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Quo Vadis, Wojtyla?

There are clear signs that Wojtyla’s Christmas present to Hans Küng heralds the end of the Vatican II era of freedom and the beginnings of a restoration papacy. Even before the curial sanction was imposed on Küng, the Pope had already made his least remarked upon but most ominous move to date: the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana on April 15, 1979.7 What might appear at first glance to be an innocent revision—the first since 1931—of the rules for pontifical universities turns out on closer reading to be a major retreat from anything like what John Henry Newman envisioned in The Idea of a University. According to Sapientia Christiana theologians in pontifical universities “do not teach on their own authority but by virtue of the mission they have received from the Church,” and so must have a declaration of nihil obstat and the rights of a “canonical mission” (missio canonica).

Indeed, theologians have a “duty to carry out their work in full communion with the authentic Magisterium of the Church, above all, with that of the Roman Pontiff,” and they must present “personal opinions” only “modestly” (Articles 26, 27, and 70). These paragraphs are among those that the Congregation cited in its condemnation of Küng and that the conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratsinger invoked to deny liberal theologian Johann B. Metz the chair of systematic theology in Munich last year. “If the Apostolic Constitution is literally applied,” Rev. Charles Curran has recently written, “it will mean that such canonically erected Catholic institutions cannot be true universities in the accepted sense of the term in the United States.”8

Sapientia Christiana applies only to pontifical universities, those which have been founded or endorsed by the Holy See (in America, for example, Catholic University in Washington DC but not Notre Dame). According to Curran, however, the proposed new Code of Canon Law, which is to be promulgated in the coming months, will most likely extend the principles of Sapientia Christiana to all Catholic universities. That would mean, for instance, that philosophy professors at Fordham and Notre Dame would be obliged “to demonstrate the consistency [of their positions] with the Christian view of the world, of man, and of God” (Article 79.Sec.1), a state of affairs that would seem to lend credence to George Bernard Shaw’s claim that a “Catholic university” is a contradiction in terms.

On the occasion of Wojtyla’s first anniversary in the chair of St. Peter, Hans Küng, whether prudently or not, decided to address some fraternal criticism to the Pope. Published in The New York Times on October 19, 1979, and a week later in Le Monde and the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Küng’s article, “Pope John Paul II: His First Year,” wondered whether “the darling of the masses and the superstar of the media” was “truly free from the personality cult of former Popes, for example Pius XII.” He intimated, in the interrogative mode, that the Pope was “not sufficiently familiar with recent developments in theology” and had become “a doctrinaire defender of ancient bastions.” He rebuked Wojtyla for approving of “the inquisitorial proceedings against other streams in contemporary Catholic theology, and this in spite of his call for human rights outside the church.” He asked, “Does this commitment toward the outside, the world, also correspond to a commitment toward the inside, the church, the ecclesiastical institution itself?” But he was not hopeful, and with prophetic foresight wrote, “Many Catholics and non-Catholics seriously doubt whether this Pope from a country with a totalitarian regime, with a closed, authoritarian church (understandable for domestic reasons), will in all instances be a guarantor of freedom and openness in our church.”

Just what influence this personal affront may have had on the Pope’s decision to silence Küng eight weeks later cannot be known with certainty. Some close to the Vatican say that Wojtyla was furious and wanted to show his challenger who was boss. (To be sure, he could not have been happy with Küng’s statement a year earlier: “When the pope and the bishops no longer adequately fulfill their leadership function, the key role devolves upon pastors and theologians of the Catholic Church.”9 ) Others, including this writer, believe that the condemnation was not a sudden decision but reflects the gradual but decisive shift toward conservatism in the German hierarchy. With the death of Küng’s personal friend Cardinal Julius Döpfner in July of 1976 and the rise of the conservative cardinals Joseph Ratsinger and Joseph Höffner, Küng found his support among the West German hierarchy eroding. According to a memorandum leaked to the Italian government from the Vatican Secretariat of State during the last papal conclave, a good number of West German and North American cardinals pushed Wojtyla’s candidacy because they were “against ‘openings’ and compromises” and “were looking for an ‘intransigent and conservative’ pope who would eliminate the errors that had occurred since the Second Vatican Council.”10

In any case Hans Küng has been on a collision course with the Vatican ever since 1957. In his book Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, Küng argued that Barth’s Lutheran view of justification by faith alone—God’s merciful acquittal of the faithful sinner from punishment—in fact converged with the Catholic doctrine as stated at the Council of Trent (1562-1563). The thesis was considered so radical and Protestant-leaning that it occasioned the opening of a dossier on Küng at the Sacred Congregation (Holy Office File 399/57/i). The file grew over the years as Küng published book after book on such controversial topics as intellectual freedom, celibacy, and church structures, and in 1967 the late Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then the Vatican’s John Mitchell (they also looked alike), tried to suppress Küng’s The Church (London: Search Press) for asserting, among other things, that infallibility merely meant the Church’s “fundamental remaining in the truth, which is not disturbed by individual errors.” The further development of this theme in his Infallible? An Inquiry (Doubleday, 1971) and again a year ago in Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit? is the reason why Küng finally got sacked. “The chief issue,” Cardinal Höffner told the press last December, “is Küng’s stand on infallibility.”11

Among Roman Catholic theologians there is a growing consensus that what Küng calls the “meta-dogma” of papal infallibility, defined at the First Vatican Council (1870), is, for both historical and theological reasons, nothing short of a doctrinal mess. Küng can accurately claim that his own writings are “not an attempt to bring unrest and uncertainty into the Church, but only to give expression to the unrest and uncertainty already to be found on all sides” (Infallible?, p. 11). On historical grounds, the dogma has been rendered suspect by the police-state tactics with which it was forced through the Council by the iron-willed and epileptic Pius IX, who even then was popularly known as Pio No-No for his 1864 Syllabus of Errors. (Whether he was as conservative in his private life depends in part on the evidence available concerning the paternity of his young associate Cardinal Guidi.)

On theological grounds, as Küng asserts in his preface to A. B. Hasler’s Wie der Papst unfehlbar wurde, “the infallibility of the pope would surely not be defined today.” Indeed:

Today Catholic theologians admit, with an openness unaccustomed before, that the organs of “infallible” doctrinal decisions at least in principle…can err and in many cases have erred.12

For Küng, Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical on birth control is the “Achilles’ heel” of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Instead of insisting on the correctness of that and other doctrines, he says, the church should leave infallibility “to the one to whom it was originally reserved: to God” and be content with a more modest “indefectability,” a state of being generally held in the truth of the Gospel with no guarantee that any papal statement, even if solemnly declared binding in faith (de fide), is necessarily free of error. In Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit? (p. 69) he proposes a procedure of “learning by mistakes, ‘the method of trial and error’ (Karl Popper).”

Although Küng asserts that he is “holding fast to the reality of infallibility” even if he only speaks of “indefectability,” the Vatican has not been convinced by his subtle hermeneutics. He was called to Rome in 1971 to answer questions on his position, but responded that he would accept the invitation only if he could see the whole dossier on him and choose his own defense lawyer. The Vatican declined both requests, and Küng refused to come to Rome. Instead he accused the members of the Congregation of acting according to “the spirit of the Inquisition.” He assured them, “I do not consider myself infallible,” and in any case if they wanted to find out what he was teaching about infallibility they could come personally or send their representatives to his Tübingen seminar on the subject in the summer of 1972.13

They were not pleased. In July of 1973 the Congregation reiterated its position in the hard-nosed document Mysterium Ecclesiae and told Küng that if he subscribed to it they would close the case on him. Küng declared this procedure “inhuman and unjust” and asked whether the church were “a free, open community or merely a totalitarian system.” From Küng’s point of view, the Congregation answered the question for him last December.

Infallibility is not the only issue in Küng’s case. In his 1974 work On Being a Christian the Swiss theologian asserted—with the support of the best Catholic scholarship, it should be noted—that the words “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” do not derive from Jesus but from his later followers; that the resurrection “can not be a historical event in the strict sense”; that “the stories of the empty tomb are legendary elaborations” of the message that Jesus is alive with God; that the virginity of Mary is at best “symbolic” and even a “legend.” In his 1978 book Existiert Gott? he asserted again what he had said in On Being a Christian: that one must carefully avoid “identifying Jesus tout court with God,” that Jesus “never gave himself any messianic title,” and that the divinity of Jesus simply meant that “the real man, Jesus of Nazareth, is, for believers, a real revelation of the one true God and, in this sense, God’s word, his Son.”14


Whereas Hans Küng’s works have tended of late toward haute vulgarisation, addressed less to scholars than to the well-educated general reader (On Being a Christian, for example, rightly claims to be “only an introduction”), Edward Schillebeeckx’s Jesus, An Experiment in Christology takes the high road. A huge compendium of scriptural scholarship, it may be to contemporary New Testament studies what Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus was to New Testament scholarship at the turn of the century. It is occasionally rambling and frequently repetitious. It is often needlessly opaque (a chapter title on page 576 reads: “A conjunctural horizon of ideas and non-synchronous rhythm in the complex transformation of a culture,” when in fact he is talking about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of shifts in scientific models). His translator has not always succeeded in getting the text out of the Dutch (“Thus this in the Q tradition most probably somewhat later dogmatic interest…,” p. 83). But for all its faults it may well be the best and most complete examination of the biblical evidence for the meaning of Jesus ever published.

  1. 7

    John Paul II, “Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana on Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties” (Rome: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1979).

  2. 8

    Academic Freedom: The Catholic University and Catholic Theology,” The Furrow, vol. 30, no. 12 (December, 1979), pp. 739-754; here, p. 754.

  3. 9

    Hans Küng, “Vatican III: Problems and Opportunities for the Future,” in Toward Vatican III: The Work that Needs to be Done, edited by David Tracy with Hans Küng and Johan B. Metz (Seabury, 1978), p. 90.

  4. 10

    Andrew M. Greeley, The Making of the Popes 1978: The Politics of Intrigue in the Vatican (Andrews and McMeel, 1979), p. 237.

  5. 11

    Cardinal Joseph Höffner, “Damit sind die unausweichlichen Konsequenzen gezogen worden,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, December 19, 1979, p. 4.

  6. 12

    Hans Küng, “Der neue Stand der Unfehlbarkeitsdebatte,” in August Bernhard Hasler, Wie der Papst unfehlbar wurde: Macht und Ohnmacht eines Dogmas (Munich, Zurich: Piper, 1979), pp. xvii and xviii.

  7. 13

    Brief an die Sacra Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei,” in Fehlbar? Eine Bilanz, edited by Hans Küng (Zurich: Benziger, 1973), pp. 501-509.

  8. 14

    On Being a Christian, translated by Edward Quinn (Doubleday, 1976; original German edition, 1974), pp. 285, 349, 364, 456. Existiert Gott? Antwort auf die Gottesfragen der Neuzeit (Munich, Zurich: Piper, 1978), pp. 744 and 749. For a complete bibliography of Küng’s works through 1978 (including the article he published under the pseudonym “Wolfgang Rexer”) see Hans Küng, Weg und Werk, edited by Hermann Häring and Karl-Josef Kuschel (Munich, Zurich, 1978), pp. 179-224: bibliography by Margret Gentner.

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