Roger Haight, S.J.April 06, 2021
Hans Küng at the German Protestant Church Congress, Duesseldorf, Germany, Sept. 6, 1985 (INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo)Hans Küng at the German Protestant Church Congress, Duesseldorf, Germany, Sept. 6, 1985 (INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo)

Hans Küng (b. 1928), who died on April 6 at the age of 93, was the youngest and third most influential Catholic theologian of the second half of the 20th century, after Karl Rahner, S.J., (1904-84) and Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., (1914-2009); but he was first in flair and media savvy.

Küng rose to public awareness in the events leading up to and during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He flourished as a Catholic theologian for more than a decade after the council by writing a number of landmark books. After being disowned by the papacy as a Catholic spokesperson in the early days of St. John Paul II’s pontificate, he flourished again as an organic intellectual of the world by mediating among religions and stimulating a global ethic.

A historical style of theology

Küng was born in the Swiss Canton of Lucerne, studied basic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1954. He finished his studies for the doctorate in theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris in 1957. After teaching for a year at the University of Münster he joined the faculty at the University of Tübingen in 1960 where he remained until his retirement in 1996.

Hans Küng (b. 1928), who died on April 6 at the age of 93, was the youngest and third most influential Catholic theologian of the second half of the 20th century.

Küng never internalized the medieval synthesis that characterized the Catholic theological imagination right up to Vatican II. He thought historically, and this meant being attentive to how concepts and language reflect the culture, time and sensibility of historical situations. The best example of this may be his doctoral thesis where, in a context dripping with the sensitivities of the Protestant Reformation, he opened up the theology of justification of Karl Barth in an honest, nonpolemical way and showed that, yes, there are differences between Barth and Catholic teaching, but they are relatively minor and do not merit church division.

[From 1962: Avery Dulles on Hans Küng]

Named a peritus or expert consulter at the Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII, Küng interacted with the leading Catholic theologians of the day. Taking past history seriously and noting how we have moved on became a deep logic of Küng’s thinking in such books as The Council and Reunion (1960), Structures of the Church (1962) and The Living Church: Reflections on the Second Vatican Council (1963).

The great books of Christian theology

Between the end of Vatican II in 1965 and 1980 Küng wrote three major books that together express the substance of Christian faith. The first, The Church (1967), presented the church by using biblical language to interpret the ecclesiology of Vatican II. For some, it is still the best one-volume Catholic ecclesiology of the post-Vatican II period. In 1974 Küng wrote On Being a Christian, which tried to sum up Christian faith by using our understanding of Jesus Christ as the center that informs the whole. With it, along with Schillebeeckx, he became one of the first prominent Catholic theologians to approach Christology by taking seriously a critical historical consideration of the New Testament data.

In 1978 (English 1980) Küng published Does God Exist? An Answer for Today, which in more than 800 pages exhaustively discusses the modern challenge to belief in God and offers an intelligent Christian response. It is noteworthy that this trilogy does not begin with God and work down to the church. From the beginning Küng tries to talk to people in the churches who are asking questions, and he invites the world to listen in. He uses history and the experiences behind the events to connect with a broad readership.

Ecumenism

A major turning point in Hans Küng’s career occurred on Dec. 15, 1979, when the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that he “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.” The declaration was signed by Franjo Cardinal Seper, Prefect of the Congregation, and reflected the mind of the relatively new pope, John Paul II (1978-2005). The major charge, along with others, was that Küng’s understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility could be understood in terms of a “fundamental indefectibility of the Church in truth” (Seper).

Küng’s ecumenically sensitive interpretations of Christian faith would not find a place in the Catholic Church led by John Paul II.

Such an interpretation was not the same as the congregation’s more literal version. The declaration revoked Küng’s canonical mission to teach and forced Küng out of the Catholic faculty, but he continued to teach at Tübingen in the Institute for Ecumenical Research, which had an independent charter with the state of Baden-Württemberg (Küng, My Struggle for Freedom, 2003). Küng’s ecumenically sensitive interpretations of Christian faith would not find a place in the Catholic Church led by John Paul II.

Interreligious understanding and ethics in a world context

One may think of the beginning of 1980 as the start of a new distinct chapter of Küng’s career. He began to think in terms larger than the Catholic Church, or even Christianity, about the broader ecumenism of interreligious encounter in our interdependent and mobile planetary existence. The size of Küng’s imagination and commitment are captured in the title of his work of 1986: Christianity and the World Religions: Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

The scholars of these religions measure his success in reading their beliefs accurately, but everyone can admire the Christian thinker’s commitment to the conversation and what it takes to participate. His conviction about interreligious dialogue is summed up in this incisive maxim: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions” (Küng, Christianity: Essence, History, Future (1995).

In the 1990s, Küng turned to the issue of a common ethics to which the religions and the nations might subscribe. In 1991 he published Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic in which he explored the possible place of religion in a peaceful world order. He was convinced that common values for a human ethic could be found within the world’s religions; they are “common” in the sense that men and women could ascribe to them either on the basis of their particular religions or a shared humanity.

Küng was no passive pietist, nor did he lack self-confidence. But the Catholic Church, Christianity, other religions and all humanity in a recognizable way are his beneficiaries.

He thus drafted a statement entitled “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” that was endorsed by more than 200 leaders of 40 different religious communities at the meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993. He also contributed to the text Crossing the Divide: Dialogue Among Civilizations that was presented by Secretary General Kofi Annan to the United Nations in 2001. These interests show an expanding arch of commitment to the common good of all in a shrinking world.

In 1995 Küng, working with Walter Jens and others, published A Dignified Dying: A Plea for Personal Responsibility that discussed psychological and religious aspects of terminal illness. More recently, in the 2013 third volume of his memoirs that has not yet been published in English, Küng defends the right of people to end their own lives when they are reduced to intolerable and inhumane conditions that attack human dignity. He cannot find God’s intent for human flourishing in such situations and thus considers the option for assisted suicide. He himself suffered from Parkinson’s Disease.

Like the course of emergent complexity in evolution, one can detect an expanding capaciousness in the tasks that Hans Küng undertook in the course of his amazingly productive career as theologian, ecumenist, religionist and finally a moral leader of humanity. He was no passive pietist, nor did he lack self-confidence. But the Catholic Church, Christianity, other religions and all humanity in a recognizable way are his beneficiaries.

[Read this next: Avery Dulles on Hans Küng]

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