Of dogmatics and reform

Print edition : January 02, 2004

Interview with Professor Hans Kng, Catholic theologian.

Professor Hans Kng is a radical theologian - radical in the specific, etymological sense of getting to the root. His scientific, historical and erudite analysis of the basic tenets of Roman Catholic theology, Church history and dogmatics - the doctrine of justification, papal infallibility, eternal life, priestly celibacy and inner-Church democracy - has led to a "radical rethinking" of Catholic faith. One of the pioneers of what Professor Thomas Sheehan of the University of Stanford has termed the "liberal consensus" (the results of an approach to Roman Catholic theology characterised by a "scientific exegesis of the New Testament", rather than a "rational attack on traditional doctrine"), Kng is probably the most important theologian alive. Sheehan notes: "Hans Kng 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" ("Revolution in the Church", New York Review of Books, June 14, 1984).

Born in Switzerland on March 19, 1928, Kng completed his basic studies at the cantonal Gymnasium (grammar school) in Lucerne and joined the Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum in Rome in 1948 for an intensive seven-year-long study of theology and philosophy. In 1957, the Institut Catholique in Paris awarded him the doctorate in theology for his dissertation on the theory of justification of Karl Barth, the influential 20th century Swiss Protestant theologian. The conclusions of his thesis - published in English in 1964 as Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection - was an "ecumenical sensation" and had a "long-lasting pioneering effect" on Catholic-Protestant interface in the years that followed. Ironically, 1957 also marked the beginning of a long and bitter battle with Rome - The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's theological watchdog, opened a dossier on Kng based on the allegation that his doctoral thesis contradicted official theology. Kng's trial by the Vatican, which witnessed several ups and downs and during which several new charges were brought against him, culminated in 1979 with his removal from the chair of Dogmatic and Ecumenical Theology at the University of Tubingen, Germany, a post he had held since 1963. The Vatican condemned Kng's "contempt for the magisterium of the Church" on the topics of papal infallibility, divinity of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception as expressed in several articles and books such as On Being a Christian, The Church and Infallible? An Inquiry.

Kng, who did pastoral work for a brief period as an assistant priest at the Hofkirche in his native Lucerne, participated in the first three sessions of the path-breaking Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as a peritus (theological adviser) appointed by Pope John XXIII. In 1965, Kng, along with prominent Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Johann-Baptist Metz and others, founded the much-respected Concilium, an international journal for theology that promotes "theological discussion in the spirit of Vatican II". With more than 50 books to his credit, including the autobiography My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs (2003), the catholicity of Kng's interests and the magnitude of his expertise can be gauged from a glance at some of his books - Freud and the Problem of God (1979), Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem (1984), Literature and Religion (1991), Global Responsibility (1991), Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (1992), Mozart: Traces of Transcendence (1992), Christianity: Its Essence and History (1995) and Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (1997). Kng drafted the "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic" which, after a consultation process with many scholars of different religions, was adopted at the Second Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993 and has become the charter of the Global Ethic project. He was a member of the "Group of Eminent Persons" - along with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi and others - appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the "International Year of Dialogue Among Civilisations 2001" to prepare a framework for dialogue among civilisations. The report of the group, "Crossing the Divide. Dialogue among Civilisations", was presented to Annan in November 2001. Kng is currently Emeritus Professor of Ecumenical Theology at the University of Tubingen and president of the Tubingen-based Global Ethic Foundation, an organisation dedicated to "inter-cultural and inter-religious research, education and encounter".

In an e-mail interview he gave Nandagopal R. Menon, Kng spoke about the 25 years of Pope John Paul II's papacy, liberation theology, the recent sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests and certain aspects of his work. Excerpts:

In 1978, in an interview you gave Hermann Haring and Karl-Josef Kuschel, you said that the future development of the Catholic Church depended on the successor of Pope Paul VI. You said that the most important issue was to "provide a solution to the problems that under Paul VI have been neglected and in part suppressed and that have been waiting so long to be dealt with". What are these problems and to what extent has Pope John Paul II addressed them in the last 25 years of his papacy?

The problems which were not solved by the [Second Vatican] Council were issues which were not discussed or were not allowed to be discussed: Birth control (contraception) as a matter of personal responsibility; regulation of the question of mixed marriages (upbringing of the children); priestly celibacy in the Latin Church; the reform of the Roman Curia in structure and personnel; the involvement of the Church regions concerned (pastoral and priest councils) in the appointment of bishops; and election of the Pope by the Synod of bishops which is far more representative of the Church than the College of Cardinals. Pope Paul VI at least tried to solve a few problems, especially with regard to the liturgy and pastoral practices. John Paul II, however, did not seek solutions for the remaining problems, but, on the contrary, tried to stop the renewal. For instance, the dispensation from celibacy for priests who wish to leave priesthood, rather easily granted under Paul VI, was immediately stopped by John Paul II.

The papacy of John Paul II is marked by a striking contradiction - he has been a "doctrinaire defender of ancient bastions" of Catholicism, including those on abortion, ordination of women, gay marriages, inner-Church democracy and so on; on the other hand, he has adopted a relatively progressive stance on some temporal affairs, especially in opposing the U.S.-U.K-led illegal war on Iraq, criticising capitalism and so on. What, according to you, explains this contradiction?

It is, of course, much easier to preach to the world than to convert yourself. The Pope is not the only person - and this applies to all Churches - who prefers to exhort the people all over the world about how they should behave, but is not prepared to apply the same to the Church itself. In matters of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue this Pope made a great deal of nice words and gestures. But in practice he did not change anything.

In his solemn confession of repentance for all the past errors and failures of the Church he mentioned only the "sons and daughters of the Church" but not the "Holy Fathers". He asked for forgiveness of sins with regard to the crimes of the Inquisition, but the Inquisition continues today with a new name and with more subtle methods. The Inquisition persecutes above all those faithful who stand out for their critical thought and energetic concern for reform. Just as Pius XII persecuted the most important theologians of his time (Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Rahner and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), so John Paul II (and his Grand Inquisitor Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) has persecuted Schillebeeckx, Tissa Balasuriya, Leonardo Boff, Gyorgy Bulanyi and Charles Curran, along with Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Evreux and Archbishop Huntington of Seattle.

Pope John Paul II.-VINCENZO PINTO/AFP

To put it in a nutshell: his `foreign policy' calls for conversion, reform and dialogue from everyone, but his `domestic policy', aimed at the restoration of the status quo before the Second Vatican Council and a rejection of dialogue within the Church, is in blatant contradiction with it.

John Paul II's 1991 encylical Centesimus Annus probably contains one of the most powerful condemnations of the capitalist system ever made by the Catholic Church. In unequivocal terms, it championed the cause of the poor and oppressed and took note of the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. The same Pope, however, criticised liberation theology and censured some of its prominent exponents. Your comments. How should the Church take a "preferential option for the poor"? Can liberation theology be viewed as the Church's appropriate response to the poor, the marginalised and the ruling classes?

In this respect also the policy of this Pope seems to be contradictory. He spoke out firmly in favour of the poor but kept friendly relations also to dictators who oppressed the poor in their countries. He threatened the liberation theologian and at that time Minister in the Nicaraguan government, Ernesto Cardenal, but cooperated in many ways with U.S. President [Ronald] Reagan and said nothing about the Iran-Contra-gate or President [Ferdinand] Marcos of the Philippines. He did not appreciate enough the positive intentions of the liberation theologians and avoided every discussion with Gustavo Gutierrez, Boff and other critical theologians... Because of his Polish experiences he saw too much Marxism in liberation theology and did not value their practical work for the poor. For the Vatican, liberation theology jeopardises the power structure of the Catholic Church because it appeals to the grassroot Church and insists on a certain autonomy of the episcopal conferences.

Not only theology, however, but also the Church - which so often in the centuries of colonial Christendom and right up to the present time betrayed its own programme - may no longer misuse the Gospel of Jesus Christ to justify a social situation clearly contradicting the requirements of that Gospel. The Gospel must no longer be distorted and turned into an ideology, sanctioned by the Church and useful to a thin, excessively wealthy upper stratum, for satisfying the religious needs of the masses and so securing a social order which is set up and dominated only by a few and is of service and advantage only to a few. The Church, for which the claim to universal liberation in Christ cannot be restricted solely to the religious plane, must identify itself differently from what it has done hitherto with the wretched condition of large masses of the people, with their hopes and struggles for a better human existence. And so the fact cannot be overlooked that Christians - from workers up to priests and bishops - are getting involved to an increasing extent in the liberation process which, in the words of Boff, is "liberation from an overall system of oppression and liberation for the self-realisation of the people, enabling them to determine for themselves their political, economic and cultural destiny".

The sex abuse scandal that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church in several parts of the world provides an opportunity to reconsider some relevant aspects of Church dogma. What do you think is the way out of this crisis? Will jettisoning the Church's traditional discipline of priestly celibacy resolve the problem? Or, more important, is there a fundamental defect in the Church's understanding of human sexuality, which is to a large extent still based on archaic Platonic notions of body-spirit dualism?

In my analysis of the history of Christianity - Christianity: Its Essence and History and Women in Christianity - I showed that there was a huge influence of Platonic and gnostic ideas on Christianity. The influence of the great genius Saint Augustine who combined the transmission of original sin with the sexual act had disastrous consequences. Of course, there will always be sexual scandals in the Church as there are sexual scandals everywhere. But it is no question that a lot of sex abuses of children and youngsters by Catholic priests could be avoided if they were allowed to have wife and children. This law of celibacy is not a traditional dogma, but an ecclesiastical law of the 11th century, which could be changed overnight if the Pope did not obstruct such a change against the large majorities in the Catholic population and in the episcopate. Also in India you have oriental churches in union with Rome whose priests are allowed to have wife and children.

The consequence is that the cadres have thinned out and no replacements are coming through; soon almost half the parishes will have no ordained pastors, nor will the Eucharist be celebrated regularly. Even the importation of priests from Poland, India and Africa and the fatal amalgamation of parishes into `pastoral units' can no longer disguise this.

Incidentally, the 25th anniversary of John Paul II's papacy coincides with another "epoch-making turning point" in Church history - the 41st anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. To quote Pope John XXIII, who summoned the Council, it rose in the "Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light". Have the words of John XXIII come true? To what extent has the papacy of John Paul II done justice to the conclusions drawn by the Council?

Many people rightly speak of a betrayal of the Council, a betrayal which has alienated countless Catholics from the Church all over the world. Instead of the words of the conciliar programme, there are once more the slogans of a Roman magisterium which is conservative and authoritarian. Instead of the aggiornamento (updating) in the spirit of the Gospel, there is again the traditional integral "Catholic teaching" (rigorous moral encyclicals, the traditionalist "world catechism"). Instead of the "collegiality" of the Pope with the bishops, there is again a tighter Roman centralism which, in the nomination of bishops and appointments to theological chairs, sets itself above the interests of the local Churches. Instead of "openness" to the modern world, there is increasingly accusation, complaint and lamentation over alleged "assimilation" and an encouragement of traditional forms of piety, such as Mariolatry. Instead of "dialogue", there is again reinforced Inquisition and a refusal of freedom of conscience and teaching in the Church. Instead of "ecumenism", the emphasis is again on everything that is narrowly Roman Catholic. There is no longer any talk, as at the Council, of the distinction between the Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, between the substance of the doctrine of faith and its garb in language and history; and of a "hierarchy of truths" which are not all equal in importance.

If the next Pope were to want to continue the policies of this pontificate he would add further to the tremendous log-jam of problems and make the structural crisis of the Catholic Church virtually irremediable. No, a new Pope must decide on a change of course and inspire the Church with courage to take new directions - in the spirit of John XXIII and along the lines indicated by the reforming impulses of the Second Vatican Council.

Sheehan has pointed out that criticism, reinterpretation and dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology by Catholic scholars such as you and Schillebeeckx has "pushed Catholic theology to the limits of its own language". The question arises as to what remains of Catholicism. As distinct from other Churches and religions, what does it have to offer? Or, in other words, what is uniquely Catholic in its claims and ideas?

Who has read my books , especially my Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today, will see that my interpretations of Jesus, resurrection and eternal life and all the other questions are most constructive. There are innumerable letters of Christians who confirm to me (and certainly also to Schillebeeckx) that they have been helped and strengthened in their faith by my interpretation of the traditional doctrines, founded in the New Testament and in the reality of the present world. But there are, of course, recent ideologies like the one proclaimed by the First Vatican Council (1870) about papal infallibility which is already past history as is the old Pontifical State. Catholics have to base their faith first in the New Testament interpreted seriously for the present situation and in the great Tradition, especially of the first millennium which did not know a pontifical absolutism and exaggerated clericalism, the law of celibacy, and an elaborated repressive canon law. The Second Vatican Council tried to correct these medieval deviations but succeeded only in parts.

With innumerable other Catholics I am therefore a Catholic because I am rooted in the Christian tradition of 2,000 years (catholicity in time) and, as a Catholic theologian and priest in good standing, in the universal community of believers (catholicity in space).

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