To the Editors:

In reporting the two cases of Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx (NYR, February 7), Thomas Sheehan gives the impression that the cases are importantly similar. He missed the opportunity for showing that they are importantly different, and, as testimony to that fact, the consequences to the men involved, as of this writing, have been different.

Küng denies an article of faith, the dogma of infallibility, but Schillebeeckx denies none. Küng’s denial issues from some theory or theories that he holds. Because Küng espouses theories that are inconsistent with certain articles of faith, he puts himself outside the community of sanctioned Catholic theorists. Schillebeeckx’s affirmation of doctrine is also grounded in a theory, alternative to the currently received ones, which he propounds in order to account for certain articles of faith. That is the force of Sheehan’s remark that Schillebeeckx tries “to state the core of the Christian message in a new set of categories”; and it is unfortunate that he did not make more of this point. Schillebeeckx’s project is similar to that of Thomas Aquinas, who, in the thirteenth century, propounded the then new-fangled Aristotelian theory as an alternative to the then currently received one of Augustinianism. Aquinas’s views initially ran into trouble—a series of condemnations by local authorities at Paris and Oxford closed out the century—but in the long run won general acceptance and prevailed for a half dozen centuries.

The distinction I am using in order to explain the differences between Küng and Schillebeeckx is a special case of a general distinction between fact and theory, prominent in analytic philosophy. Facts are to be accounted for; theories do the accounting. It is not the business of theories to dictate the facts, although they may impose decisions about peripheral and otherwise disputed propositions. Facts are always relative to some conceptual scheme, and articles of faith are the facts relative to the conceptual scheme that constitutes Catholicism; it is these facts that need to be accounted for, not contradicted, by a theological theory. There is no question that what Schillebeeckx and others are attempting for Christology can also be done for infallibility. It has been done. (See my “Infallibility,” Religious Studies, March, 1980.)

What is disturbing about Sheehan’s “book review” is that it does not contain a word about the reasons or arguments that Küng adduces against papal infallibility, much less an evaluation of their cogency. The closest Sheehan comes to questioning infallibility is a double slur on Pius IX, whose epilepsy and possible paternity are mentioned. The feebleness of the ad hominem abuse does not rankle me. Pius would not have set a precedent for papal paternity. But slamming a person for a physical handicap! Really, he should be ashamed.

Sheehan’s article is also marred by a number of other irrelevances. For him to describe the Roman Curia as the “group whose predecessors had Giordano Bruno burned at the stake” is as relevant as describing the Supreme Court as the group whose predecessors gave us the Dred Scott decision.

There should be no cause for Sheehan to say, “One wonders whether he [John Paul] 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….’ ” Küng’s Catholic membership was not terminated; he was not excommunicated. He was declared not to be an authorized spokesman for the official Catholic Church. John Paul’s action was like a president dismissing an appointee in the department of agriculture, not at all like revoking citizenship or executing someone for treason. Surely, Sheehan would not condemn a president of a human rights violation for firing an appointee who refused to carry out decisions of policy.

When Sheehan reports that “the Sacred Congregation waited only seventy-two hours after his trial before condemning” Küng, he gives the misleading impression that the Congregation’s action was an ecclesial blitzkrieg. In fact, the Congregation’s action was not precipitous but was provoked by Küng himself, Sheehan is negligent in not reporting what the Congregation had said in its declaration: to wit, that it had “issued a public document on Feb. 15, 1975, declaring that some opinions of Professor Küng were opposed in different degree to the doctrine of the church which must be held by all the faithful…. At the same time this sacred congregation warned Professor Küng that he should not continue to teach such opinions…. Hans Küng has in no way sought to conform to the doctrine of the magisterium. Instead he has recently proposed his view again more explicitly….” At this point the Congregation mentions the book that Sheehan purports to review. Further, one must remember that Infallibility? An Inquiry appeared in 1970, and, as Sheehan himself points out, Küng was already suspect in 1957 because of his book Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and A Catholic Reflection. The evidence shows that the Congregation showed great restraint.


The ambiguous remark in the letter by “seventy American Catholic theologians” that they consider Küng “a Roman Catholic theologian” is pointless or presumptuous. If it means that Küng is a Roman Catholic and a theologian, it is pointless, because the Congregation would agree; since Küng was not excommunicated he remains a Catholic; and Küng is a theologian. What he is not is a theologian teaching theories that are acceptable to that agency responsible for approving official theologians of the Roman Catholic Church. And this is a matter about which only the Congregation has the authority to declare. That is why it is presumptuous for the American theologians to declare that Küng is a Roman Catholic theologian, if that is the sense in which they mean it.

A. P. Martinich

University of Texas at Austin

To the Editors:

I would like to make a small point about the article “Quo Vadis Wojtyla?” Mr. Sheehan begins by quoting two sentences by the Pope in apposition, to show the apparent contradiction in his attitude to Küng, and his pronouncements on freedom of speech and thought. The apposition is unfair: in his Declaration on Hans Küng the Pope is speaking of a member of the Church who is acting as official spokesman by teaching in a Catholic University. In his Truth, the Power of Peace, he is speaking of the lack of freedom for all in certain parts of the world. Surely there is a great deal of difference between the position in an institution of an individual placed in authority to transmit and explore the thinking of that institution, and a complete lack of freedom of speech and thought?

To put it another way: as far as I am aware, the Pope has not excommunicated Hans Küng, he has merely shown that there would indeed be a contradiction in retaining an unorthodox teacher (that is the key word) in an orthodox institute such as a Catholic University. Whether Küng is orthodox or not I am not competent to say, and I do not in fact agree with the Pope’s move (although I am a Catholic), but I can see the logic of it, whereas I can see no logic at all in Mr. Sheehan’s constant reiteration of the parallel between it and a totalitarian bar: Küng is still free to act and teach as a theologian and he has been free to question and quarrel with the Pope’s decision; no one has tried to silence him. All that has happened is that the decision has been made that his theology is not orthodox. Surely it is a reasonable stand to take?

It may well be that in 400 years’ time he will be acknowledged to have been as revolutionary as Galileo, and it is fairly obvious that there is a struggle between conservatism and “progressivism” behind it all. But I wish the argument against the Pope was not lowered to the emotive and spurious level of parallels with totalitarianism—and the Inquisition (such an old chestnut!). No one is putting Küng to the stake. By doing that Mr. Sheehan does a disservice to the strength of his condemnation of the Pope’s action and the thinking that may be behind it. Mr. Sheehan, how can the Church be totalitarian? Anyone is free to come and go as they please. Even the priest who wishes to go can do so; it is only if he wishes to remain in Communion with the Church that he must abide by the rules. Why is that such a bad thing? The parallel is more with a club: the members agree to abide by certain rules which may or may not be extremely silly, and if one stops abiding by them he must leave. But absolutely nothing stops him from joining the club next door with rules more to his liking.

Nothing has prevented me from writing this letter, as a slightly dissenting Catholic. Would I have been able to in Russia, Argentina, Chile? That is totalitarianism.

M. J. Fitzgerald

London, England

To the Editors:

One does not have to agree with every action taken by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (I do not) to realize that there are larger questions at stake in the investigation of Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx than are indicated in Thomas Sheehan’s article, “Quo Vadis, Wojtyla?” Among them: what does it mean to be a Christian theologian? What are the limits within which Christian theologians can operate and still be Christian theologians in any real sense of the word?


There seems to be a frightening trend (illustrated in the books reviewed) toward a gnosticism in which Jesus appeared in a “spiritual” form to his disciples. St. Paul is of a different mind. He records that, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared first to Mary, then to the inner core of disciples, and ultimately to a total of around five hundred, most of whom were living at the time of the writing. No spiritual appearance, this: if we are to believe the gospel narratives, he invited Thomas the doubter to thrust a hand into the speared side. The disciples, plagued after Jesus’ death by fear and doubt, were not open to any appearance by Jesus, spiritual or otherwise. Rather, they required repeated down-to-earth physical evidence. Edward Schillebeeckx may, of course, deny the divinity or resurrection of Jesus—as a free man, that is his sad prerogative (cf. St. Paul’s statements in I Cor. 15.19). As a Christian theologian, though, his teaching must de facto be limited. How can he be known as a Christian teacher while denying crucial tenets of the faith itself?…

James Huffman

Burlington, North Carolina

Thomas Sheehan replies:

These letters raise both major and minor points about my article and the nature of Roman Catholicism. The major questions concern the logic for deciding orthodoxy and the question of “totalitarianism” in the Church. I shall address these first.

1. A model for orthodox theology. Professor Martinich offers a model for scientific and orthodox Catholic theology so as to show how Küng got what he deserved and how his case is qualitatively different from Schillebeeckx’s. The argument has four elements.

First, the faith-facts that theology must justify are the “articles of faith.” Secondly, these articles are relative to “the conceptual scheme that constitutes Catholicism.” Thirdly, the orthodoxy of any given explanatory theory is decided by “that agency responsible for approving official theologians of the Roman Catholic Church,” the Sacred Congregation or Holy Office. Fourthly, the Congregation found Küng’s theory unacceptable and therefore sacked him. QED.

Among my problems with Martinich’s account are the following. (1) The primary “facts” that theology must account for are not the articles of faith but the acts and habits of faith in Christian believers. Faith in actu exercito is a matter of being grasped by God in Christ; here there are no normative conceptual schemes, in fact no theories at all. Articulations of faith, on the other hand, are ever incommensurate efforts to put that experience into words. But by beginning with articles rather than acts of faith, Martinich shortcircuits the theological process and limits it to the second-order task of justifying first-order articulations of faith. That is why his article “Infallibility” remains an interesting but finally groundless exercise. It begins with, rather than questioning, the 1870 declaration of papal infallibility and then offers an elaborate formal speech-act theory to justify it. Küng questions whether the declaration should have been made at all.

(2) Martinich’s logic renders static what is a living historical process of interpreting Christian faith. What can he possibly mean by “the conceptual scheme that constitutes Catholicism”? To begin with, it is a communal historical faith, and not any conceptual scheme, that constitutes Christianity and a fortiori Catholicism. Secondly, his model seems innocent of any awareness of the kinetic and historical character of knowledge in general and of theological knowledge in particular. Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan have argued convincingly that the chief issue in cognition is man’s dynamic orientation toward the intelligible and that conceptual schemes are only one moment, and not the most important, in that movement. Thirdly, because the former position is the basis for the historicity of hermeneutics, it is no accident that Martinich does not mention the momentous question about the development of dogma. All articles of faith, whether taken in their Gospel expression or in the utterances of Councils and Popes, are theory-laden articulations of the act and habit of communal Christian faith. As such they are relative to linguistic and theoretical schemes which are historically and culturally conditioned and therefore reformable. We hear nothing of this from Martinich.

(3) The real operator in Martinich’s argument is a deus ex machina, the Holy Office which alone “has the authority to declare” who is teaching acceptable theories. Here he abdicates the fact-theory model at the very point where he should examine it more deeply, that is, within the collegial community of faith but without his naïve trust in the Curia. In that regard it must be said that when Martinich chides me for not providing Küng’s arguments against infallibility, he is being disingenuous. His own article “Infallibility” asserts that infallible papal utterances make facts even if, as is possible, they do not fit the facts—the way an umpire’s call makes a fact even when it is wrong. Moreover, he asserts that it is illicit for theologians to question whether such an utterance fits the facts or not once it has been made. To do so is to risk excommunication. “This,” he tells us, “is part of the politics of infallibility.” It is also a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy.

It was not my purpose in the article, nor is there space here, to discuss fully the logic of orthodox theology. But to judge from Martinich’s letter and his article, the question remains wide open.

2. Totalitarianism in the Church? Professor Martinich and Mr. Fitzgerald are disconcerted by Küng’s and my oblique allusions to “totalitarianism” in the Church. First, let it be noted that all such allusions were posed as questions, in the same way that Albert Camus asked the monks of Latour-Maubourg in 1948 whether they would allow the sacrifice of Socrates to happen again in their lifetime. Secondly, given their own juridical and take-it-or-leave-it models of the Church, neither Martinich nor Fitzgerald, I think, can entertain the question. For Fitzgerald, you either obey the rules of the club or go join the club down the street; for Martinich, a theologian either carries out the Pope’s policies or gets fired like a dissident Secretary of Agriculture. Thirdly, and most importantly, totalitarianism is an analogous phenomenon. There are degrees of unwarranted centralization of power and repressive control over people’s lives in different institutions. No, the Vatican is not Moscow—but then again, Joseph McCarthy was not Hitler and Richard Nixon was not Pinochet. The question, then, is to what degree the Church is imitating totalitarian societies when it painfully rearranges people’s professional and personal lives, when it exercises tight-fisted control over such deeply personal decisions as marriage, procreation, and celibacy, or when it engages in subtle forms of blackmail. (In 1968 the Curia offered to close its dossier on Schillebeeckx if he would introduce the Pope’s birth control encyclical over Dutch TV.)

The list could go on, but for reasons like the above I disagree with Mr. Fitzgerald that it is “emotive and spurious” to ask about analogies between certain Church actions and certain measures of totalitarian societies. If it is “emotive” to mention people’s sufferings at the hands of the Curia, so be it. Whether or not it is spurious is for the victims (Loisy, Tyrrell, Chenu, de Lubac, Congar, Teilhard de Chardin, Metz, Pohier, Küng, et al.)—and not for me or Mr. Fitzgerald—to answer.

Some minor points: (1) I did not slur the Supreme Pontiff, Pius IX, as Martinich claims. I mentioned that he was chronically and seriously ill while he forced much-contested decisions through the First Vatican Council. That is no more a slur than to mention the obvious fact that President Grant was an alcoholic while he tried to steer the US through the Reconstruction. (2) Pace Fitzgerald, it was Wojtyla and not I who chose to rake up the old chestnut of Galileo and the Inquisition last November. The point of the opening lines of my article was to ask how the spirit of the Inquisition continues today. That is why Martinich’s remark about the Dred Scott decision is specious. No, the Holy Office can no longer have people oxidized for heresy, but its reaction to the Modernist movement in fact crippled Catholic scholarship for half of this century, its enforcement of the revanchist encyclical Humani Generis (1949) was just as vigorous if less successful, and its recent actions promise more of the same. (3) Yes, as Fitzgerald says, Küng was silenced not absolutely but only as a Catholic theologian. Because that fact was stated clearly at the beginning of my article, it did not need repetition at every turn. (4) Mr. Huffman’s remarks about the resurrection appearances cannot be answered without repeating tomes of contemporary scholarship. But how does Huffman know that Schillebeeckx’s teaching should be limited? Not even the Vatican has said as much.

What I miss in these letters—as well as in the actions of the Holy Office—is any sophisticated awareness of the crisis through which the Church is moving. Articles like Martinich’s on infallibility do little more than polish brass on the Titanic, and curial decisions like that against Küng merely testify to intellectual exhaustion as the Church approaches its third millennium. I fear that those who support that action will get the Church they deserve, while, as Küng sadly predicts, “The silent mass withdrawal from the Church will continue.”

This Issue

August 14, 1980