The National Catholic Review

Hans Küng (b. 1928) may well have been the 20th century’s most important Catholic theologian—not the most original or profound, to be sure, but the most influential because of his astonishing breadth, energy, productivity and pedagogical skills in explaining liberal orthodoxy to an enormous ecumenical audience over the last 46 years. (The “select bibliography” given here cites a mere 19 of his books.) If only for that reason, this long, meticulously detailed first volume of a projected two-volume intellectual autobiography will have to be bought by major libraries all over the world. But Küng’s editors should have reminded this affable, indefatigable, multilingual Swiss globetrotter of two old chestnuts: Voltaire’s Le secret d’être ennuyeux est de tout dire, and the anonymous Italian formula, Traduttore—traditore. Küng tells us far too much about his books, articles, speeches and ideological joustings, and far too little about his personal life. And the translator, John Bowden, betrays him with a stiff, flatfooted version that blithely ignores the most basic difference between German and English idiom and sentence structure. Küng’s syle, while not exactly elegant, was always clear and vigorous, never as stodgy as Bowden makes him here.

Despite the weariness this book may induce, Küng undoubtedly is both a likable and a remarkable fellow. Big-boned, with craggy good looks and a great shock of rebellious hair, athletic, musical, omni-competent, he is a happy warrior who does not (he says) hold any grudges. He has deep local roots in Sursee, near Lucerne (where his parents’ house was built in 1651); yet he displays the nearly obsessive cosmopolitanism one often finds in the best German writers. If many of the causes he has championed (rapprochement with mainstream Protestantism, radically open dialogue with non-Christian religions, declericalization and decentralization of the church, the attack on papal [and ecclesial] infallibility, liturgical revitalization, respect for the findings of the historical-critical method in Bible studies, rejection of Mariolatry, etc.) now strike most left-wing or moderate Catholics as commonsensical, a large part of the credit for this has to go to Küng himself.

Of course, he is not shy about reminding his listeners that “I was the man, I suffered, I was there”—and when he didn’t win his case, as he often did not at the Second Vatican Council, he should have. Ever the star pupil and ace debater, he savors every triumph: the way he dazzled Karl Barth, the way he emboldened Karl Rahner, the way his lectures had people from Tübingen to San Francisco eating out of his hand. And Küng can’t resist dropping the names of the celebrities he has met and occasionally worked with, from John F. Kennedy to Kofi Annan. Still, it all sounds more like innocent exuberance and dogged coalition-building than crude vanity. He even manages to create a moment of real drama toward the end of his story (in 1967) when he stands eyeball-to-eyeball, first with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and then with Pope Paul VI: speaking the perfect Italian he learned during his seven years as a student at the Germanicum in Rome, Küng politely but firmly refuses to budge.

The heart of this book, however, is not in such scenes nor in the family memories he skims through—his serenely happy childhood, the death of his 22-year-old brother Georg from a brain tumor, his love for his five adorable (judging from their photograph) sisters. What Küng really wants to talk about is the Cause. So he devotes 80 pages to the Second Vatican Council, including such high points as the powerful, enlightened address by Cardinal Léon Suenens of Brussels on the charismatic dimension of the church. The onetime English Jesuit Peter Hebblethwaite called it “the most influential speech of the Council so far.”

But Küng will not let personal triumph cloud his judgment; and he delivers an incisive critique of the council’s many failures, which include John XXIII’s and Paul VI’s refusal or inability to root out the worst reactionaries in the Roman Curia or at least to block their vicious parliamentary maneuvers. And on he goes, with his brisk blow-by-blow summaries of what seems like every single argument and counter-argument. One has to be the theological equivalent of a hyper-intense sports fan to want to follow all this.

My Struggle for Freedom stops short of the adventures for which he has become famous: the interrogations he endured from the Holy Office, the revocation of his Catholic “teaching license” and, needless to say, the total failure of any of this to stop him. The second volume promises to be a livelier affair. That part of the story is also likely, judging from Küng’s remarks on the death, in severe dementia, of Karl Adam, to be more down-to-earth and touched with a sense of his own mortality.

Until then, Küng’s readers are liable to find themselves regretting that, for all his talents, he is no Xavier Rynne. No, but then again, he never wanted to be.

Peter Heinegg, a professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., has translated three books by Hans Küng.