De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Loosely translated as “do not speak ill of the dead,” it remains good advice, particularly when reflecting on the life of someone with whom you disagreed about many things. The phrase certainly passed through my mind when I read of the death of the Swiss theologian, Father Hans Küng.
Fr. Küng’s eventful life put him at the heart of 20th century Catholicism’s most heated controversies. Whether the topic was Humanae Vitae, the correct interpretation of Vatican II, or the nature of inter-religious dialogue, Küng had very clear views. He was also masterful at making sure that everyone knew what those opinions were. But even many on the progressive side of these intra-Catholic debates readily concede that some of Küng’s views on topics like euthanasia, the nature of hell, or Christ’s consubstantiality with God the Father—to name just a few—were irreconcilable with received Catholic teaching.
Nor, alas, was Küng above detraction. He wrote things about John Paul II and Benedict XVI plainly designed to pander to the preconceptions of aggressively secular or religiously liberal journalists. As his former assistant Cardinal Walter Kasper gently put it, Küng’s heart may have been Catholic, but his behavior was sometimes “unjust.” In his notebooks written during Vatican II, one of the most influential 20th century theologians Father Henri de Lubac SJ (who was hardly an arch-reactionary and found himself under the scrutiny of the Holy Office before Vatican II) described Küng as possessing a “juvenile audacity” and speaking in “incendiary, superficial, and polemical” terms. Evidently Küng’s lack of humility—something, again, freely admitted by some of his defenders—disturbed de Lubac.
The Year 1979
Küng’s intellectual life was bracketed by the periods before and after his license to teach Catholic theology was withdrawn in 1979 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with John Paul II’s approval.
Before 1979, Küng’s writing was dominated by his effort to stamp his own progressive take on the world’s understanding of Vatican II through academic journals like Concilium and endless public lectures and media-interviews. It was an interpretation and style that, to varying degrees, was adopted by many post-Vatican II German clergy and theologians. Given the catastrophic state of Catholicism throughout the German-speaking world today—empty pews, hyper-bureaucratization, a pronounced disinterest in evangelization, the corrupting influence of the infamous church tax, the absolutization of the historical-critical method for studying Scripture, rampant consequentialism in moral theology, and, above all, a fixation with conforming Catholic teaching to the secular zeitgeist on any given subject—it’s hard to claim that Küng’s ideas facilitated any renaissance in Catholic life.
After 1979, Küng’s research focused on questions of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. He had written extensively on these topics during the 1960s and 1970s. But in books like Christianity and the World Religions: Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (1986) and Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View (1990), Küng made these questions even more central to his work. Though he never stopped launching salvos against Rome, Küng increasingly operated in “the world of religions.”
This is a professionalized academic setting which, if done well, can help increase understanding of faiths other than your own. If handled badly, however, it lends itself to the promotion of a sentimental humanitarianism that downplays the truth that, whether we like it or not, different religions have very different conceptions of God and the purpose of human life, and they can’t all be true.
Küng’s explorations of these subjects often produced profound insights into the nature of other faiths. Küng was a man with considerable intellectual gifts, and no less than Benedict XVI praised his efforts to develop a universal ethical code based on moral truths held by the world’s major religions. But although he was not a promotor of syncretism, Küng regarded evangelization as a thing of the past. While that might comfort German theologians and clerics uncertain about the truth about anything, it’s contrary to Christ’s own words on the subject.
Personally, I’m unsure that Catholics will be reading many of Küng’s writings in, say, twenty years’ time. Most of them are highly conditioned by the preoccupations of progressive theologians in the 20th century’s last quarter. And if there is anything about liberal religion that we have learned over the past 60 years, it is that progressive Christianity can’t sustain itself outside church bureaucracies and university departments.
There is, however, one book authored by Küng which I continue to find enlightening in more ways than one ever since I first read it in the late-1990s. It concerns a very unlikely topic: the life and music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
And then there was Mozart
Küng first attracted the world’s attention with his 1957 book, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. It is presumably while making Barth’s acquaintance that Küng discovered the Protestant theologian’s affection for Mozart. In his Church Dogmatics, Barth commented that he began each day listening to Mozart, and confessed that “if I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine, St Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher.” Barth even wrote a short bookWolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1956) in which he maintained that “In the case of Mozart, we must certainly assume that the dear Lord had a special, direct contact with him” as Mozart’s music “evidently comes from on high.”
Küng, it turns out, shared Barth’s love of Mozart (as did, incidentally, two prominent Catholic theologians of whom Küng was extremely critical: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger). 35 years after Barth’s book appeared, Küng penned his own little text about the composer.
Entitled Mozart: Traces of Transcendence (1991), Küng points out that Barth seems “almost apologetic” about Mozart’s Catholicism. Indeed, Küng adds, few modern scholars of Mozart had written very much at all about the place of religious belief in Mozart’s life and work. They pay more attention to the fact that Mozart became a Freemason in 1784, albeit, it turns out, in a lodge made up of believing Catholics. This wasn’t unusual in late-18th century Catholic Europe. It perhaps helped that the 1738 papal ban on Catholics becoming Freemasons (reiterated in 1983 by the CDF with John Paul II’s approval) wasn’t promulgated in Austria until 1792, one year after Mozart’s death.
Even the most rudimentary perusal of Mozart’s correspondence reveals, Küng notes, “a Catholicity which is by no means out of keeping with the gospel, rooted in a confident personal holding to God” as well as “a belief relatively immune even to modern criticism of religion.” Mozart’s writings are full of references to God the Creator, his confidence in Christ’s promises, and his attachment to “the mystical sanctuary of our religion”—something, Mozart said, which “moves your soul” when you considered what you were doing when you knelt down “at the moving Angus Dei and received the Eucharist.”
Much of this Catholic faith, Küng suggests, came from Mozart’s father. Leopold Mozart had received 12 years of education by the Jesuits, studied theology and philosophy, and paid particular attention to Mozart’s religious formation. Faith was something that father and son discussed regularly. When Leopold was dying, Wolfgang told him that “I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity . . . of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.” Those aren’t the words of someone with a frivolous attitude toward faith. At a time when unbelief was becoming fashionable in some circles, Mozart remarked that “Friends who have no religion cannot long be my friends.”
But what about Mozart’s music? It’s common, Küng stated, to portray Mozart’s sacred music as a consequence of the fact that many 18th-century European composers earned their income by securing an appointment to write music for church authorities. Between 1773 and 1777, Mozart was employed as a musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo: a prominent but also autocratic church reformer with whom Mozart had a difficult relationship.
In the second half of his book, Küng illustrates that Mozart’s music for religious settings was “not just music at worship but music of worship, an exegesis of liturgy.” The vehicle through which Küng makes his case is Mozart’s “Coronation Mass,” most likely first performed on Easter Sunday, 1779. For Küng, this composition demonstrates that Mozart was interested in far more than providing an attractive worship space. Instead, Küng insists:
No, this music is the liturgy itself, ringing out in festal sound, and it gives musical expression to the subject matter, the liturgical text itself. So all in all this is liturgical music which expounds the text, and in its beauty, purity and perfection it already gives us a glimpse of the eternal, joyful sound of the spheres with their eternal Glorias: the vita venturi saeculi, the “life of the world to come,” which is confessed at the end of the Credo.
The sense of wonder conveyed by Mozart’s liturgical music is indelibly linked, according to Küng, to Mozart’s awareness of the transcendent. It cannot, Küng says, be reduced to a “compulsory commission” that was just part of any church composer’s job. In the end, pieces like the “Coronation Mass” were an “affair of the heart” for Mozart, and thus expressive of his deep love of God.
Against worlds without God
That attention to the transcendent in Mozart’s music, Küng states, has much important to teach us today. Liturgy should not be in the business, he writes, of cocooning Christians from the world around them or lulling them into an inattentiveness to “the practical problems of our time.” To that extent, Küng agrees that religion can function as an “opium of the people.” But Küng then makes an observation which sounds positively conservative:
we also have to learn that not only religion but also revolution can be the opium of the people and that revolution, too, is all too often supported by music. And even Marx’s anti-religious socialist society has not brought heaven on earth to a single people on this planet. . . . At any rate the great ideologies of the modern world, both revolutionary socialism and evolutionary technical progress, have meanwhile gone bankrupt and proved to be quasi-religions. And some people are beginning to understand that we might do better to sing “Great God, we praise thee” to the one true God, the Lord of all Power and Might, to the one thrice-holy God, rather than to the eternal, almighty, all wise God of Progress.
Given that Küng prided himself on his fierce advocacy of modernity against those he regarded as clinging to the past, this was a remarkable observation. But clearly there was something about Mozart’s music that underscored for Küng the inability of humanity to establish “the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom,” as Vatican II states in its 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, without God.
I am no scholar of music, yet I happen to think that Mozart was the greatest musical genius to walk the earth. And thanks to reading Küng’s book on Mozart many years ago, I am confident that this brilliance owed something to the fact that Mozart embraced in an uncomplicated way the Latin meaning of his second name “Amadeus”—amare (to love) and Deus (God). For that reason, but also basic reasons of Christian charity, I hope that Father Hans Küng will one day enjoy the Beatific Vision of the One whose great works include Mozart and his music which contains intimations of heaven itself.
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