As a non-theologian, I do not feel competent to respond to the controversial theological views of the recently deceased Swiss-German dissident theologian Hans Küng, such as his rejection of the dogma of papal infallibility. But as a historian who specializes in the history of East-Central European, particularly Polish history, I am quite disgusted by Küng’s blatant lies about Polish history, which he used to attack St. John Paul II.
In his attacks on John Paul II, Küng often maintained that the Polish pope was reactionary. In his book A Global Ethics for Global Politics and Economics (1997), Küng writes of John Paul’s dreams for a re-evangelization of Europe:
Europe is to be ‘renewed’ in the medieval spirit of anti-modernity, according to the notions of a man who has neither accepted nor assimilated the paradigm shifts of the Reformation or the Enlightenment, but has now lost his own medieval Polish Catholic model as a result of the most recent development [the electoral victory of the post-communist left over the post-Solidarity bloc in Poland’s parliamentary and presidential elections in 1993 and 1995, respectively, which Küng incorrectly claims took place in 1996], probably the greatest tragedy of his life.
(I will leave aside the facts that, unlike today, the Middle Ages were a time of cultural flourishing in the West and that while I have no doubt that John Paul II was saddened by the post-communists’ political successes, the premature deaths of his parents and brother and/or the horrific German-Soviet occupation and subsequent communist takeover of Poland likely were greater tragedies for him.)
This quote from Küng is emblematic of an argument he would often make: John Paul II was a “backward” pope because he was from a “backward” country. Attacking the intellectual and pastoral legacy of a pope by striking at his national origin was not unique to Küng. In his pompously titled memoir My Struggle for Freedom (2003), which sounds as if it has been penned by someone who had spent years in Soviet gulags or fighting apartheid in South Africa, Küng devoted a chapter to Poland that is rife with historical falsehoods intended to denigrate John Paul by attacking his country of origin. He wrote:
The Catholic Church of Poland, identifying itself with the nation, presents itself over all these years as a bulwark of freedom [during the Second World War and under communism]. But was it really? […] In this way, people cherish and cultivate the myth of a church [uncapitalized in the original] of the resistance and keep silent about how much conformism and collaboration in the time of National Socialism and above all of Communism made the survival of the church possible.
For anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Polish history, this is nothing other than slanderous lies. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, apart from completely eradicating the nation’s Jewish population, it intended to turn the Poles into slaves for the Nordic “master race,” whose country would be Lebensraum, or living room, for German colonists.
Thus, the invaders planned on completely killing off the Polish elites to make resistance more difficult. In 1939, the Stutthof concentration camp outside Danzig/Gdansk became the first camp to be opened outside of the Third Reich’s prewar borders. For the first years of its functioning, Stutthof’s inmates were above all the Polish intelligentsia. This was an extremely brutal place; Stutthof was the only known Nazi camp where the fat of inmates was actually used to produce soap. Other camps where many educated Poles were killed include Auschwitz (whose inmates were solely non-Jewish Poles until 1942), Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Mauthausen-Gusen. Likewise, in 1939-1940 the Germans undertook a policy known as Intelligenzaktion, in which 100,000 educated Poles (professors, teachers, clergymen, and others) in Pomerania were shot.
Meanwhile, Poland’s Catholic clergy was among the groups most targeted in the campaign against Poland’s elites. Approximately one in five Polish priests was killed during the war. In the Diocese of Włocławek, for instance, 49.2 percent of priests were killed, as well as 47.8, 36.8, and 31.1 percent in Chełmno, Lodz, and Poznan, respectively.
In Dachau, the oldest Nazi camp, 2,720 priests were interred and 1,034 were killed. While the inmates of Dachau’s priest blocks included clergymen from across Europe, including Protestant pastors and even a couple imams from Muslim-majority Albania, Polish Roman Catholic priests made up 65 percent of inmates and 84 percent of deaths. The latter category included Blessed Michał Kozal, the bishop of Włocławek. “Conformism and collaboration,” huh?
Küng also wrote that “there is no official statement by the Polish episcopate on the extermination of millions of Polish Jews by the Nazis.” There is something very arrogant and inappropriate about a scholar from Germany lecturing bishops from a country that suffered greatly under Nazism on antisemitism. In any case, Küng’s statement was technically true; however, despite the harsh, murderous persecutions of the Polish clergy described above, the Polish episcopate did not issue an official protest against their persecution, either. Furthermore, actions speak louder than words: Father Paweł Pytel-Andrianik, a Polish historian and the former spokesman for the Polish Episcopal Conference, has estimated, in light of his research at the archives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, that about 2,400 Polish nuns and 1,000 Polish priests were engaged in sheltering Jews during the Holocaust, as were 80 percent of those Polish bishops who had not been deported to concentration camps.
Father Pytel-Andrianik is echoed by Antony Polonsky in the third volume of his authoritative history of Poland’s Jews; Polonsky writes that the majority of female religious orders in Poland sheltered Jewish children, saving about 1,500, which could have been possible only with the support of the Polish bishops. It is worth noting that, unlike in Western Europe, aiding Jews was punishable by death in occupied Poland.
Regarding the war, Küng also wrote the following: “The liberated Greek Catholic metropolitan Josyf Slipyj bitterly complains in Rome that the Polish hierarchy didn’t even prevent the destruction of the Greek Catholic Church in Poland, which was united with Rome; rather, it promoted compulsory Latinization.”
Given the extreme and murderous institutional destruction of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church, I have no idea how the Polish bishops had any power to “prevent the destruction of the Greek Catholic Church in Poland.” Küng’s account, in any case, lacks nuance, which the complex relationship between Poles and Ukrainians in the twentieth century requires.
After Polish independence was restored in 1918, Western Ukraine, which had once for centuries been under Polish rule, was granted to Poland. The region’s population was mostly Ukrainian, but the Polish state pursued a nationalistic attitude by forcibly Polonizing Ukrainian schools, sending large numbers of Polish colonists to settle in Western Ukraine, and even destroying Greek Catholic churches. In response, however, Ukrainian nationalists formed the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which engaged in a campaign of terror, assassinating Bronisław Pieracki, Poland’s minister of the interior, in 1934.
During the Second World War, Nazi Germany hoped to exploit Polish-Ukrainian conflicts and so it armed, trained, and financed the OUN. In 1941, German-trained Ukrainian nationalists killed thousands of Jews in the Lviv pogrom; two years later, they killed 100,000 Poles in Volhynia over a very short time with extreme sadism. The Polish Home Army retaliated, often brutally, but the overwhelming majority of casualties in this conflict were Poles.
At this time, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic hierarchy sided with the Ukrainian nationalists. When Hitler’s troops entered Lviv in 1941, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky sent a personal letter to Adolf Hitler, thanking him for having “liberated” Ukraine. Poland’s Catholic hierarchy, and Polish society in general, saw this as a stab in the back. Sheptytsky also delegated Greek Catholic chaplains to the Ukrainian volunteer division of the SS. It is true that Sheptytsky did help a considerable number of Jewish children to find shelter (among them was Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Poland’s foreign minister in 2005). Yet he was a complicated figure who divided Poles and Ukrainians, much like Cardinal Stepinac divides Serbs and Croats.
With regard to Küng’s comment that Poland’s Catholic Church collaborated “above all” with the communists, does this even deserve a riposte? Many know the story of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, the pro-Solidarity priest who was beaten, tortured, and murdered by the communist police in 1984 (several more pro-Solidarity activist priests died under “unexplained circumstances” throughout the 1980s). While it is true that the communist regime’s policies towards the Church were not as harsh in Poland as in Albania or even Czechoslovakia, many priests and bishops were persecuted, especially under Stalinism. In 1950, 123 Polish priests were imprisoned. Three years later, there was a Stalinist show trial of the Krakow Curia in which several priests and laypeople were given life sentences or executed.
The dominant attitude of Poland’s bishops towards the regime was personified by the nation’s primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, who tirelessly worked to re-evangelize Polish society and defend the human rights and dignity of Poles. For famously telling the government non possumus, “we cannot,” he was placed under house arrest in isolated locations for three years, where he was accompanied by a nun and a priest who later turned out to be snitches for the regime.
Elsewhere in his memoir, Küng engaged in petty personal attacks on John Paul II, going so far as to question his intelligence. He stated: “[Karol Wojtyła] has been rejected at the Gregorian, the top place in Rome, because he hasn’t completed his studies in Poland satisfactorily.” He proceeded to suggest a very strange conspiracy theory, stating that during his pontificate John Paul II used Opus Dei to wage a war against the Jesuits as revenge for not having been accepted at the (Jesuit-run) Gregorian Pontifical University.
Elsewhere, Küng opined that Paul VI “is perhaps the only pope of the twentieth century who deserves to be called an ‘intellectual’ in the broadest sense.” The logical implication is that, according to Küng, John Paul II was not an intellectual.
I have read through numerous biographies, including George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, widely considered to be the most authoritative, of St. John Paul II to see if it was true that he was rejected by the Gregorianum. I found nothing. Where, then, did Küng come up with this? I can only respond by noting that nobody who has tried to read Karol Wojtyła’s philosophical works such as The Acting Person or Love and Responsibility would accuse him of being anything other than an extremely erudite, deep thinker. Each summer, St. John Paul II would invite the greatest living European intellectuals, many, if not most, of whom were not Catholics – Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricœur, Stephen Hawking, and Leszek Kołakowski, to name just a few – for discussions at Castel Gandalfo. I am certain that they all would agree that the late pope was not an intellectual mediocrity, as Küng suggested.
In 2005, the whole world, Catholic or not, was mourning the death of St. John Paul II, whom it considered to be a gentle advocate of peace and one of the great leaders of our time. He was praised by everyone from George W. Bush to Hugo Chavez, the President of Israel to the President of the Palestinian Authority, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Then, Hans Küng violated the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum (“Of the deceased, speak only well”) and penned a nasty attack titled: “The Failures of Pope Wojtyła”. For decades, Küng was a mean-spirited critic of both John Paul and his onetime friend and colleague from the University of Tübingen, Joseph Ratzinger. It is deeply unfair that Küng resorted to distorting and insulting an entire nation’s history and questioning the late pope’s intelligence and work in such a way.
But, sadly, Küng was enamored with both his own abilities and the fame they could bring him, becoming, as Weigel notes, a “dissident Catholic theologian as international media star.” History will probably not be kind to his legacy, which seems fitting for a man whose legacy is so often marked by a distinct unkindness towards history.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!