Gerald O'CollinsApril 10, 2021
Father Hans Küng is pictured in his office in Tübingen, Germany, in this February 2008 file photo. Father Küng, a prominent and sometimes controversial theologian who taught in Germany, died April 6, 2021, at age 93. (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)Father Hans Küng is pictured in his office in Tübingen, Germany, in this February 2008 file photo. Father Küng, a prominent and sometimes controversial theologian who taught in Germany, died April 6, 2021, at age 93. (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

Hans Küng was only 34 years of age when a visit to the United States firmly established him as the leading theologian of the time. In February 1963, between the first and second sessions of the Second Vatican Council, he began an eight-week tour by addressing an audience of 3,000 in the gymnasium of Boston College. He went on to lecture at Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago (audience of 5,000), Gonzaga University, the University of California in Los Angeles and elsewhere. An audience of 8,500 heard him speak at the St. Louis University, where he received the first honorary doctorate of his career.

Back on the East Coast, he represented the Catholic side with Jean Daniélou in a dialogue with two eminent non-Catholics, Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale and Robert McAfee Brown (then at Stanford and an observer at Vatican II). Küng ended his program with a lecture on “The Church and Freedom” at Georgetown University. On the last day of his visit to the United States, he was welcomed at the White House by President John F. Kennedy.

Hans Küng was only 34 years of age when a visit to the United States firmly established him as the leading theologian of the time.

Küng’s doctoral studies in Paris had led to Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth, A Catholic Reflection (1957), a study that anticipated by many years a landmark work of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” But it was Küng’s The Council, Reform and Reunion (1961) that proved the “textbook” for his American tour and sold thousands of copies. By promoting two major aims that John XXIII set for Vatican II, reform within the Catholic Church and reunion with other Christian churches, Küng caught the eye of the pope, who appointed him a “peritus” or official expert when the council opened in 1962.

By that time Küng was a professor of fundamental theology at the University of Tübingen. He belonged to a group of young theologians for whom the death and disruption of the Second World War opened up early chances of becoming professors on Catholic and Protestant faculties. They included Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926), Joseph Ratzinger (b. 1927), Johann Baptist Metz (b. 1928), Wolfhart Pannenberg (b. 1928) and Walter Kasper (b. 1933).

Küng did much to communicate to a world audience the issues being debated at Vatican II.

Küng did much to communicate to a world audience the issues being debated at Vatican II. A great popularizer who spoke five European languages, he never contributed to the drafting and revision of the council’s texts in the way Karl Rahner, Ratzinger, Yves Congar and other “periti” did. Congar proved the outstanding theologian of Vatican II; he helped draft or at least revise eight of the council’s 16 documents.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Küng’s lecturing and writing set out his views on the church and hopes for Christian unity. The Church (1967) was widely read, and embodied a fresh biblical approach. But it was built on a shaky principle of threefold “originality.” According to this principle, there is originality of “chronology”; 1 Corinthians is earlier than Ephesians. There is originality of “authenticity”; we know that 1 Corinthians was written by Paul himself, whereas the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles is doubtful. There is originality of “relevance”; 1 Corinthians is nearer in content to the gospel of Jesus than is the epistle of James.

Küng never thrilled the liberals or horrified the conservatives by actually saying, “the pope is not infallible.”

Serious doubts challenge various aspects of this principle. What comes chronologically earlier does not necessarily express the essence of Christianity more aptly than what comes later. Is Mark’s Gospel more valuable because it is more original (chronologically) than John? The fact that the authorship of many biblical books remains unknown indicates that originality of authenticity is not a very important factor. The originality of relevance suggests a return to liberal Protestantism’s notion that the essence of an idea is found in its purest and truest form at the origins.

Küng’s views of the church triggered more debate when he produced in German Infallible? An Enquiry (1970), a book that queried the doctrines of papal primacy and infallibility. Philosophers, as well as theologians, became engaged. His enquiry raised issues about truth and the nature of propositions, but did not reach the standard of clarity that current analytic philosophy required.

The English translation of Infallible? was available a year later when he visited Melbourne, at the invitation of the local Anglican Church. The Anglicans had been touched by his ecumenical gesture in dedicating The Church to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. But it was his latest book that ignited wide public attention.

When Küng arrived at Melbourne airport, I walked out onto the tarmac to welcome him off the plane.

When Küng arrived at Melbourne airport, I walked out onto the tarmac to welcome him off the plane. None of his Anglican hosts had ever met him before. Our handshake set the stage for a film, Meet Hans Küng. I encouraged my sister Moira to hold a cocktail party in his honor. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, James (later Cardinal) Knox, pleaded a previous engagement and did not attend. Yet he invited Küng to meet him a few days later. They exchanged gifts. Knox gave his visitor a book on Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and received from him a copy of Infallible? Küng’s gift bore the message in Latin, “non ad ecclesiam destruendam sed aedificandam (not for destroying the church but for building it up).” Küng was utterly sincere in his deep desire to build up and bless the family of God that Jesus and his first followers called into being.

Up to a thousand people came each evening to hear Küng’s five lectures at the University of Melbourne. When he spoke on infallibility, he frustrated many in the audience. He never thrilled the liberals or horrified the conservatives by actually saying, “the pope is not infallible.”

A week later, during a well attended theological meeting held at the University of Sydney, I took as my subject “the honest to infallibility” debate that Küng’s latest work had prompted. Two major lines of criticism had already emerged. First, he exaggerated the status of the papal rejection of “artificial” birth control in “Humanae Vitae”(1968). At the publication of that encyclical, Paul VI had made no claim to be teaching infallibly. Second, some ambiguities and confusion drifted through Küng’s own account of religious truth and error. Several years earlier when he was writing Infallible? and discussing the work at his seminar in Tübingen, members of this seminar had called for more philosophical stringency. But hearing and acting on criticism was never his strong point.

After his triumphal visit to Melbourne, Küng had come to the Sydney conference and responded to my paper. What caught wider attention was his “confession” during a television discussion. When asked by an ex-Catholic, “Are you trying to rock the boat of Peter?,” he replied: “No, I’m only trying to help people love Jesus more.”

At the time he was preparing On Being a Christian (1974). It contained a long and very accessible account of Jesus. Even if theologically and historically the work should be challenged for its faulty interpretation of the early councils of the church and on other grounds, it provides an affectionate and pastorally helpful portrait of Jesus.

Küng should be treasured for that. He showed how even “modern” and sophisticated human beings could find in Jesus the answer to life’s basic questions.

Correction, April 19, 2021: This article incorrectly stated that Hans Küng received his first honorary degree from the University of St. Louis. It was from St. Louis University. 

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