Last week, Hans Küng, the king of the dissident German Catholic theologians, met his maker. At the time, I tweeted, “King Küng meets God-zilla.” In doing so, I had no intention of comparing either Hans Küng to a giant gorilla nor the Almighty to a giant lizard. It just seemed too juicy a dad-joke to pass up.
Hans Küng was indeed the king of modern German dissenters. To coin another play on words, he might also have been named Martin Luther Küng, Jr. So friendly was he with the Lutherans, and so enthusiastic about ecumenism, one wonders why he didn’t become a Lutheran.
In an excellent overview of Küng’s life and work here, Fr. Roger Landry points out that in his denials of core Catholic doctrines, Küng was indeed closer to Protestantism than to the Catholic Faith:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Over the course of time, he undermined and opposed Church teaching on papal infallibility, the magisterial authority of bishops, euthanasia, abortion, contraception, the inadmissibility of ordaining women as priests, the need of a priest for the valid consecration of the Eucharist, the consubstantiality of Christ with God the Father, the meaning of hell, and various aspects of Church sexual teaching, including the sinfulness of homosexual activity. He also was a persistent critic of the Church’s practice of mandatory priestly celibate chastity and an outspoken detractor of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
That popes Paul VI and Benedict XVI reached out to attempt reconciliation with Küng says much about the more modern “softly-softly” approach to heresy than in bygone days. Nevertheless, in 1979, after a full investigation and having been invited to correct his errors, the Church declared that Küng “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.”
What positive contributions can we gather from Küng’s life and work? Firstly, I think we should acknowledge the importance of questioning the Faith. However, this should be done in a spirit of inquiry not a spirit of dissent. When faced with one who questions the Faith, we should distinguish between difficulties, doubts, and dissent.
St. John Henry Newman wrote, “A thousand difficulties do not comprise one doubt.” In other words, asking the tough questions when we have difficulties is the right thing to do. It means we are taking the Faith seriously and thinking it through. A difficulty is saying, “How can this be?” A doubt is saying, “This can’t be.” One with a difficulty questions the Faith. One with a doubt despises the Faith. One who dissents denies the Faith.
It must be said that Hans Küng’s difficulties led him into doubt and ultimately to dissent, and his pre-eminence among German theologians and church people has no doubt contributed to the parlous state of the German Catholic Church today—teetering as it is on the brink of schism.
In the face of such dissent, which caused so many to stumble, what is the proper response? The example of Küng is relevant because so many of us have seen friends and family members depart from the family home of the Catholic Faith for one reason or another. Some jump ship for the liberal dissenters or simply for their own ease. Others, nervous about liberal leaks in the barque of Peter, jump into what seems to be a lifeboat—extreme traditionalist sectarianism. Either way, they have chosen their own version of the faith over the Church built on the rock that is Peter.
The proper response to those who go astray is the response of the father of the Prodigal Son. He knew the boy was a bad ‘un and that he would probably fritter away his inheritance in riotous living; but he gave the boy his money and freedom anyway, knowing that loyalty and Love cannot be forced otherwise it would not be loyalty and love. The father watched and waited and prayed and hoped. Then, when the time was right, the son “came to himself” and headed for home.
Fr. Landry tells us that “Last summer, Cardinal Kasper informed Pope Francis that Küng was near death and desired to die at peace with the Church. The Pope told Kasper to give Küng his blessing, something that Kasper interpreted as a ‘pastoral and human’ reconciliation, although not a doctrinal one.”
Fr. Landry also points out that Küng died on the fifth day of the Divine Mercy Novena, the day dedicated especially to “the souls of those who have separated themselves from my Church.” Therefore, shall we be like the elder son in the parable and resent the return of the prodigal? I think not. Instead, we thank God for our brother Hans Küng and pray for the repose of his soul and his final reconciliation with the Father. He once wrote a book entitled Does God Exist? Now he knows the answer.
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]