Revolution in the Church

Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem

by Hans Küng, translated by Edward Quinn
Doubleday, 272 pp., $15.95

The dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology, by Catholics themselves, is by now a fait accompli. In their most vigorous intellectual renaissance since the high Middle Ages, Catholic theologians and exegetes have awakened from a long hibernation and in scarcely two decades have marshaled the most advanced scriptural scholarship—until recently the work mainly of Protestants—and put it at the service of a radical rethinking of their faith. The consequences for the Catholic Church as it approaches its third millennium are both immensely promising and, for some, deeply disturbing.

The emergence of a radically new Catholic theology founded on modern exegesis of the Bible has altered the intellectual topography of what was, until a few years ago, a serene and uniform field. In Roman Catholic seminaries, for example, it is now common teaching that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the divine or messianic claims the Gospels attribute to him and that he died without believing he was Christ or the Son of God, not to mention the founder of a new religion.

This kind of whittling away at belief in the divinity of Jesus is scarcely new. It reaches back at least to the last century when liberal Protestants like Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack tried to strip away what they thought were the Church’s divinizing embellishments so as to arrive at the real Jesus of history.

But the surprising thing today is that the scholars who are advancing the re-evaluation of Jesus are neither atheists who attack the Church from without nor liberal Protestants of the nineteenth century who would reduce Jesus’ message to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man nor advocates of Rudolf Bultmann’s skepticism about Jesus’ life and self-understanding. Rather, these scholars are Roman Catholic exegetes and theologians, most of them priests, faithfully ensconced at the heart of their infallible Church.

A few of them, like Hans Kung, have had their wrists slapped. In 1979 the Pope removed him from his chair of Catholic theology at Tübingen, but he was not excommunicated and continues to teach theology there. Others are circumspect about what they say outside professional journals. But the fact remains that a new and revolutionary approach dominates Catholic theology today, even if the folk religion of most practicing Catholics still lives on the prerevolutionary fare that generally is served up from their local pulpits and especially from the one currently occupied by the conservative Pope John Paul II.

How did the change in Catholic theology and exegesis come about? The origins of the recent revolution in Biblical studies reach back to September 30, 1943, when Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. The document, which is the Magna Carta of modern Catholic exegesis, gave scripture scholars permission to employ contemporary scientific methods in their work, thereby ending four decades of strictly enforced conservatism in Biblical matters. The encyclical, for example, put the first dent in the pre-Copernican decrees issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission at the…

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