Hans Küng likens Catholic bishops to Nazi generals, Vatican to the Kremlin

Why stop there, Dr. Hans? You’re on a roll! How about calling the Pope a “Bible-thumping, rosary-kissing jihadist”? Or to faithful nuns as “Hell Angels in habits”? Or to practicing, believing Catholics as “illiterate Fundie drones who worship the Pope, hate women, and shower just once a month”? 

One of the world’s most prominent Catholic theologians has called for a revolution from below to unseat the pope and force radical reform at theVatican.

Hans Küng is appealing to priests and churchgoers to confront the Catholic hierarchy, which he says is corrupt, lacking credibility and apathetic to the real concerns of the church’s members.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Küng, who had close contact with the pope when the two worked together as young theologians, described the church as an “authoritarian system” with parallels to Germany’s Nazi dictatorship.

“The unconditional obedience demanded of bishops who swear their allegiance to the pope when they make their holy oath is almost as extreme as that of the German generals who were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler,” he said.

The Vatican made a point of crushing any form of clerical dissent, he added. “The rules for choosing bishops are so rigid that as soon as candidates emerge who, say, stand up for the pill, or for the ordination of women, they are struck off the list.” The result was a church of “yes men”, almost all of whom unquestioningly toed the line.

Let’s try that again, with an imaginative excursion back to the early first century:

The Nazarene upstart, Jesus Christ, has made a point of crushing any form of dissent or disagreement. “The rules for choosing disciples are so rigid that as soon as candidates emerge who, say, trust in money or reject teachings about the Eucharist or deny Jesus’ authority, they are struck off the list.” The result is a body of “yes men”, almost all of whom unquestionably toe the line (though some have doubts about Judas Iscariot, deemed the “most open-minded” and “pragmatic” by some veteran observors). 

Küng once possessed serious theological chops, and I’ve benefited from some of his early works. But he has several maddening qualities—arrogance, immodesty, bloviation, media suck-up-icity—that have only been amplified by time and the fairly certain conclusion that he won’t be elected Pope any time soon (or ever!). The man is nearly impossible to spoof or satirize. How, for instance, can anyone make up this sort of Küngraziness? 

“The Vatican is no different from the Kremlin,” Küng said. “Just as Putin as a secret service agent became the head of Russia, so Ratzinger, as head of the Catholic church’s secret services, became head of the Vatican. He has never apologised for the fact that many cases of abuse were sealed under the secretum pontificium (papal secrecy), or acknowledged that this is a disaster for the Catholic church.” Küng described a process of “Putinisation” that has taken place at the Vatican. …

Far from putting the brakes on his prolific theological output, Küng has recently distilled the ideas of Weltethos – which seeks to create a global code of behaviour, or a globalisation of ethics – into a capricious musical libretto. Mixing narrative with excerpts from the teachings of Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Küng’s writings have been incorporated into a major symphonic work by the British composer Jonathan Harvey that will have its London premiere on Sunday at the Southbank Centre.

Küng says the musical work, like the foundation, is an attempt to emphasise what the religions of the world have in common rather than what divides them.

Ah, the sweet sounds of syncretism! It’s music to mushy ears. Anyone familar with, say, Lumen Gentium, or the writings of Blessed John Paul II and Ratzinger/Benedict XVI  (see Truth and Tolerance, especially), know that all highlight what religions have in common and what is distinctive and even irreconcilable about them. Why? Because truth and intellectual integrity, not to mention spiritual integrity, demand it. Christianity is not merely a belief system or a moral code, as Küng apparently believes (or is that “believes”?), but a transformative encounter with the unique person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. If Jesus is not the Incarnate Word, then Christianity becomes just a moral and cultural force, then a pick-and-choose lifestyle, and then, finally, an empty afterthought of no lasting value. 

Finally, there is a serious irony, or contradiction, in Küng’s perspective:

Weltethos was founded in the early 1990s as an attempt to bring the religions of the world together by emphasising what they have in common rather than what divides them. It has drawn up a code of behavioural rules that it hopes one day will be as universally acceptable as the UN.

(Would that be the same U.N. that is being pushed by its High Commissioner on Human Rights—no, really, stop laughing—to endorse “governments to criminalise organised opposition to abortion by non-governmental groups such as pro-life lobbyists or even family members”?)

The work’s aim is arguably high-minded – Harvey described the demanding task of writing a score for the text as an “awe-inspring responsibility”. But Küng, who has won the support of leading figures including Henry Kissinger, Kofi Annan, Jacques Rogge, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson and Shirin Ebadi, insisted its aims were grounded in basic necessity.”At a time of paradigm change in the world, we need a common set of principles, most obvious among them the Golden Rule, in which Confucius taught to not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself,” he said.

Having spent so much time telling The Guardian how he wants “revolts” and “revolution” and “radical reform”—all predicated on denying and undermining Church authority—Küng appeals to the golden rule (in its negative form, notably). So, does he also wish for revolt against his beliefs and projects? Does he also desire that those who disagree with him impose their beliefs upon him? He obviously understands the Catholic Church is not a dictatorship—people are not forced to become Catholic (unlike, say, in some religions), and Catholics are free to leave the Church. No, what he clearly despises are the singular claims of the Catholic Church, not the least in the realm of morality, as Küng passionately advocates abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and homosexuality. 

What is particularly galling about Küng is that he, like so many dissenters and progressives, cannot or will not distinguish between coercive power and legitimate authority. His approach is not that of a pastor or a bishop or a loyal son of the Church, but of a bureaucrat, technocrat, and politician of the most heavy-handed, even militaristic, sort. 

• For an excellent overview and analysis of Küng’s beliefs and projects, see Donna Steichen’s 2005Catholic World Report article, “A Religion the New York Times Can Love”

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.