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A Religion the New York Times Can Love

Donna Steichen

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of The Catholic World Report.

Twenty-five years ago, his book jackets called Father Hans Küng "the most prominent Catholic theologian living today." As his posture toward the Church grew more and more contentious, qualifiers were inserted to stress his controversial status. Today, shorn of the title of "Catholic" theologian, dismissed by orthodox Catholic academics, his books unused in seminary curricula, he is officially alienated from Catholic scholarly life.

In place of his lost profession, Küng has achieved a notable second career designing a minimalist world religion. Best known as president of the Global Ethic Foundation in Tübingen, Germany, he travels the world promoting the syncretist cause.

Recently, he spoke at the University of Santa Clara in San Jose, California, about common themes found in the world's major religions, and the need to bolster his Declaration of a Global Ethic (he wrote it in 1993 for the Parliament of the World's Religions) with a companion declaration of human responsibilities (he drafted it for the Interaction Council in 1997.)

Two days later, on April 2, Pope John Paul II died. In the conclave that followed, Küng's old colleague Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to the most important post in the world: Vicar of Christ, head of the billion-member Church that once seemed Küng's own milieu.

Dr. Küng, as he is introduced these days, claims to harbor no bitterness against Church authorities for his past censure. But he acts like a man whose psychic wounds still bleed: petulant, unrepentant and unforgiving of the Church of his origins. Reduced to playing on a stage unworthy of his gifts, Küng dwells on old scores, his criticisms vindictive and relentless. He seems in some ways a pathetic figure in his eagerness to remind audiences of his past achievements, of his importance in shaping the Second Vatican Council and the conciliar Church, and of the originality and significance of his Global Ethic campaign.

This gifted prodigal son is nearing eighty. While there is still time, will he repudiate his dissent and restore his connections to Rome? Or does he have some other plan on his agenda?

The Symbol of Dissent

Virtually every television talk show guest commenting on the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI declared that the Catholic Church today is split into two camps. In a broad sense, that analysis is true. The principal camp could be called the party of papal loyalists. Its members embrace Catholicism's traditional doctrines not simply as cherished values but as eternal truths. The secondary camp might be tagged the party of Hans Küng–and Dr Küng might welcome the label. He is neither its founder nor its formal leader, but he exemplifies its spirit, its seminal ideas and its tragic trajectory.

Theology is normally a quiet pursuit; few serious scholars in the field ever see their portraits on newsmagazine covers. But for some fifteen heady years, Swiss-born Hans Küng was an exception. Educated at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, Küng, now 77, was from the early 1960s to the late 1970s the flag bearer for partisans of "the spirit of Vatican II" in Europe and the United States. They were pushing for doctrinal change in the Catholic Church, and eventually, doctrinal dissent came to be seen as the essence of their identity.

Dr. Küng's name is no longer a household word. But on the recent death of the Holy Father, his personal history made him a natural candidate to represent Catholic dissenters on talk shows about the late pope and the new pontiff. He has links of long standing to both. From 1962 to 1965, all three men were deeply engaged in the Second Vatican Council. Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Poland was one of the conciliar prelates. Fathers Küng and Ratzinger were the youngest of the council's theological advisors, or periti.

Father Hans Küng was appointed by Pope John XXIII; Father Joseph Ratzinger was an advisor to Cologne's Cardinal Josef Frings. At the start of the council, both favored liberalization in the Church, but Ratzinger's appetite for change cooled soon afterward, as he observed growing social and clerical decadence.

After the council, Father Küng returned to the University of Tübingen, where he had been awarded a chair in Foundational Theology in 1960, at the age of thirty-one. In 1966, Küng recruited Father Ratzinger for a chair in dogmatic theology there. But the future pope left after the 1968 student riots, to take a new teaching post at the University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria. In 1977, Ratzinger was named Archbishop of Munich. Three months later, Pope Paul VI elevated him to the College of Cardinals. The two old theological confreres were no longer operating in the same sphere.

A Torrent of Books

Father Küng continued to teach at Tübingen, pouring his passion, erudition, and increasingly dissident speculations into a proliferation of monumental books that attracted a readership far beyond that of most theological texts. The Council, Reform and Reunion (1961), Infallible: An Inquiry (1970), Why Priests? A Proposal for a New Church Ministry (1972), On Being a Christian (1974), and Does God Exist? An Answer for Today (1978), were all major titles, published amid shorter works, revisions of previously published texts, and a flood of articles in theological and religious journals across the Western world.

Unlike Ratzinger, Küing never lost his initial revisionist enthusiasm, but rather followed it into ever more unorthodox paths. The Church, Reform and Reunion, in 1961, implicitly defended papal primacy and urged Protestants to reconsider its value. But by 1970, in Infallible? An Inquiry, Küng publicly rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Contrary to a legend repeated often in recent weeks, it was not Cardinal Ratzinger who stripped Küng of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian. Küng's book, Infallible, had been under examination since shortly after it was published, during the reign of Pope Paul VI. Pope Paul died in 1978. When Pope John Paul I, his successor, also died only 33 days after his election, Pope John Paul II inherited the Küng investigation along with his papal office. The decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that Father Küng could no longer contradict defined doctrine under cover of an official Catholic license was far from hasty: it followed seven years of careful study. Küng was told in 1979 that his certification as a Catholic theologian had been withdrawn. That was three years before Pope John Paul II asked Cardinal Ratzinger to come to Rome and take charge of the CDF.

On the Outside

Nevertheless, Cardinal Ratzinger came to be seen as the embodiment of Vatican concern for orthodoxy, and thus as the adversary of Hans Küng. "I will not speak badly of him as a person," Dr. Küng has said of the future Pontiff, adding:

      He has always regarded me a Christian. But in theological terms, we are quite different. He was defending the old paradigm of the medieval church. I was defending the postmodern paradigm.

Some people may think Küng's on-the-record comments about his old colleague do, in fact, constitute speaking badly of him. He has called Ratzinger "very sweet–but very dangerous." He has said that conversing with him is like talking with "the head of the KGB." He said that Ratzinger's election as Pope Benedict XVI was "an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral Pope."

These remarks are mild, however, compared to the blistering invective Küng directed at Pope John Paul II. He marked the 25th anniversary of John Paul's election by labeling his pontificate "a disaster," In his 2003 memoir, he declares that the young Karol Wojtyla received a "thin theological foundation" because he couldn't make the cut for the Jesuit-run Gregorian University, and so was forced to settle for a third-rate education at the Angelicum. As the Pope lay on his deathbed, Küng wrote in Der Speigel that he had become "the symbol of a fraudulent church that has calcified and become senile."

The source from which this vituperation springs is the official censure that ended Küng's first career.

"My Troubles"

When Küng's license to teach as a Catholic theologian was revoked, he declared himself a victim of Vatican tyranny. Actually, he was neither defrocked nor barred from teaching theology, but merely prohibited from teaching it as a Catholic theologian. Shifting roles from professor of Catholic theology to professor of Dogmatic and Ecumenical theology, he continued to teach at the University of Tübingen until his retirement in 1996.

Nevertheless, his world was painfully changed. Even now, he persists in introducing himself as a "Catholic theologian," and he still refers to the CDF rebuke as "my troubles." Last year, in a National Catholic Reporter interview with Patricia LeFevere, Küng called it a period of humiliation, heartache, and depression. His current Global Ethic materials open with the extravagant claim, "I know from experience all the dark sides of the religions."

After Küng lost his Catholic certification, he sought significance through a multitude of organizations and movements with Orwellian names. He is president of his own Global Ethic Foundation in Tübingen; a member of the United Nations' honorific Council of Eminent Persons, appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan; advisor to the "Interaction Council of High-Level Experts" and author of its Human Responsibilities Declaration; and a prominent presence at the occasional meetings of the Parliament of the World's Religions. His protégé Leonard Swidler named him as one of three theologians (with Jacques Pohier and Edward Schillebeeckx) whose condemnation by the Holy Office inspired formation of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC) in 1980. Küng reciprocated by contributing to ARCC's proposed Church Constitution.

He has frequently lent his name to political forays by ecclesial rebels, from petitions against Humanae Vitae to letters supporting the international movement We Are Church. Call to Action has invited him to address its annual meetings. He is an exemplar for Episcopalian Bishop William Swing's syncretist United Religions Initiative. He has been a visiting professor at North American universities in Toronto, Chicago, and Michigan, and at Union Theological Seminary. For his efforts, he is heaped with trumpery honors for inconsequential work. He received the Interfaith Education Award at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona in 2004. The Niwano Peace Foundation, a Japanese Buddhist organization, named him as recipient of its 2005 Niwano Peace Prize for his contributions to interfaith dialogue and advocacy of a global ethic.

Despite such honors, despite the unvarying praise of the secular media for his irrepressible independence, and despite ardent support from partisans of the religious Left, Küng's books do not carry the weight they once did in the specifically Catholic academic forum that was his primary target. They are not used as texts in Catholic seminaries. For a scholar originally bent on comprehensive ecclesial revolution, the admiration of aging radicals is perhaps not a satisfactory substitute for an audience of one's peers in the Church.

Needing another world stage, Hans Küng turned to the United Nations.

The UN and the "Global Ethic"

The UN's original glittering façade has grown shabby in large part because of the ideological excesses of population-control fanatics. Lacking the authority of the Church to command consciences, the UN has sometimes depended for power not only on persuasion but on deception and implicit economic blackmail ("Until all family planning methods are available to every female, we can't endorse your development grant requests to the World Bank.") From the Third World to the First, distaste with such tactics has changed many onetime supporters into a bloc of disillusioned skeptics. Still the United Nations organization does address a worldwide audience. As the 1990s dawned, Hans Küng inaugurated a new career in affiliation with the international body, helping to design for the world a post-modern civil religion that would meet the criteria of, say, the New York Times.

The first public evidence was his 1990 book, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. At once, Küng began a campaign for a formal statement of "a minimal basic consensus relating to binding values, irrevocable standards and moral attitudes which can be affirmed by all religions... and should also be supported by non-believers." He collaborated with veteran Catholic dissenter Leonard Swidler, professor of Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University and founding editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Their joint article calling for such a statement was published in the Winter 1991 issue of the journal. Next consultative conferences were held in New Delhi and Bangalore, India. Then Dr. Küng drafted "A Declaration Toward a Global Ethic." It was adopted by a "World Parliament of Religions" meeting held in Chicago in September, 1993.

Count K.K. von der Groeben, a wealthy admirer of Küng's Global Responsibility, donated initial capital funding, in 1995, to establish a Global Ethic Foundation in Tübingen, under Dr. Küng's direction. Its goal is to foster the global ethic by intercultural and inter-religious research, writing, education, lectures, and publicity. To that end, Küng travels tirelessly, lecturing to academic and corporate audiences in cities throughout the world. Having studied the sacred texts of "Sikhs, Jews, Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Zorastrians and Taoists," he visits their societies to see how they live their religious traditions. Everywhere, Küng talks about the pressing need for a global ethic.

His latest tour also serves to introduce an exhibition prepared by foundation staff in Tübingen of twelve display panels on the six major world religions–Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–and their common ethical underpinnings, which can pave the way to world peace. Each religion is described positively, except Christianity. Its chart begins with the negative: "It would be wrong to identify Christianity with ecclesiastical power structures and bureaucratic institutions."

The English-language version of the exhibit opened at the German embassy in London, in May 2001. Later it was exhibited at United Nations Plaza in New York, then at the Washington, DC, headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In late March, Küng brought it to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, on the University of Santa Clara campus, where he also spoke at a symposium on human responsibilities, co-sponsored by the Center's Global Leadership and Ethics Program, and the High-Level Expert Group of the InterAction Council.

Dr. Küng describes the endorsing vote of the 1993 World Religions Parliament as "the first time representatives of all religions came to an agreement on the principles of a global ethic and committed themselves to four irrevocable directives." These commitments–to respect for life, economic justice, truthfulness and sexual equality–are so vaguely-worded that their precise meaning must depend on interpretation. But all are based on the Golden Rule–"Do unto others as you would have them do to you,"–a principle that is indeed found in some form in every religion: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as C.S. Lewis noted memorably in his 1947 book, The Abolition of Man. Thus the essential message of the traveling exhibit that Küng opened at the Markkula Center makes it clear that all religions were already in basic agreement on that principle, and only needed to recognize the fact.

Viewing the Global Ethic display with amused interest, Irene Groot, a veteran social-studies teacher in a San Jose junior high school, observed:

      Think of it! To put these together, Dr. Küng spent ten years and who knows how much money, meeting with religious leaders in glamorous places all over the world. And they're the same kind of charts every social studies teacher does overnight.

Irrevocable? An Inquiry

The Global Ethic affirms "irrevocable standards and common values," says Küng. But just how irrevocable does he mean these common standards to be? Not very, it appears.

"I am all for morality in the positive sense," Küng told the California symposium. "But at the same time, I am against moralism–morality in the negative sense." He explained:

      Moralism manifests itself in a one-sided and penetrating insistence on particular moral positions-for example, in questions of sexual behavior, contraception, abortion, euthanasia and similar issues–which makes a rational dialogue with those of other convictions impossible.

What does this mean, in practice? The InterAction Council's proposed Declaration of Human Responsibilities (which Küng wrote) begins, "Every person, regardless of gender, ethnic origin, social status, political opinion, language, age, nationality, or religion, has a responsibility to treat all people in a humane way." The first rule of his Global Ethic, reiterated in his address, is "All people have a right to life; no one has the right to torture, injure, much less kill, any other human being."

Attentive listeners could hear the clang of cognitive dissonance through his next comment. That very morning, March 31, in Pinellas, Florida, Teresa Schiavo had died of starvation on orders of a judge of probate court. But Dr. Küng passed up what seemed a perfect opportunity to illustrate the defects in prevailing ethical practice. Instead he cited the "tragic case of this woman in Florida" as an example of the ignorance and bad behavior of "religious people" who protested her death sentence Asked later what he meant in calling the case "tragic," Küng said, "They don't understand. As long ago as the 1950s, it was known that there is no obligation to use extraordinary means to preserve life." In other words, it was not the manner of her death but the manners of her defenders that he deplored.

Running interference at Küng's elbow, Father Paul Locatelli, SJ, president of Santa Clara University, hurried questioners away with the remark, "There's an excellent explanation in the current Newsweek." He was referring to an interview (3/27) with bioethicist John Paris, SJ, of Boston College, who said, "... one is not obliged to use disproportionately burdensome measures to sustain life. Fifteen years of maintaining a woman [on a feeding tube] I'd say is disproportionately burdensome."

On The Agenda

How far has Hans Küng moved from his Catholic roots? Far enough to relegate the Catholic Church to the odious "moralist" category in his San Jose address: he said the Church's "rigorism" on "contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality" made it impossible for the Parliament of the World's Religions to discuss those subjects because "no consensus exists." (Marcus Berquist, a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, mused, "As a matter of fact, homosexuality is one question on which the world's major religions are pretty much in agreement.")

Also at Santa Clara University, Küng spoke in favor of married priests, women priests, and intercommunion. Elsewhere, his writing reveals far more radical deviations from the essentials of the Creed, the authenticity of John's Gospel, the pre-existence of Jesus, even the doctrine of the Trinity (see, e.g. Christianity: Essence, History and Future, [Continuum, 1995], Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today [Doubleday, 1994], My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs [Eerdmans, 2003], and Küng's foreword to Born Before All Time? The Dispute over Christ's Origin [Crossroad, 1993]). Küng's ecumenism is apparently aimed toward a synthesis of the three "prophetic" monotheistic religious systems: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Seen in that light, his Global Ethic campaign assumes more ominous proportions. He denies that he is trying to invent a new world religion. His standard presentation assures listeners that adopting his universal ethical principles will in no way compromise their present beliefs and practices. But the distinctive beliefs historically accepted by major world religions would not remain, if his grandiose plans should carry the day.

Küng seldom understates his achievements, filling his books and speeches with references to his preeminence as a theologian, as the innovator of the very notion of a universal ethic, as the architect of the Second Vatican Council. Reviewing his preconciliar ideas, he purrs: "By far the majority of my demands will find their way into the Council decrees."

His later writings, especially his autobiography, My Struggle for Freedom, suggest that his pretentious rhetoric may not, after all, reveal a pathetic hunger for praise but rather a delusion of breathtaking arrogance. Mercifully, we have it on the highest authority that his audacity is doomed to failure.

Will he ever return to his Father's house? Pope Benedict XVI would seem the ideal person for Küng–or any other shrill, stubborn, dissident-to approach with a plea for reconciliation. The Pope's reputation indicates that he loves the sinner (or misguided ideologue) even as he hates the sin. But if resolution of Küng's doctrinal conflicts with the Church would require admission of error, there seems little prospect for it: he denies papal infallibility, but seems to insist on his own. It appears unlikely that he will ever admit that simple justice demanded his loss of status as a Catholic theologian.

Admittedly, God's grace can achieve miracles, and history is full of surprises. But if this reunion happens, it will be one of them.

Donna Steichen, a wife and mother, is a Catholic journalist and teacher who has long been a leader in Catholic, pro-life, community and education organizations. Her numerous articles have appeared in many Catholic and secular publications. She is the author of
Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, and Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church (both from Ignatius Press). She writes from Ojai, California.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved