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Hans Küng and the perils of fame

During and after the Vatican II years, Küng invented and then exploited a new personality type: the dissident Catholic theologian as international media star.

Fr. Hans Küng is pictured in his office in Tübingen, Germany, in this February 2008 file photo. (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

During his 1977 rookie year with the Baltimore Orioles, future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray got a piece of advice from veteran Lee May: If you’ve got talent, May told the 21-year-old slugger, fame can’t help you, but the odds are it’ll ruin you. Murray followed May’s sage counsel and avoided the limelight. Father Hans Küng, the mediagenic Swiss Catholic writer who died at age 93 on April 6, didn’t. Therein lies a sad tale.

Hans Küng certainly had talent. His doctoral dissertation on Karl Barth, arguably the greatest of 20th-century Protestant theologians, became a pioneering book in ecumenical theology. His small tract, The Council: Reform and Reunion, helped frame the discussion at Vatican II’s critical first session. Küng could also recognize and promote talent; he personally engineered Joseph Ratzinger’s appointment to a professorial chair in the prestigious theology department at the University of Tübingen.

Yet, mythologies notwithstanding, Hans Küng had virtually no impact on the great documents of the Second Vatican Council. During the council years, he spent more of his time in Rome with the world press and with the “Off Broadway” council of public lectures and debates than doing the harder work of developing Vatican II’s texts. Ratzinger, by contrast, made critically important contributions to several conciliar documents. So did Belgian theologian Gérard Philips, who got (at best) .0001 percent of the media attention Küng received, but who was so influential in developing what the Council actually taught that another important Vatican II theologian, French Dominican Yves Congar, joked that “Vatican II” should be renamed “Louvain I,” after Philips’s university.

During and after the Vatican II years, Hans Küng invented and then exploited a new personality type: the dissident Catholic theologian as international media star. Handsome, articulate, and a reliable spokesman for the progressive cause of the moment, Küng was one of the first Catholic intellectuals to figure out that the world press couldn’t resist the man-bites-dog storyline in which a Catholic thinker challenges Church doctrine – and does so in ways that confirm progressive cultural biases. Thus the man who once wrote a truly bold book (Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection) became more of a media personality than a serious Catholic theologian. And with the 1971 book, Infallible? An Inquiry, Küng declared himself in sharp dissent from a defined dogma of the apostolic faith.

Thus whatever his influence among the Davos elites – and one must hope that this man who never left the priesthood had some spiritual impact within that ultramundane world – it’s arguable that Hans Küng’s most serious contribution to theology after his book on Barth was an accident of the academic sabbatical system. For as he was about to go on leave from the university one year, Küng asked Joseph Ratzinger to take over one his Tübingen courses – and Ratzinger’s lectures in that course became the international bestseller, Introduction to Christianity.

Hans Küng was admirably clear about his position: he did not believe to be true, nor would he teach as the truth, what the Catholic Church definitively taught to be true. Thus it should have come as no surprise to anyone when, on December 15, 1979, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed with Father Küng, declared that he “could not be considered a Catholic theologian,” and withdrew his mandate to teach as a “Professor of Catholic Theology.” The German episcopate agreed with CDF’s decision, which reflected the bottom-line Catholic conviction that, thanks to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Church abides in a truth it can articulate authoritatively, even as its understanding of that truth develops. (Things have, obviously, changed among the German bishops.)

The last decades of Hans Küng’s life were marked by bitter attacks on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI – although the latter, always the Christian gentleman, invited his old Tübingen colleague to share an afternoon with him at Castel Gandolfo, shortly after his election. At certain points, as I noted in a 2010 open letter to Father Küng, those anti-papal polemics descended into the toxic waste dump of calumny, not least because of Küng’s inability to liberate himself from liberal shibboleths on everything from abortion to AIDS to Catholic-Islamic relations to stem cell research – a sorry record for an intelligent man.

Lee May’s warning to Eddie Murray was spot on: fame is dangerous. Which is why, to paraphrase F.R. Leavis on the literary Sitwells, Hans Küng belongs more to the history of publicity than the history of theology. Requiescat in pace.


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About George Weigel 334 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

19 Comments

  1. I have no haute baseball references, but do not underestimate the long-lasting Kungian effect on interpreting Vatican II. He may not have had a hand in writing them, but he sure had an enormous voice in shaping the way they would be understood, i.e., as mere openings for further development and evolution of Catholic thought and theology. We’ve been stuck there ever since. The author writes him off as a something of a footnote, it seems. Hardly, and sadly not. He is heralded as a hero by most priests over 60. And I suspect there are a number of hierarchs, in places of enormous power today, who likewise regard him as such … and more, a victim, a martyr for the progressive cause, cruelly silenced by autocratic, neanderthal retro-pontiffs. Perhaps fame ruined Kung; it certainly damaged the Church. And let’s remember, ruins are often preserved and cherished. I fear Kung is with us for the long haul, notwithstanding the nonchalant wave-off of those otherwise disposed.

    • >>>and evolution of Catholic thought and theology…<<< You mean perhaps a devolution or implosion. After all, the Devil is also -as we know from Bulgakov or from Thomas Mann – a great theologian

  2. Actually, Küng was about 150 years behind the curve. Primacy of place as the Catholic dissident theologian as media darling must go to l’Abbé Hugues-Félicité de Lamennais, whom Charles Périn considered the first modernist, and whose books and pamphlets sold in the tens of thousands of copies, particularly among anti- and liberal Catholics. De Lamennais’s “theory of certitude,” which shifted sovereignty and intellect from the human person to humanity as a whole (the essence of modernism and socialism), and gave an exaggerated concept of infallibility to the pope, called forth Mirari Vos, the first social encyclical in 1832, and the second, Singulari Nos, in 1834, which referred to de Lamennais’s errors as rerum novarum, “new things.” Even though he repudiated his priesthood and renounced Christianity, de Lamennais is today considered by many to be the founder of liberal or social Catholicism, at least of a sort. So pervasive was his influence that twenty years after his death Pius IX called the First Vatican Council to try and deal with the problems de Lamennais created, particularly by correctly defining the primacy of the intellect and papal infallibility to counter de Lamennais’s “new things.”

    • Excellent comment. May I add another testimony of the dreadful developments? Malachi Martin: The Jesuits.
      His favorite persona is however another luminary: Teilhard de Chardin.
      He has a lovely & humorous expose of TdCh ideas & teachings in another book of his, Hostage to the Devil, where practical impact of these TdCh teachings is being demonstrated/exposed for what they are, in a sad case of “Father” Jonathan. Apage Satanas!

  3. I think Kung’s influence didn’t come from HOW MANY people read his books and listened to him but from WHO read his books and listened to him.

  4. Have never heard of Belgian theologian, Gerard Philips. More, please. Also Louvain. Is it still reliably Catholic or has it too gone off the rails?

    • Louvain is not Louvain but (since 1968) Leuven (a bilingual Dutch and English-speaking university) in the historic city of Louvain, and Louvain-la-Neuve, the French-speaking equivalent in a new town in the Walloon countryside. Neither is notably Catholic; the ISP (philosophy faculty) at Louvain-la-Neuve fired Dr Stéphane Mercier for having the temerity to question the moral permissibility of abortion. The Francophone Belgian bishops enthusiastically supported the University for hanging him out to dry. The former Rector Magnificus, Godfried Cardinal Daneels, who was a theology professor at Leuven before becoming a bishop, actively interfered with any attempt to find redress for the nephew of Roger Vangheluwe, former bishop of Bruges. The nephew had been repeatedly raped by the bishop. So, you can find Catholics there but a Catholic institution in either place? Not so much.

  5. I am distressed over the death of Fr. Hans Kueng. More because of the account he must give to God for the massive mess he made. A man of great intelligence wastes it all ongoing contrary to the will of God. I also am saddened by all those Catholics he duped on his path. May he rest in Peace. God, we commend him to thy Mercy.

  6. Aside from superstar status, Fr Hans Küng’s media interviews, works revealed a true democratic secularist. He theologically articulated what Pope Francis referred to as a Church identifying its authority from the base of an inverted triangle. Election of hierarchy as in a democratic republic in the conviction that the Holy Spirit’s direction was evident as plebeian consensus. His influence is debatable. I don’t recall many attributing their dissidence to him although as fellow dissidents they supported his views. What seems far more influential in the Modernist trend within Catholicism was and remains academia, essentially the Louvain and Notre Dame. Fr Theodore Hesburgh’s Land O Lakes Catholic educational new prima facie, independence of Catholic universities from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself” prepared the education for the liberal, quasi liberal priest and bishop. If ambiguity is the hallmark of Pope Francis, bishops frequently vacillating between abortion and climate change can be compared to the wavering positions of Cardinal Avery Dulles, “Writing in this magazine All Dressed in Scarlet, February 23, 2001, Joseph Komonchak observed that Dulles tended to be conservative when among liberals and liberal when among conservatives. Dulles’s seeming theological move from left to right might be better understood by conceiving of his entire career as a commitment to conversation” (Commonweal Massa 2010). Dulles compromised the real resurrection of Christ as an esoteric event more spiritual than physical. Avery Dulles, later, as cardinal blamed that on the mighty post Vat II liberal surge in which he was swept. Hans Küng seemingly [for some commentators] standing in as Neptune.

    • Since I always find you insightful, I always search for your comments first Father. As a convert from atheism, I overcame that youthful atheism decades ago from my own discoveries of intelligent design as a student of physics, as well as simple discoveries of how the meaning of human nobility disproved biological materialism. I was nonetheless delayed in the final phase of my conversion to Catholicism by having been wrongly directed to read acclaimed intellectuals in the Church, such as Kung, whom I found to be rather consistently stupid, not “brilliant,” and had trouble understanding any special qualities in a Church where theologians like him would be so revered. I never considered myself superior, but I had a superior value when, even as an atheist, I was pro-life, and had little tolerance for Catholics who had no excuse, it seemed, for not knowing better. And this sentiment extended to the inverted triangle idea whereby masses of sinful Catholic laity should seek to enshrine their collective anti-Catholic prejudices into corrupted pseudo-doctrines. Fortunately, with the election of JPII Catholic orthodoxy seemed possible and my misgivings eventually crumbled, praise God.
      But I want to thank you for not joining the chorus of those who now seem to think that with all the harm Kung did, including the legitimizing the slaughter of the unborn, it can now be ignored simply because of his sometime “exceptional” intellect. Incidentally, I have read some good theologians subsequently, but I even found the much more accessible, “down to earth” figure like the late Msgr. William Smith to be a far more interesting voice than figures like Kung during those formative conversion years.

  7. Re Fr. Morello’s comment above – So Louvain (Leuven to me) is the Notre Dame of Belgium/Europe in terms of orthodoxy/dissent?

    • Gilberta dissent. Yes, the Leuven the oldest arguably most distinguished Catholic U has trended to the Left. Word was out for years among lecturers that the Louvain [Leuven in Flemish, now the university divided linguistically] was joining the liberal ranks of Fordham U NY and Notre Dame South Bend IN. “Stéphane Mercier, a lecturer in philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven (UCL) in Belgium was suspended from teaching because there was opposition in a class from a feminist group to his philosophical argument to the effect that abortion is the killing of an innocent unborn human life – a Catholic university insisting that a philosophical argument defending the inviolable dignity of unborn human life is inconsistent with its values?” (A Catholic university where Catholicism is unwelcome? Eduardo Echeverria, Catholic World Report Friday April 21, 2017).

  8. Thanks, Fr. Morello. I suspected as much. I can’t remember exactly but think I got that impression from the recent controversy with the Brothers re euthanasia. I’ll check out the article by Echeverria.

  9. I read the Echeverria article. Very solid. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t expect too much from the Belgian bishops. I suspect that Antwerp’s Bonny is typical. I’d be happy to learn I’m wrong there.

    • Gilberta, it’s terribly ironic that the sin of euthanasia practiced by Belgium’s Brothers of Charity [until prohibited by order of Pope Francis] was not effectively addressed by Belgium’s’ bishops. Belgium’s bishops absurd response to Stéphane Mercier’s predicament, “Mr. Mercier takes a philosophical point of view. The Church’s point of view, on the contrary, takes a theological and pastoral approach.” And it vexes the sensibilities that today a free and autonomous Catholic State and bishops conference holds anti Catholic positions. Ironic in that it was the persecuted German Catholic bishops under Nazism that responded to State euthanasia policy in a letter read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches June 6 1941 that “Never, under any circumstances, except in war and justified self-defense, is it permissible to kill an innocent human being” (Henry Friedlander The Origins of Nazi Genocide). Purportedly the bishops initially requested permission from the Reich minister of church affairs to anoint patients prior to their euthanization. Pius XII intervened considering that complicity with a grave injustice. The German bishops then steeled their witness to the faith and issued the June 6 letter. Today’s German bishops conference is a disastrous far cry that unfortunately Pope Francis hesitates to correct. Euthanasia often inflicted on the innocent sans permission is spreading including the US under the present Administration. Christ’s Mystical Body except for the reprobates stands for life. States are increasingly bent on death for the helpless.

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