CLOSE-UP: HANS KUNG

Rome’s blunt renegade

JOHN BIERMAN November 18 1985
CLOSE-UP: HANS KUNG

Rome’s blunt renegade

JOHN BIERMAN November 18 1985

Rome’s blunt renegade

CLOSE-UP: HANS KUNG

To many conservative Roman Catholics the action appeared treasonous. For many reformists, on the other hand, it seemed courageous. On Oct. 4 and 5, newspapers in Toronto, London, Madrid, Zurich, Hamburg and Rome carried the latest polemic of Dr. Hans Küng, Pope John Paul II’s most celebrated and persistent Catholic critic. The two-part article was a 6,000-word onslaught on what Kiing says is the reactionary and repressive policies of the pontiff and his church bureaucracy, the Curia. “The old Inquisition is dead; long live the new one,” wrote Kiing. “ ‘Persistent doubt’ about a truth of the faith is punishable with excommunication. No one is burned at the stake any more, but careers and psyches are destroyed as required.” Kiing, 57, a professor of theology at West Germany’s secular University of Tübingen and currently a visiting professor at the University of Toronto, is one of the world’s most celebrated Christian theologians. But even to many of his supporters his latest attack seemed excessive. After all, Küng

himself has not even been expelled from the priesthood, despite his own persistent doubts, freely expressed over the years, about such central Catholic beliefs as the Virgin birth and papal infallibility. Still, since 1979 the Vatican has forbidden him to call himself a “Catholic theologian” or to examine candidates for the priesthood. His biographer, Karl-Josef Kuschel, says it was “the blow of his life.”

The prohibition might have ended the careers of many Catholic theologians. But, said Urs Baumann, Küng’s teaching assistant at the University of Tübingen, which has kept him on despite the censure, “the ban, far from detracting from his following, has greatly increased his stature.” Before the Vatican disciplined Küng, his lectures at Tubingen drew an average of 200 students; lately they have attracted as many as 1,000. As well, his widely acknowledged brilliance and his provocative books, Infallible?—An Inquiry and Does God Exist? have also guaranteed his professional survival.

Despite his fame, Küng recently told Maclean's that he was brought “to the brink of breakdown” by the Vatican’s lengthy disciplinary procedures, which began in the early 1970s. Said Küng: “These are really authoritarian —even totalitarian —methods. They burn you psychologically.” Indeed, in

an apparently coincidental action, the week after Kiing’s articles appeared in The Globe and Mail Emmett Cardinal Carter, archbishop of Toronto, issued a lengthy pastoral letter. Carter said that if the “false and exaggerated” ideas of free dissent are allowed to proliferate, “the very unity of the church is in danger.”

Kiing’s current status is a sharp contrast to the 1960s reformist reign of Pope John XXIII. At that time it seemed that the Swiss-born, multilingual Kiing—he speaks Greek, Latin, Hebrew, English, French, Spanish,

Italian and Dutch as well as his native German—was destined to become one of the towering figures of the church establishment, rather than a rebel. In fact, at 34, he was appointed official theologian to the epochal Second Vatican Council, which was convened in October,1962, by John XXIII to“let some fresh air into the church.” But, in Kiing’s opinion, subsequent popes reversed the progressive tide of Vatican lí on such issues as the woman’s role in the church and ecumenical dialogue with other faiths. Said the Swiss theologian bitterly: “John XXIII was seen by

most as the living symbol of the new papacy. Now we have again the old papacy. The difference is only that he [John Paul] has a jet.”

To laymen Kiing would seem to live in a rarefied spiritual and intellectual atmosphere. His personal life is simple and rigorous. Regular jogging, swimming and skiing and a spartan diet keep the 57-year-old thinker fit. Aside from work his passion is music, from Gregorian plain song to Stravinsky. He has also has a gift for down-toearth communication. Said Kuschel, author of Hans Küng: His Work & His Way, published in 1980 by Doubleday: “His teaching style is lively, uncomplicated and contemporary. He reaches people whom no orthodox theologian could hope to approach.”

That ability adds to his power as a critic of Rome. Although he describes himself as “the Pope’s loyal opposition,” Kiing makes little attempt to be diplomatic in his criticism of the pontiff. “You must remember,” he said, “that John Paul grew up first under the Nazis [in wartime Poland] and then the Communists. He does not understand democracy. Democracy for him means pornography, drugs, consumerism—all very real problems, of course, but only part of the picture. He is now busy proclaiming human rights but he does not see that we have no human rights in the Catholic church.” Still, the acerbic nature of Kiing’s attacks sets him apart from other dissident Catholic theologians. Holland’s Edward Schillebeeckx, whose criticisms have also caused him to be disciplined by the Vatican, argues that Kiing’s split with Rome is partly his own fault. Said Schillebeeckx: “Had he been more open to compromise and dialogue, it would not have happened.” Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum, who described Kiing as “enormously gifted, cheerful and warm,” added, “Father Kiing is very angry with what is wrong in the church; I am much more angry with what is wrong in the world.” But for all Kiing’s anger, Baum said, “he is essentially a reformer, not a radical.”

Many Catholic traditionalists disagree. Father Alphonse de Valk, a teaching father in Toronto, for one, commented in an Oct. 10 letter to The Globe and Mail: “If I were him, I would get out [of the church]. Anything else seems dishonest.”

But Kiing says he will pursue his campaign. “You know,” he said, “I would like to work quietly, to listen to music, to live without fuss. But if I gave up, people would say, ‘It really is a lost cause.’ ”

PETER LEWIS

— JOHN BIERMAN in Toronto with PETER LEWIS in Brussels