become the public face of liberal Catholicism, advocating reform inside the church and ecumenical and inter-faith progress outside.

Küng was first contacted by the Vatican in April 1967 to answer charges against his book Die Kirche, which focused especially on his understanding of papal authority. At that time, Küng made several requests: for access to his file ("I hardly need to mention that in all civilized states of the West even criminals are guaranteed complete access to the dossiers that pertain to them"); that any earlier decision made without his involvement be set aside; for a written list of the problems with his book; for the names of the experts who investigated his book; the ability to speak in German during any formal meetings; and that his expenses to travel to Rome be covered (otherwise, he said, they could hold the meeting in Tübingen; "my house would be at your disposal").

Carbon copies of that letter went to Bishop Joseph Leiprecht of the diocese of Rottenberg, in which Tübingen is located, and to Ratzinger, who was then dean of the theological faculty.

In July 1970, Küng's real bombshell exploded over the Catholic world. His book Infallible? An Inquiry seemed to challenge the 1870 declaration of papal infallibility at Vatican I, questioning both its theological soundness and its disastrous implications for ecumenism.

Shortly after Küng's book appeared, the German bishops' conference began an investigation. In January 1971, Küng appeared before a hearing of the doctrinal commission of the conference and their theological advisors, including Ratzinger. On February 8, 1971, the bishops' conference issued a statement denouncing Küng's book.

Ratzinger contributed to a 1971 volume edited by Karl Rahner that contained essays critical of Küng's book. Both Ratzinger and and famed Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner expressed strong reservations. Küng complained that he had not been invited by Rahner to contribute an essay in his own defense.

What many people believe to be Küng's masterpiece, On Being A Christian appeared in 1974. In many quarters the book was instantly hailed as a classic, but reaction within the circles of Catholic academic theology was much more mixed. In 1976, a volume of essays in response to the book was published in Germany, containing contributions from Ratzinger, Rahner, and others.

On Being A Christian expressed an "option for a label which in reality is an empty formula," Ratzinger wrote. It moved theology "out of life and death seriousness and into the questionable interests of the literary"; in it Christian faith is "handed over to corruption at its very foundation"; the church disappears "literally into the saying of nothing"; it contains "an undisguised arrogance"; its theology is "rootless and ultimately nonbinding"; Küng was "going it alone, alone with oneself and modern reasonableness"; the book expressed "a school certitude, a party certitude, not a certitude for which one can live and die, a certitude for comfortable times in which the ultimate is not demanded"; its theology "lands ultimately in the abstruse," and "leads nowhere."

Küng objected bitterly to Ratzinger's analysis in a May 22, 1976, article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, writing that it contained "numberless misrepresentations, insinuations, condemnations." Overall, Küng referred to the volume of essays as "an outright shot in the back."

In 1977, Küng appeared before a panel in Stuttgart to discuss the German bishops' concerns about the book and his other work. One cardinal had said he wished to have Ratzinger and Karl Lehmann, now himself the cardinal of Mainz, with him as advisors. Küng objected to Ratzinger, arguing that his essays about Infallible? and On Being A Christian lacked objectivity.

"I have not wished the absence of Herr Ratzinger here because I do not wish to speak to him," Küng said in Stuttgart, "but because I had at least imagined (which has been confirmed here) that there might enter into this colloquium a fundamental sharpness and emotionality which would not be wished by me."

In the meantime, Ratzinger had been consecrated as cardinal-archbishop of Munich, and he became involved in the internal discussions within the bishops' conference about the Küng affair. Several letters moved back and forth between Ratzinger, Cardinal Josef Höffner of Cologne, Küng's chief critic among the bishops during much of the 1970s, and Küng.

The first hint of a disciplinary measure in the works came in an October 16, 1979, radio interview given by Ratzinger, in which he was strongly critical of Küng's article about the pope. On Nov. 5-9, the German cardinals were in Rome for a meeting with the pope. In an interview afterward with the German Catholic news agency, Ratzinger used the term missio canonica for the first time in connection to the case, saying that Küng cannot teach Catholic theology and hold the views he does. The missio canonica is the license that a Catholic theologian must hold in order to teach at a pontifically recognized institution.

On Dec. 18, 1979, the German bishops held a press conference announcing a declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Küng was no longer qualified to be a Catholic theologian.

In a sermon on Dec. 31, 1979, Ratzinger defended the action against Küng in terms that would become familiar: "The Christian believer is a simple person: bishops should protect the faith of these little people against the power of intellectuals."

During Ratzinger's almost quarter-century at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Küng remained one of his fiercest critics. In 1989, for example, he was among the leading signatories to the "Cologne Declaration," a statement from 163 theologians complaining of "Roman centralism" in the church.

Yet the two men's respect for one another has remained intact over the years.

In his 1997 memoirs Milestones, Ratzinger wrote appreciatively of Küng. In the immediate reaction to Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI, Küng to some extent returned the favor, calling the result "an enormous disappointment," but adding, "The papacy is such a challenge that it can change anyone.... Let us therefore give him a chance."

The Sept. 26 Vatican statement made no mention of any discussion about lifting the ban on Küng's right to teach theology. After the ban, Küng shifted his attention to his world ethic project, becoming a widely recognized international figure in efforts to promote dialogue among world religions, as well between faith and the secular world.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

September 26, 2005, National Catholic Reporter