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Quo Vadis, Wojtyla?

Declaration on Some Major Points in the Theological Doctrine of Professor Hans Küng

by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Vatican City Press Office, 6, gratis pp.

Kirche-Gehalten in der Wahrheit?

[The Church-Maintained in Truth?] Hans Küng
Benziger (Zurich), (to be published by Seabury Press, Spring, 1980), 75 pp.

…Professor Hans Küng, in his writings, has departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith, and therefore he can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role.”

Declaration on…Hans Küng
promulgated by Pope John Paul II December 18, 1979

What should we say about the practice of combating or silencing those who do not share the same views…?”

Truth, the Power of Peace
promulgated by Pope John Paul II December 18, 1979


When Pope John XXIII was asked how many people worked in the Vatican, he replied, “About half.” However, one office of the Roman Curia loves its work so much that it recently has been putting in overtime: the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—in an earlier incarnation known as the Roman Inquisition.

This is the group whose predecessors had Giordano Bruno burned at the stake on February 17, 1600, in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, and thirty-three years later managed to convince Galileo that prudence and a longer life lay on the side of a geocentric model of the universe.

Although papally mandated executions have been outlawed in Italy since 1870, it seems that the spirit of the Inquisition is a gift that goes on giving. In Rome last December the Vatican’s watchdogs of orthodoxy were hard at work interrogating the sixty-five-year-old Flemish theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Holland, for alleged heresy in his recent work Jesus, An Experiment in Christology. One of the inquisitors, the arch-conservative priest and theologian Jean Galot, came to the hearings fresh from a Vatican Radio broadcast (inside Vatican sources say it had the prior approval of the “highest consultants” to the Pope) in which he condemned Schillebeeckx and others for denying the divinity of Jesus and—this was the lowest blow of all—for being publicity hounds.1 Perhaps Galot was piqued because Schillebeeckx’s book Jesus, An Experiment in Christology voiced aloud what most theologians admit privately: that Galot’s 1971 work Vers une nouvelle théologie is based “on a completely mistaken interpretation of the authors dealt with, and so does not make the grade as a piece of scholarship.” In any case, Schillebeeckx got his revenge four days after the hearings, and indeed by an act of God. On December 19 lightning struck the Vatican Radio tower and silenced it for eighteen hours.

Although Schillebeeckx will have to wait several weeks before learning whether he is a heretic, the Sacred Congregation waited only seventy-two hours after his trial before condemning another progressive theologian, fifty-one-year-old Hans Küng. Because of his “contempt for the magisterium of the Church” on the issue of papal infallibility—expressed most recently in his Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit?—as well as on the issues of the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary, the Congregation declared Küng barred from his chair of dogma and ecumenical theology at the State University, Tübingen, in West Germany. “I am deeply ashamed of my church,” he told reporters, and a day after the decree was announced he defied the Pope by holding a public lecture in which he told two thousand cheering supporters that he would fight the Holy See’s Lehrverbot.

The reaction among Küng’s backers was immediate and strong. The day after the congregation’s actions and in direct contradiction to its declaration, seventy American Catholic theologians published a statement in which they declared that, even though they did not necessarily agree with Küng on every point, they did indeed consider him “a Roman Catholic theologian.” A few days later fifty Spanish theologians issued a similar declaration. For almost two weeks the local bishop of the Tübingen area, Georg Moser, refused to serve official notice of the dismissal. But on December 28, after consultation with Moser and conservative members of the German Conference of Bishops, Pope John Paul II reiterated his censure, albeit in softer tones. The warrant has been served, and the beleaguered Küng is officially removed from his chair of theology.

Because of his international renown (last August he lectured on God at the Peking Academy of Social Sciences—the first Western theologian ever to be so invited), the case of Hans Küng has become a cause célèbre. However, it is only the latest in a series of inquisitorial actions undertaken since Karol Wojtyla became Pope. Earlier in 1979 the Sacred Congregation silenced the French theologian Jacques Pohier, O.P., and barred him from saying Mass and organizing public meetings because his book Quand je dis Dieu (Editions du Seuil, 1978) cast doubts on the physical resurrection of Jesus. On November 5, a month after Wojtyla’s visit to the United States, the Jesuit priest William Callahan, the head of “Priests for Equality” (read: priests for the ordination of women), was silenced by his superior and removed from Washington DC for challenging the Pope “on issues about which he has clearly declared himself.”

Nor is the Congregation’s work finished yet. According to Vatican rumors their next targets will be Rev. Charles Curran, professor of moral theology at Catholic University, Washington DC, and Rev. Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian proponent of “liberation theology,”2 which is accused of having a Marxist tinge. Curran, who was briefly suspended from teaching in 1967 and submitted to a University “inquiry” in 1968 for his opposition to the papal stand on birth control, is now “in communication” with Rome about certain theses in his books Issues in Sexual and Medical Ethics and Transition and Tradition in Moral Theology (Notre Dame University Press, 1978 and 1979 respectively). Other American candidates for censure include another Jesuit, John J. McNeill, for his book The Church and the Homosexual (Sheed, Andrews & McMeel, 1976) and Rev. Anthony Kosnik, co-author of Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (Paulist Press, 1977), a book which on December 5, 1979, merited a full page of Congregation criticism in the Vatican house organ, L’Osservatore Romano, a newspaper which Hans Küng has compared to Pravda.

At least these men are in good company. Last month it was revealed that in 1933 the young Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, later to be known as Pope Paul VI, was submitted to an inquisition for “offending Catholic piety” in a “Protestant” vein by circulating a letter criticizing such Church practices as “sacristans collecting alms” during Easter Mass. The case was quickly closed but the experience may explain Pope Paul’s reluctance to silence progressive theologians during the post-Vatican II period of liberalization, an era which he suffered through rather than relished.3

But Pope John Paul II has been making up for lost time. All the recent actions of the Sacred Congregation have his explicit approval, and this fact prompts the question: Who is the real Karol Wojtyla? Is he the staunch defender of human rights who spoke at the UN, that “liberation theologian” who told Mexican peasants on January 29, 1979, that “if the common good requires it, there must be no doubt about expropriation itself, carried out in the proper manner”? Or is he a new Torquemada on the Tiber, determined to force Catholicism into a Procrustean bed modeled after the conservative Polish church? One wonders whether he still stands by what he said a decade ago in his central philosophical work: “The one who voices his opposition to the general or particular rules or regulations of the community does not thereby reject his membership…. There can be no doubt that this kind of opposition is essentially constructive”4—or whether he is intent on muzzling those liberal theologians who are critical of what 180 American scholars last October called his “monolithic vision of the Church.” The question, it seems, is: Who is really on trial—Küng and Schillebeeckx, or the Pope who has mobilized the campaign against them?

In any case his condemnation of Küng was so ill-timed that it became something of a bad Polish joke among Rome’s international press corps. At one and the same Vatican press conference on December 18 reporters were treated to the Pope’s stirring condemnation of ideological intimidation and political repression in Truth, the Power of Peace—his most courageous and frank declaration to date—and, moments later, to the announcement that Hans Küng had been silenced. This meant that reporters had to make sense, on the one hand, of Wojtyla’s defense of the “legitimate and inalienable rights of those who refuse to accept a particular ideology or who appeal to freedom of thought” and, on the other, his censuring of the Swiss theologian for teaching an opinion that “contradicts the doctrine defined by Vatican Council I and confirmed by Vatican Council II.” And all of this just a month after the Pope had declared that Galileo had been “wrongly condemned” by the same Congregation that fired Küng. The confusion led Dennis Redmont, bureau chief of the Associated Press in Rome, to ask from the floor, “Who’s running the show here?”

More and more the answer seems to be: a strict conservative, above all in matters pertaining to Church doctrine and authority. In his style of papal governance Wojtyla can be soft and accommodating when dealing with outsiders, but as hard as he can be with those within. Behind that papal smile, as Brecht says of Mack the Knife, there are teeth. Wojtyla’s speeches ad extra—in Mexico, Ireland, and at the UN—show a rare openness to the world, and a remarkable emphasis, as his encyclical Redemptor Hominis put it, on “man in the full truth of his community and social being.”5 But ad intra he is pulling hard on the reins. Whereas Pope Paul honored almost 97 percent of the 33,000 requests by priests for laicization, Wojtyla to date has yet to absolve a single priest from his vows. (The game was up, in fact, when he appointed the deeply conservative Cardinal Silvio Oddi—whom Paul had kept at arm’s length—to the head of the Congregation for the Clergy.) Instead he has cracked down hard on what he calls “secularizing tendencies” among the clergy and especially among Jesuits. At the Pope’s behest, Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Jesuits, wrote a letter to local superiors of the Society last October relaying Wojtyla’s demand that they “employ appropriate firmness in seeking a remedy for regrettable shortcomings” that are “a matter of personal concern” to the Pope. The list of shortfalls included: “independence of superiors, questionable relations with others, failures in the observance of the vows,…apostolic work incompatible with the priestly character,” and lack of “fidelity to the magisterium in doctrine.”6

Nor is Wojtyla any happier with leftist political leanings among certain Third World Jesuits. At a papal audience on December 10, 1979, at which the liberal Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens of Belgium was present, the Pope met a Jesuit from Bombay who is active in the charismatic movement and remarked to him, “So you’re not all Marxists!” When Arrupe heard the story he brushed it off by saying, “That’s just his Polish humor,” but others believe that the remark referred to reports from Latin American bishops, including the cardinal of Ecuador, about revolutionary Jesuits in their countries.

  1. 1

    Radiogiornale Vaticano, December 4, 1979, Intervista di Paolo Scappucci con il teologo Jean Galot. This was not Galot’s first appearance on Vatican Radio. On April 6, 1976, he declared that “Küng does not admit of Jesus as God.” Galot takes on the whole range of progressive Christologies, from Schillebeeckx’s book through David Tracy’s Blessed Rage for Order in his superficial polemic, Cristo contestato: Le cristologie non calcedoniane e la fede cristologica (Florence, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 1979).

  2. 2

    Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for Our Time, translated from the Portuguese by Patrick Hughes (Orbis Books, 1978) and Liberating Grace, translated from Spanish by John Drury (Orbis Books, 1979).

  3. 3

    See the collection of letters, Giovanbattista Montini giovane, edited by Antonio Fappani and Franco Molinari (Rome: Marietti, 1979), letter of March 19, 1933, to Bishop Giacinto Gaggia, pp. 259-261.

  4. 4

    Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, translated by Andrzej Potocki (Dordrecht, Boston, and London: Reidel, 1979; original Polish edition, 1969), p. 286.

  5. 5

    Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, National Catholic Documentary Service, vol. 8, no. 40 (March 22, 1979), p. 633.

  6. 6

    Pedro Arrupe, “On the Allocution of His Holiness, John Paul II, and the annual letters of January 1980,” Jesuit Curia Generalis, 79/14, October 19, 1979, pages 3 and 4. Cf. “Le Père Arrupe invite les Jésuites à une sorte d’autocritique,” Le Monde, December 14, 1979, p. 30.

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