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 beginning of the century in an effort to halt what Rome thought was a much too modern reading of the Bible.

Between 1905 and 1915 the Biblical Commission published a series of rulings that obliged Catholic scholars to hold to the literal and historical truth of the Biblical stories that Eve had been formed from Adam, that the human race had descended from one couple, that there had been a prelapsarian Garden of Eden, and that the devil had tempted the first woman in the physical form of a snake. All this followed from the notion that the Bible was inspired word for word by God. The point is captured by Caravaggio’s painting of Saint Matthew in the Church of San Luigi in Rome, where the evangelist is portrayed, quill in hand and ear cocked into the distance, as he takes dictation from the Beyond. If the scriptures were verbally inspired and therefore inerrant, they had to be taken literally in every detail as God’s revelation of eternal truth in propositional form.1

Scholarly freedom in Biblical exegesis was reconfirmed during the Second Vatican Council and was extended to sensitive questions of New Testament research. During 1964 and 1965 the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the assembled hierarchy went on record that the Gospels were not exact historical records or eye-witness accounts of what Jesus had said and done, but products of second and third generation believers whose commitment of faith colored their memory of Jesus. The Vatican Council also permitted Catholic exegetes to work with their non-Catholic counterparts in the scientific investigation of the scriptures, thereby ending a longstanding anathema of Protestant higher criticism that had been summed up in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893):

The sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside the [Catholic] Church and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without true faith, only gnaw the bark of Sacred Scripture and never attain its pith.2

With the doors now unbarred (before 1965 Catholic seminarians were not allowed to read Protestant theologians without special permission), Catholic scholars openly joined those outside the Roman Church in investigating the Bible with the best exegetical tools on hand. These include “form criticism,” the study of the early oral traditions underlying the New Testament, and “redaction criticism,” which sorts out the differing theological conceptions the evangelists used in reshaping earlier material into their Gospels. As the evolution of early Christian faith came to light, Catholic scholars began publishing the conclusion, startling to many, that the Gospel accounts of the claims Jesus supposedly made to be Christ and God did not come from his own mouth but were interpretations his followers created in the decades after his death.


The new reading of Christianity that Catholic scholars now propose is not a rationalist attack on traditional doctrine but the result of scientific exegesis of the New Testament. The state of affairs was summarized by Cardinal William Baum, formerly the archbishop of Washington, DC, and now perfect of the Congregation of Catholic Education in Rome, when he said that “the ‘evidence’ of Scripture, both to the scholar and even to the believer…is of itself inconclusive in determining the meaning of the most fundamental tenets of the Christian faith: the identity of Jesus, the meaning of his life and death, the nature of his triumph, the obligations imposed on his followers, the consequences of his life for us, etc.”3

The new approach that Catholic scholars are taking to Jesus and the scriptures I shall call, by way of shorthand, the “liberal consensus.” By that I mean the scientific methods employed and the conclusions generated by Catholic exegetes and theologians internationally recognized in their fields, the ones who hold the chairs, get the grants, publish the books, and define the limits of scientific exegesis and theology in the Catholic Church today. This liberal consensus reflects the presuppositions and procedures that Catholic scholars like Rudolf Schnackenburg, Raymond E. Brown, Roland Murphy, Pierre Benoît, John P. Meier, J.A. Fitzmyer, David M. Stanley, Rudolf Pesch, Walter Kasper, David Tracy, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng, and hundreds of others use when they do their research—as well as the results they publish in their monographs and in such scholarly journals as the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, New Testament Studies, Revue Biblique, Biblica, and Biblische Zeitschrift.

That the liberal consensus has become dominant in Catholic scholarship does not mean that those identified with it embrace all the work of their colleagues. Here, as in other fields of research, scholars have reached a consensus not on a body of dogmas but on the questions to be asked and the methods for answering them. A consensus allows wide-ranging internal dispute, but it draws lines that exclude certain presuppositions and procedures. This does not mean that old approaches are universally rejected or that they cease to function in certain circles. For example, one can still find seminaries where Ludwig Ott’s long summary of traditional theology, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, is required reading. But scholars who continue to employ the older methods find themselves pushed to the margins of scholarly discourse. The gradual triumph of a new approach in a discipline is usually in direct proportion to the retirement of those who held the old one.4

Many of the conclusions of the “liberal consensus” conflict sharply with traditional Catholic doctrine. Today, for example, one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic Biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who preexisted from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being. Strictly speaking, the Catholic exegetes say, Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity and never mentioned it in his preaching.5

Nor did Jesus know that his mother, Mary, had remained a virgin in the very act of conceiving him, let alone, as Thomas Aquinas thought, that she delivered him while her hymen remained intact. Most likely Mary told Jesus what she herself knew of his origins: that he had a natural father and was born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth, indeed without the ministrations of angels, shepherds, and late-arriving wise men bearing gifts. She could have told her son the traditional nativity story only if she had managed to read, long before they were written, the inspiring but unhistorical Christmas legends that first appeared in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke some fifty years after her son had died.6

Moreover, according to the consensus, although Jesus had a reputation as a faith healer during his life, it is likely that he performed very few such “miracles,” perhaps only two. (Probably he never walked on water.) And it seems he ordained no priests and consecrated no bishops, indeed that he did not know he was supposed to establish the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church with St. Peter as the first in a long line of infallible popes. In fact, Jesus had no intention of breaking with Judaism in order to constitute a separate Church. Rather, he restricted his mission to Jews and called on his disciples to repent, to celebrate the dawning of God’s kingdom, and perhaps to expect the imminent arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the “Son of Man,” whom Jesus never identified with himself.7


Reactions to the reevaluation of Jesus vary considerably according to one’s relation to the Catholic community. Quite understandably many people outside Roman Catholicism respond with about as much interest as they would to the news that the Dalai Lama had surrendered his claim to being the reincarnation of the Buddha. Yes, they might say, it is encouraging that the Catholic Church, one of the last institutions in the world to control science by ideology (and in fact the only institution to ban Galileo’s theories well into the nineteenth century), has begun to accept the notion of freedom of research and speech. But within Catholicism the hegemony of the liberal consensus is extremely controversial and risks splitting the fold of the faithful into rival camps. Hans Küng’s new book on life after death, growing as it does out of the consensus’s reinterpretation of the resurrection of Jesus, will add heat and light to the controversy.

Küng first reviews the contemporary discussion of the afterlife in the fields of comparative religions, philosophy, and medicine, including life-after-death experiences, which he says are only experiences of life after clinical death and hence throw no light on eternal life. But the centerpiece of his book is a deconstructive analysis of the Biblical data behind the Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. Here he says nothing that we cannot find elsewhere in modern Roman Catholic exegesis, but he tells the story in such clear and lucid prose that one hardly hears the traditional theological pillars falling. It seems, too, that he leaves the corpse of Jesus, corrupted by physical death, in whatever tomb it may now occupy.

Belief in the resurrection of the dead, Küng points out, is a late-arriving idea in Judaism, making its first appearance only around 164 BCE. Early Judaism held that the dead enter Sheol, a dark nether-world of semiexistence from which no one expected them to emerge. But during the hard years of the Maccabean revolt, a new hope took hold: that God would vindicate his faithful people by resurrecting them from the dead at the end of the world. A Jewish eschatology emerged, along with its literary expression in apocalypse, the scriptural genre that elaborated imaginative predications and descriptions of the coming catastrophe and its aftermath.

Although eschatological thinking pervaded the world in which Jesus lived and preached, he toned down the apocalyptic imagery and proclaimed that the kingdom of God was already dawning in his words and deeds. He saw himself not as God or the Messiah, but as a Jewish prophet, the definitive and authoritative voice proclaiming the denouement of history. He paid for his radical claims by being crucified under the notorious anti-Semite, Pontius Pilate, probably on Friday, April 7, in the year 30 CE.

The next event that can be dated in Christian history is not Jesus’ emergence from his tomb but the birth of the disciples’ faith in him. Shortly after he died, his followers in Galilee came to believe that God had vindicated Jesus, now miraculously alive in heaven, by designating him the future Son of Man. That hazy apocalyptic figure, imminently expected but heretofore unidentified, now took the form of a known human being. Jesus the proclaimer of the kingdom of God became the one proclaimed, soon to appear in glory.

What had happened between Jesus’ death and the emergence of Christian faith? The Gospels offer no direct access to what believers call Jesus’ resurrection. No text describes it; no one claims to have seen it. Rather, we are thrown back on the claims of his first disciples that they had some kind of revelatory experiences (“appearances”) that convinced them that Jesus was alive. Virtually all New Testament exegetes agree that the first such “appearance” was to Peter. Küng follows the scholarly opinion that it took place in Galilee, not Jerusalem, and had nothing to do with later stories that Jesus had left his tomb three days after he died. The first written testimony to faith in Jesus’ resurrection dates to twenty-five years after his death and makes no mention of an empty tomb. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, written around 55 CE, Paul says simply that Jesus “was raised” and showed himself (in whatever fashion) to his followers.8

Only some forty years after Jesus died did the story of an empty tomb make its first literary appearance in the Gospel of Mark, but even there it was not presented as proof that Jesus had physically left his grave. According to Edward Schillebeeckx, with whom Küng agrees, even if Jesus’ body could not be found after he died, that fact “had a merely negative effect: it did not lead to triumphant hope in resurrection, but to confusion and sorrow.” Peter and the other disciples came to believe that Jesus was in heaven before they even knew about the empty tomb. Only later, when they came down to Jerusalem from Galilee, did they make the empty tomb story a vehicle for the faith which had been born independently of it.9

However, by the last two decades of the first century, presumably with the purpose of making the notion of Easter more tangible, elaborate apocalyptic imagery came to dominate Gospel descriptions of Jesus post-mortem. In Luke’s Gospel, written around 85 CE, we find the risen Lord eating, and presumably digesting, a plate of gefilte fish, and John’s Gospel at the turn of the century has Jesus inviting Doubting Thomas to put his fingers into Jesus’ wounds to verify the physicality of his resurrection.

The Gospel stories about Jesus’ appearances after his death cannot be harmonized with one another, whether regarding the places or times or the persons on hand. Luke, for example, had no qualms about saying that Jesus ascended definitively into heaven both on Easter Sunday night and then again some forty days later—proof, according to the village atheist, that the Gospels are frauds, and evidence, according to the fundamentalist believer, that God is indeed mysterious. New Testament exegetes argue that the authors of the Gospels used these apocalyptic tropes not to describe historical events but to express in imaginative and symbolic language their belief that Jesus was somehow alive with God and would someday reappear. Later generations took the images as literal fact, thereby providing iconographic material to centuries of artists and serious conundrums to centuries of Christians unfamiliar with apocalyptic literary genres. (Was the fish metabolized by Jesus’ resurrected body?)

But if we follow Küng and the liberal consensus in demythologizing the resurrection of Jesus, what does Christianity have to tell us about eternal life? Very little, it would seem, or at least very little that we did not already know. In the absence of any “proofs” such as an empty tomb or physical appearances, all one is left with is the belief (which for Küng is equivalent to a hope) that somehow Jesus went to heaven, with or without his physical body.

Küng’s book, in fact, turns into an exhortation to hope that Jesus is somehow with God and therefore that life has an ultimate meaning. If you follow the God of Judaism, Küng writes, you believe that in his loving omnipotence he will not let your life fray into nothingness. And if you believe that the same God gave Jesus eternal life, then you have a concrete pledge that your hope will be fulfilled. Free yourself, on the one hand, from the Platonic promise that your soul alone will survive; and forget, on the other hand, about taking literally the resurrection “of the body,” as if you could be sure to get all your molecules back. Believe, rather, that if there is a God, he will save the whole of you, however that be defined.

Küng acknowledges that there are no proofs that eternal life is actually available; but neither can one prove it to be impossible. A lack of proof, he argues, does not necessarily render hope in immortality irrational. What he does is shift the question of immortality from the narrow ground of what can be rationally proven to the broader field of what is “existentially meaningful.” Thus he writes: “One can hold that there is eternal life only in an act of trust, founded, of course, on reality: a trust justified in the face of reason and therefore perfectly reasonable.” Küng uses “justified” in a soft sense: hope in immortality, he says, “does not have cogent rational proofs at its disposal, but it does have attractive reasonable motives.” One of those motives, he asserts, is the desire for an ultimate meaning to life, and it can lead (although he does not tell us how) to a “reasonably justified decision” to affirm that eternal life is an available reality. In effect, then, Küng offers a reconstruction of Pascal’s wager.

Küng’s book is often powerful and moving but I find something missing. It is not that he refuses to confront the stark alternative to the hope in eternal life. On the contrary, he is a model of Unamuno’s dictum that a faith that does not dare to doubt is no faith at all. Hans Küng has done more than his share, in a lifetime of work, to challenge the apocalyptic and mythical content of Catholic folk religion in the name of the best scientific scholarship that can be brought to bear on the Bible and the theological tradition; and he has consistently risked his own career in order to unmask the ideological power structures that inform so much of the Roman ecclesiastical order.

But it seems to me that in all his theological efforts, Küng (or, for that matter, the liberal consensus) has pushed Catholic theology to the limits of its own language. In fact, he has brought it to the point where one can ask what its teachings have to offer that cannot be found outside the scope of its experience and discourse. For example, the hope in immortality he evokes is certainly not peculiar to Catholicism or Christianity. Nor is it an exclusively religious doctrine: we find it in pagan philosophy from the Greeks onward, even in thinkers who did not believe in a personal god. Surely, leaving Jesus’ alleged resurrection aside, you can still postulate and hope, with or without the buttressing of rational argument, that there is an ultimate meaning to life and that you will share in it after you die.

On a broader scale, it is clear that religious experience is available outside Catholicism and Christianity; and for many people natural human experience, with no religious or transcendent dimension, is satisfying enough. What, then, does Catholicism claim to provide that cannot be found beyond its boundaries? I am not asking about the subjective aspects of experience, be it natural or religious (its felt quality, psychological genesis, personal meaning, and so on). I am asking an objective theological question: what does Catholicism claim that makes it unique, essentially different from non-Catholic religions and non-religious humanism?

The usual answer to this question comes under the rubric of “supernatural revelation,” God’s free communication of himself to his finite human creatures in a definitive and binding way. According to the Catholic theory, God’s personal revelation of himself can be articulated in human language (scripture, theology, and so on) that is ever incommensurate with God himself and therefore always reformable; however, the authentic sense of revelation is infallibly interpreted by those whom God in this revelation appointed to be his official teaching authority: the Roman hierarchy.

That is why the Catholic Church is not bothered if the scientifically controllable evidence of scripture does not show, for example, that Jesus thought he was divine. “According to the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Baum has written, “the authentic interpretation of Scripture is discovered in the ‘apostolic tradition’ preserved in the church by those entrusted with his task, namely, the bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome, the pope.”10 Nor is the Church’s confidence shaken even if it cannot be shown from scripture that Jesus intended to set up such an apostolic tradition or its infallible interpretation.

In other words, the Catholic argument from revelation seems to end up either begging the question (the infallible interpreters of revelation must first interpret revelation as constituting them infallible) or taking refuge in a quasi Protestantism that throws believers back on their personal experience of God’s revelation. But if one follows the second path, as the liberal consensus is often accused of doing, the same circularity of revelation of himself is what brings faith about; yet only from within faith can the believer know that there has been revelation and what has been revealed.

Over and above the scientific gains that the Catholic liberal consensus has made, its major achievement has been to rediscover the ineluctability of this hermeneutical circle of revelation and faith. Some would say that the consensus has simply reinvented the Protestant wheel; others, that it has gone further and jumped aboard the Protestant cart. In any case, this rediscovery seems to be bringing the Church to what can be called the end of Catholicism, that is, to the limits of what it can say about God and the human condition.

Take the example of the afterlife. Since, as Küng shows, it is impossible to prove that there is anything beyond the grave, hope in immortality is necessarily circumscribed by a condition of unknowing, a kind of “pious agnosticism,” which is a recognition that one cannot know rather than a refusal to find out. Such unknowing does not preclude hope in an afterlife but simply keeps it honest. Even the Christian believer who takes Jesus as his or her model is still thrown back on the same finite information as the nonbeliever, and the same human tasks: providing for one’s own needs, overcoming one’s selfishness, making the social and political order more human. In this view Christianity might turn out to be, in the best sense of the term, a myth, the kind of “truth” (Nietzsche would say “error”) that inspires some people to do what all human beings should do: be sensitive, intelligent, reasonable, loving, and just—in short, finite and historical. Hope in an afterlife and in the resurrected success of Jesus might be the kind of myth that is indispensable for some human beings to carry on their lives.

But the qualities of their lives would seem to be the point. No one denies that religious experience, as defined by those who have it, provides a sense of transcendence, whether or not that sense has objective ontological validity. But even in such experience the underlying issue remains that of working out a decent life before as well as after death. And if faith works to that end, who would want to fault it? It helped the Israelites escape from Egypt; it is central to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Eliot’s Four Quartets. It inspires Polish workers in their struggle for justice, and has added both an incentive and a corrective to liberation movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Even though the liberal consensus has pushed Catholic theology to the point where it seems to break down, Catholicism continues to go on. In some measure this is attributable to the Church’s quiet but momentous shift of emphasis from orthodoxy to “orthopraxis” since the Second Vatican Council. For centuries the Church presented itself as the bastion of truth about Jesus and God, and as the infallible interpreter of scripture and tradition. But now that the very presuppositions of that infallibility are being questioned, the Church, without abdicating orthodoxy, is gradually recasting itself more as the guide to moral action, almost (but not quite) as if it had come to agree with Wittgenstein: “I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life.”11 The Church’s gradual shift of concern away from theoretical questions and toward social, political, and moral issues like nuclear warfare, abortion, and liberation theology—whatever one thinks of the positions—is, I believe, one of the major consequences of the undoing of traditional theology.

Nonetheless, the future of Catholicism as an intellectual and not just as an activist enterprise has become a pressing issue. Perhaps the current regime in Rome will slap a few more wrists in a futile effort to stop the liberal movements launched by the Second Vatican Council. 12 But it is more likely that, as the Church approaches the beginning of its third millennium, things will continue to follow the trajectory of the last two decades: an entrenchment of conservative forces in their shrinking pockets of power; the vigorous advancement of liberal exegesis and theology in scholarly circles; and the equally vigorous pursuit of the social gospel where issues of politics and morality are concerned.

But there is a further possibility as the liberal consensus continues to push Catholic theology to and beyond its limits. Could the Church shelve even its purified belief in Jesus’ resurrection and still remain itself? The direction of Küng’s reinterpretation of the resurrection has been to move through the traditional apocalyptic legends and beyond them toward a more rational hope in a somewhat vaguely defined immortality. But what would happen if liberal theologians abandoned apocalypse altogether and returned full circle to the preapocalyptic faith of the prophets with its intrinsic moral, social, and political concerns? On that hypothesis we might have found Hans Küng writing, “As far as one can know, when you’re dead, you’re dead—and the same holds for Jesus. Rather than hoping him out of the tomb, leave him there and try to lead the kind of life that got him to his grave. The rest, whatever it may be, is out of our hands.” That would be Pascal’s wager in reverse.

This Issue

June 14, 1984