Germany salutes divisive theologian and Ratzinger adversary
Liberal reformer Hans Küng wanted to unify Christian faiths and clashed with Pope Benedict
Hans Küng: To his critics, he was the most dangerous German-speaking priest since Martin Luther.
Hans Küng died as he lived: provoking debate and dividing opinion.
To his admirers, the 93-year-old Swiss-born theologian was the great missed opportunity of the Catholic Church: a liberal reformer who sketched a blueprint to unify the Christian faiths with each other, and with modernity.
To his critics, the Tübingen-based academic was the most dangerous German-speaking priest since Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation.
Above all Küng’s death on Tuesday ends a six-decade career as theological frenemy of Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Their long-distance battle of will and wits over half a century was, one Ratzinger biographer suggested, one of the sparkiest relationships since the days of Mozart and Salieri.
In the early 1960s, the two men began their careers at the University of Tübingen and as two of the youngest theologians at the second Vatican Council.
Even in Rome, their very different styles became apparent: the more extrovert Küng took a liberal path in Tübingen while the introverted Ratzinger, traumatised by the 1968 student revolt, departed for Regensburg and a more conservative theological path. Though they parted company, physically and ideologically, their paths – and swords – crossed regularly in the subsequent decades.
Ratzinger rose through the church ranks, first as archbishop of Munich and, from 1982 in Rome as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Three years earlier this body, formerly known as the Inquisition, had revoked Küng’s licence to teach theology after taking a dim view of his critique of papal infallibility.
Ratzinger critics suggest he did nothing to lift the ban, and instead focused on Pope John Paul’s conservative reform rollback. Meanwhile Küng’s critics say the image-savvy Tübingen theologian shaped, like few others, the image of a reactionary Ratzinger as “God’s Rottweiler”.
Born in Sursee in Switzerland in 1928, Küng decided to become a priest at 11 and took his vows 15 years later. His earliest writings, on the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, indicated the direction of his career: highlighting what unites, rather than divides the Christian faiths.
Later, banned from teaching Catholic theology, his university created a new professorship to retain him. As head of the Global Ethics Foundation, Küng devoted his last decades to studying world religions and highlighting their uniting values.
In about 20,000 pages of writings, Küng continued to pose provocative questions. A recurring theme was how can Catholicism be liberated from the Roman curia.
Küng and Ratzinger met a final time in 2005, shortly after the latter became pope. Though neither shifted their contrasting positions, Küng expressed hope the German pope would prove a more inclusive figure.
Five years later, he wrote an angry letter to German bishops, describing the German papacy as a series of missed opportunities, embracing problematic traditionalists while spurning Protestants and Jews.
Last year, the German pope emeritus indicated to his biographer Peter Seewald he had been mistaken about Küng from their earliest days together in Rome: “I had the naive impression that, though Küng had the gift of the gab and said cheeky things, he still at heart wanted to be a Catholic theologian.”
For Tony Flannery, the Irish Redemptorist priest also subject to a CDF ban, the Catholic church had two paths in the 20th century: the “faithful, pure, small” view of Ratzinger’s church or the “open vision” promoted by Küng.
“It was an enormous missed opportunity brought about by narrow-mindedness, a certainty that it alone had the truth, and fear,” said Fr Flannery to The Irish Times. “History will recognise Küng as the great visionary of this era in the Catholic Church.”