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From Küng to Catholicism

As a young Lutheran seminarian, Küng’s writing impressed me. But I eventually saw that he failed me in his denial of the orthodox belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"On Being a Christian" is one of many books by German theologian Hans Küng, who in 1979 was stripped of his faculties to teach theology in Catholic institutions. (Image of Küng, in 2009: Wikipedia)

Hans Küng’s massive 720-page On Being A Christian, published in English by Doubleday in 1976, had enormous impact on my theological life as a first-year Lutheran seminarian.

Küng, now 91 and in poor health, was a thrilling read for a 30-year-old seminarian. I had never before read a comprehensive summa, Lutheran or otherwise, and certainly never anything with such daring verve.

Admittedly, I was impressionable, giddy even. Thirteen months prior I was not even certain there was a Christ, let alone that I was called to preach about him. To that point I had been a journalist, a congressman’s speechwriter, and a minor but not entirely unimportant Kansas political appointee. In 1976 I planned to run for the legislature. But I tossed it.

That summer—the year I should have been slogging door-to-door with campaign brochures—instead found me in a seminary classroom taking Koine Greek. I had eight intensive weeks in which to acquire an 800-word vocabulary and become familiar with what I found to be an unusually awkward grammar, before I could be properly admitted. I found Küng in the seminary book store. He became a respite from Greek accent marks. Finding Küng was a solace.

Mind you, I did not know theology. I did not think theologically. I did not even know there was a “way” of doing theology (there are many ways as it turns out) or a way of thinking theologically. On Being A Christian gave me a theological framework that, I think, actually put me a little ahead of my classmates when Theology 101 rolled around that September (because Greek grammar sure wasn’t going to do it). I already had something of a structure, a form, categories and an approach. Hans Küng did that for me.

That book sent me off to read many of Küng’s previous and subsequent works until one day—about halfway through Does God Exist?—I simply didn’t care to read him anymore (I’ve always thought it was the wrong question anyway). He had begun to repeat himself. That may be the case for other readers.

A recent article assures its readers that the impact of Küng’s work is still spreading “ripples”. That may be so. He has certainly been prolific and it was a rare book that did not end up on somebody’s bestseller list somewhere. He also has a lengthy list of honors. But he isn’t much cited in other works by other authors, especially Catholic ones—not any more.

An example: In Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (1957 German; 1964 English) Küng examined the Catholic/Protestant divide over the Reformation era doctrine of justification versus the Council of Trent. He concluded there was no essential difference. Justification was a significant ecumenical study, possibly because it bothered as many Protestants as it did Catholics. Barth is said to have remarked that if Küng is correct, he owed the Council of Trent an apology.

For all that, the book did not—so far as I can tell—occasion as much as a footnote in the joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration on the doctrine of justification issued in 1999. I cannot find Küng’s work referenced anywhere in it.

What officially emerged from Lutheran and Roman Catholic studies in 1999 was agreement, bracketed with essential caveats, that issues over justification (caveats included) are, as Küng asserted, no longer dividing—implying they were not dividing in the first place. Küng said this back in 1957:

Protestants speak of a declaration of justice and Catholics of a making just. But Protestants speak of a declaring just which includes a making just; and Catholics of a making just which supposes a declaring just. Is it not time to stop arguing about imaginary differences?

The official dialog in many ways mirrored Küng’s original study, as with close reading did the outcome, but made no mention of his ecumenical labors. By then his missio canonica, his license to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian had been stripped.

As the Vatican’s official 1979 announcement phrased it, Küng evinced “contempt for the Magisterium of the Church,” and despite invitation by the Congregation for Faith and Doctrine, he simply did not care to discuss it.

When his credentials were withdrawn, that was a thunder clap for me. It was also a dilemma. Mean old John Paul II, snatching out from under me my favorite Catholic just like that, and in my last year of seminary to top it off. If Küng was my theologian, John Paul had become my pope. Where to turn, where to turn? I defer to the sainted pope these days.

George Weigel accurately predicted what would happen. In his magnificent biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, he noted that revoking Küng’s certification as a teacher of Catholic theology settled the “Küng problem.” It removed him from having any further real influence over Catholic theology. He could still teach theology and still write his books, but it would not be under Catholic sponsorship. His theological work thereafter was pretty well confined to places where progressive speculations are echoed.

That is pretty much what has happened. He became part of a theological species that did not approach Vatican II with a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the Church and her Tradition. Robert Royal, in A Deeper Vision: Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, includes Küng and some others into a “more radical group” of Catholic interpreters—Schillebeeckx, Crossan, other names—who, according to Royal, “seem not to be destined to play a lasting role in Catholic thought…” After re-reading this early Fall, I would agree.

So, in On Being A Christian the empty tomb is not empty, as Küng tells it. The empty tomb is at best mere legend, but it doesn’t matter. That, says Küng, is not the point of the Resurrection in any case.

Here Küng walked the path taken by Rudolf Bultmann (d. 1976), German Lutheran theologian and professor of New Testament. The Resurrection wasn’t corporeal or physical and hardly even glorified, or anything else in that sense. Importantly, it did not leave behind an empty tomb, meaning the Resurrection wasn’t even historical, except for the effect it had on troubled, dismayed disciples. I cannot see any real difference between Küng and Bultmann.

By then I had decided the empty tomb was real and necessarily so. I was a happy agnostic, but when I reached a reluctant conclusion that the Resurrection happened in fact and in time, that made me a Christian and it didn’t seem like there was anything else I could do. In some choices, one is either all in or completely out. The Resurrection for me made the case for being all in.

I encountered this kind of speculation at my seminary. My Theology 101 professor, another Bultmann admirer, would ask: if the bones of Jesus were discovered and dug up would it make any difference to the faith? Well, yeah, I thought it would—a big difference. Thinking very selfishly it would have meant, just for starters, I didn’t need to spend an entire summer flummoxed by Greek grammar.

The real question is: if Christ is raised, how is he raised? If the disciples did not encounter the man who had been crucified and whose body was then hurriedly dumped in a tomb, who or what did they experience? Was it a mere existential wistfulness for the man they once knew and admired, and thus the product of an over-active grief reaction? Or did the resurrected Christ meet them as the historical continuity of the crucified man, Jesus, the one who shed the confines, as hymn puts it, “of a stone cold tomb.” The Gospel accounts assert the latter.

This is where Küng failed me.

I do not dismiss Kung’s work altogether. I still find much of his early work thrilling, especially the search to find contemporary ways of expressing our old time religion. But I regret that while doing so he could not avoid slipping beyond the edge of orthodox teaching.

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About Russell E. Saltzman 16 Articles
Before entering seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor (before becoming Roman Catholic), Russell E. Saltzman was a newspaper reporter, press secretary to a member of Congress, and deputy secretary of state of Kansas.


  1. Of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, Saltzman writes: “What officially emerged from Lutheran and Roman Catholic studies in 1999 was agreement, bracketed with essential caveats, that issues over justification (caveats included) are, as Küng asserted, no longer dividing—implying they were not dividing in the first place.”

    Unpacking part of what is “bracketed with caveats,” we find in the Preface that “The solemn confirmation of this Joint Declaration on 31 October 1999 in Augsburg, by means of the Official Common Statement WITH ITS Annex, represents an ecumenical event of historical significance” (caps added).

    Inseparable from the justification question is the meaning of “concupiscence,” that is, whether mankind is only spiritually injured or, instead, totally depraved.

    And, therefore, in the Annex—-which is integral with the Joint Declaration—-Ratzinger writes, for example: “The concept of ‘concupiscence’ is used in different senses on the Catholic and Lutheran sides. In the Lutheran Confessional writings ‘concupiscence’ is understood as the self-seeking desire of the human being, which in light of the law, spiritually understood, is REGARDED AS SIN. In the Catholic understanding concupiscence is an INCLINATION, remaining in human beings even after baptism, which comes from sin and presses toward sin” (caps added).

    From such pivotal distinctions with a difference, bearing on the essential goodness of human nature, comes the Catholic understanding that while homosexual tendencies are “objectively disordered”, they are NOT sinful in themselves—a message affirming the right of all to personal respect, but a message lost on a world awash in identity politics and the barking of competing victimhood slogans.

    On moral distinctions, such as this one especially, should we now expect synodal/encysted Germania—-proudly 500 years behind the times and counting—-to drag the universal magisterium through the mud of Amazonia for the next two years?

  2. Whenever someone starts talking about “finding new ways to express the old religion”, beware. They have already moved beyond the old religion, and hold it in contempt. Their public stance is only a mask, donned for the purpose of keeping their status intact. Once they feel that their status is secure, the mask comes off and they feel free to express their contempt openly. Kung is not a Christian, and never was a Christian.

  3. Perhaps it is not beside the point to reference what is probably the clearest expression of Mr Kung’s thinking in his vicious eleven-plank indictment of Pope John Paul’s leadership (as published in Corriere della Sera – while curiously there were only nine planks in the article published the day before in Der Spiegel – in March 2005).
    In his rejoinder, published a few months later, Vittorio Messori wrote about having once attended “one of the elaborate press conferences organized by the international pool of publishers of [Kung’s] books” in which, “with his customary bluster and invective for those who did not share his ideas, he demanded for the Catholic Church what he is once again demanding from a new pope, namely: married priests; women’s ordination; remarriage for the divorced; veneration for homosexuals; free contraception; acceptance of abortion; democratic elections of pastors, bishops and even popes; holding up schismatics and heretics as models to be imitated; welcoming atheists, agnostics, pagans not merely as brothers in humanity but as masters of life and thinking from whom everything is to be learned…. In a nutshell, the “theologically correct” rosary of the Sixties and Seventies, the “courageous reforms” of the average Western conformist. Next to me sat a Protestant pastor who was listening attentively and who eventually spoke up: “Very well and good, professor Kung. You’re right, here are the reforms that Catholicism too should apply. But just tell me one thing: why is it that we protestants already have all the things that you are demanding, and have had them for quite some time now, yet nonetheless our temples are so much emptier than your churches are?”
    Professor Kung didn’t answer that question, descended from on high where “pastoral” theories reign, perfect for academic semesters, now plummeted to the brutal actuality of facts, those brazen facts that have the impudence not to conform to our theories.
    I can see now from Kung’s malevolent summarizing of his Pontificate that John Paul II’s most unforgiveable sin must above all have been that of non having integrated into the Catholic Church the demands of the Reformation and of modernity[….]”.

  4. JUSTIFICATION as viewed by Catholics and Protestants is totally different. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was dishonest. Protestant justification is ONLY a forensic/judicial declaration of “justification,” without any internal soul transformation. Martin Luther described it as Protestants being heaps of dung covered with snow. Catholic justification transforms the human soul and directs it towards God. And the “total depravity” concept is depraved.

    • Not quite so. Lutherans teach growth in holiness, sanctification, as one of the fruits of being justified. It is referenced in the L/RC study documents foundational to the Joint Declaration.

      • You are misinformed. Patricia got it right.
        According to Luther’s manicheism one has to recognize Christ and than he goes into heaven even if he dies from hearth attack having sex with a prostitute.
        Infinite force of spirit by a margin erase every sin of body. Even worse, according to this manicheism there is no difference between such a sex and between kneeling in confessional, obtaining absolution and doing some penance. One can also have a nice day with children, some shopping, some prayers, and so on. Luther says “idem est”.

        But it is important to study Luther and theology, not just some Declarations.

        • Luther had little hand in writing the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530. It is still something of a contention how much Luther himself determines Lutheran confessional theology. In any case he was not Manicheian but he did have an, um, expressly earthy way of explaining how grace works, radical as it may be is.

    • That’s misleading. I can speak for the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, in which I received my formal theological training. The Reformed tradition teaches that justification and sanctification are distinct but both necessarily belong to “the elect,” i.e., those who are saved. In fact, regeneration is necessary in order to even have saving faith, thanks to our depravity from birth. This regeneration is understood in the sense of making holy (sanctifying), leading to repentance and love for Christ. Thus, there is no justification without sanctification because faith is not possible without sanctification (turning a heart of stone to flesh: Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26). The difference with Catholics — a massive difference — is that Catholics believe that justification can be lost, due to acts that mortally wound one’s love for God, which is another way of saying “a mortal wound in sanctification.” As such, justification is contingent on sanctification. For Calvinists, even though salvation necessarily includes both justification and sanctification, this salvation can never be lost. There is no concept of mortal sin in the Reformed tradition. Calvinists believe that every saved person has had his heart changed, but they do not believe that a grave failure in sanctification can remove one’s justification before God. Thus, sanctification for Calvinists is more a matter of demonstrating that one is saved, not a matter of keeping one’s salvation. Because Catholics believe the latter, they put a much greater stress on sanctification, namely through works of love.

  5. Free will specifically the decision to freely choose good or evil is the divide between Catholicism and Lutheranism. Excitement of possibility toward reconciliation on justification as argued here and by Hans Kung based on virtual compatibility doesn’t square with Luther’s convictions. Lutheran theology admits that God determines who is saved in accord with his sovereign choice. Free will is only lately being reconsidered by Lutheran influenced Protestants. Catholicism differs definitively and essentially by upholding the truth that salvation is offered to all. That anyone is free to decide. Author Saltzman rightly points to Kung’s adhering to the Bultmann demythologizing of the Real Resurrection in the flesh and blood as his downfall. It actually is symptomatic of departure from reality. For Man the reality of the physicality of resurrection in favor of an ideological idealization. That religious truth doesn’t require grounding in the physical world. “Protestants speak of a declaration of justice and Catholics of a making just. But Protestants speak of a declaring just which includes a making just; and Catholics of a making just which supposes a declaring just. Is it not time to stop arguing about imaginary differences?” (Kung). This is not word play. Making is the freedom to decide. Declaring omits that freedom. Finally in respect to concupiscence there is commonality between Lutheranism and Catholicism because an inclination by nature requires a free act of the will. Otherwise any movement toward an end is simply a natural appetite or desire. In Man there is no natural [by nature] propensity toward evil. Original Sin the reason for that inclination actually refers to the influence of evil upon the will result of Man’s departure from filial unity with the Father. Although Christ amended that on the Cross we remain subject to trial while in this world to freely choose our destiny.

    • Ratzinger quoted by P Beaulieu distinguishes concupiscence in Lutheranism as a form of bad decision making deemed sin by religious law, whereas Catholicism identifies concupiscence as “inclination” which even after baptism comes from sin and presses toward sin. Ratzinger is likely identifying Original Sin as the source. Saint Thomas Aquinas clarifies what concupiscence is in ST 1a2ae 30, 1. “Whether concupiscence is in the sensitive appetite only. I answer that, As the Philosopher says (Rhet. i, 11), ‘concupiscence is a craving for that which is pleasant.’ Now pleasure is twofold, as we shall state later on (1a2ae 31, 4): one is in the intelligible good, which is the good of reason; the other is in good perceptible to the senses. The former pleasure seems to belong to soul alone: whereas the latter belongs to both soul and body: because the sense is a power seated in a bodily organ: wherefore sensible good is the good of the whole composite. Now concupiscence seems to be the craving for this latter pleasure, since it belongs to the united soul and body, as is implied by the Latin word ‘concupiscentia.’ Therefore, properly speaking, concupiscence is in the sensitive appetite, and in the concupiscible faculty, which takes its name from it”. For the sensitive desires of Man to become sin, or Lust there must be a free, conscious act of the will (Liberum Arbitrium). Evil as Aquinas says is in the will (ST 1a 49 1).

  6. I live in a large city with many theological book stores (and used bookstores as well). I ALWAYS find Hans Kung books in bargain book bins. Its almost a cliché. Few will know his name or read his theology in ten years from now. In fact, they haven’t for a while. I have two graduate degrees; one in religious education and one in theology. We barely read Kung and that was 11 years ago (even then he was only popular among certain profs of a particular age). Its an important to remember that today’s theological fad (or superstar) will most likely be at the bottom of tomorrow’s bargain discount bin.

  7. The Catholic Church teaches predestination, but not double predestination. There are both Augustinian and Molinist options under the umbrella of Catholic belief in predestination.

    I like Reality by Garrigou-Lagrange for these distinctions.

    What the new false church being constructed as we speak teaches…I have no idea.

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