The Infallibity Debate: From July 7, 1973

When Hans Küngs Infallible? An Inquiry appeared in 1971, it drew ample praise and blame, including sharp criticisms by his theological colleague, Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., in the pages of the German journal Stimmen der Zeit.  AMERICA, in a special symposium (4/21/71), carried discussions of the books theological and philosophical aspects by Avery Dulles, S. J., Michael A. Fahey, S.J., and George A. Lindbeck.

May 11, 1973

DEAR KARL RAHNER: After publishing Fallible? (1973) my summary of the results of the infallibility debate and saying what seemed necessary by way of an answer to criticism, I would like to strike a more personal note in writing to you. [The book contains some 300 pages by various experts on the problem, Küngs summing up and answer to his critics in 200 pages and about 20 pages of documents, including Küngs correspondence with Rome.-ED.] Obviously I am not going to repeat my arguments yet again. But I certainly do want to come quickly to what you call a "working agreement," without glossing over our differences. This is all the more important since some younger and older theologians find it extraordinarily sad and indeed a handicap to the postconciliar renewal movement that so virulent a conflict should have broken out on this question, particularly between you and me, and should not yet have been settled.

Since your first article in [Stimmen der Zeit] against my book, Infallible? (1970), almost three years ago, and since my answer and your response to it, a number of things have happened which perhaps permit us now to see the problem a little more clearly. The fact that you accepted my invitation to the Tübingen seminar on infallibility, that we were able to discuss the matter fairly and afterwards, in the Tübingen "Museum," relaxed and friendly, to sit down to an evening meal: all this is evidence enough for me that neither the theological-ecclesial nor the human and personal relationships between us have broken down. Your interventions in the papal theologians commission and at the German synod, your undaunted pleading for an open, ecumenical, democratic and social-critical Church in Structural Change in the Church: The Task and the Opportunity (1972) and also, a short time ago, your positive reaction to the memorandum of the German university ecumenical institutes on "Reform and Recognition of Church Ministries" have shown me and others that there was no foundation for the rumor circulating in some quarters that Rahner also had now become a conservative, had been drawn into the movement of reaction directed by Rome. What is clear is that, after the great and bold course you have always followed, even at almost seventy, you still maintain an astonishing theological agility.

For my own part, I hope that I have also learned a little more in the past three years. When I was being attacked—on technical questions, on my Catholic loyalty to the Church or on my human and Christian integrity (people were not discriminating in their attacks)—I defended myself for the sake of the cause and of my task. Shot at by many at the same time, I had no choice but to defend myself pointedly but, I think, fairly. Thank God, I have not become bitter and irreconcilable nor, I hope, obstinate and unteachable.

Along with all the necessary defense against unjust attacks, I have made no small effort to listen to and answer legitimate questions and objections. I have constantly tried to clarify afresh what I had already clearly stated in Infallible? namely, that, with all my doubts about propositions which are not only supposed to be true but guaranteed by the Holy Spirit as infallible, I never denied that there are true propositions of faith, common to and binding on the community of believers, and that there are summary professions of faith (creeds) and definitions of faith (dogmas of faith) setting aside what is unchristian.

In the course of the discussion, not only should the possibility of a "working agreement" have become clear, but the "theoretical disagreement" should have narrowed. I tried in fact, not least with reference to yourself, to make clear:

—how a proposition, ambiguous in its verbal formulation ("true and false") may in the concrete situation be quite unambiguously true or false;

—then, how Christian faith and Christian theology are interested in professions of faith and definitions of faith that endure through time (catholicity in time), under what conditions this is possible and how the continuity of faith is therefore not independent of a certain continuity of linguistic formulation;

—furthermore, how a proposition of faith can be both related to a situation and yet binding on the community of believers, with a definitive binding force that comes from the truth and that in a particular situation can require an unconditional profession of faith, a conclusive assent (occasionally as a matter of life or death);

—finally, how I like to practice theology, Catholic theology, not by "playing with ideas in my own subjectivity," but in the midst of the great community of believers, in a catholicity of space and time.

Has it not become clear that I do not want to have anything to do with "subjectivistic individualism," "downright relativism," "indifferent scepticism"? And has it not become clear at the same time that the attitude of the "average Catholic" toward the Churchs dogmas is by no means based simply on a "fundamental error"?

In Fallible? I was not content to rebut attacks and to produce further confirmation of my own view both from exegesis (the true significance of Peter in the New Testament) and from the history of dogma and theology (the true authority of councils, the origin of the Roman doctrine of infallibility). I attempted at the same time to give concrete expression to the idea—which you, too, accept in principle—of the Churchs being maintained in the truth despite all errors: the indefectibility of the Church. By contrast with "infallibility," which even conservative theologians feel is problematic, this truth of faith does not rest merely on a few individual texts but on the Christian message as a whole. It can be shown:

—how the Church is maintained quite concretely in the truth whenever Jesus Himself remains the truth for the individual or community, and people commit themselves to His path in imitation of Him;

—how remaining in the truth, in spite of all possible failure on the part of hierarchy and theology, continues to be manifested in the faith, love and hope of "little" people;

—how this remaining in the truth is more a matter of orthopraxis than of orthodoxy, more a matter of the individual and of individual communities than of institutions.

In this way, it seems to me, it ought really to become clear:

—how the Church, even in the case of a serious error in matters of faith and morals, can go on living;

—how the errors of popes and bishops (like those of theologians) are a very serious and portentous affair, but not ultimately a threat to the Churchs existence;

—how the Churchs faith is indeed dependent on true propositions, but is not simply dissolved by false ones;

—how therefore we can live with errors, even though we must constantly strive to overcome them.

I tried likewise to explain as concretely as possible, even presupposing all this, that episcopate, council and Pope can "function" and undertake their task in the service of the Gospel and of men—indeed, so I think, can undertake it better, in trusting faith, in constant hope. At the same time I tried also to keep in mind the ever-present possibility of conflict. However that may be, it seems to me that in this way the Catholic Church of the future could cope with its errors more easily than in the past. The history of the Church and of dogmas could be more realistically considered, and at the same time it would be possible to believe with conviction in the Churchs remaining in the truth. In this way, in spite of all errors, the ancient Catholic freedom would be regained, constantly to obtain a new hearing for the truth of the Gospel. And as sin can become felix culpa, so too could error finally become felix error, since, through the Churchs errors, the truth of the Gospel in this Church would come so much more powerfully to light.

Since in this way other Christians, too, can believe in the indefectibility of the Church of Jesus Christ, the most serious obstacle to ecumenical consensus among the Christian Churches could be removed. And—what to me is more important—the Christian message, this Jesus Himself and the God for whom He stands, would again have become more credible for man at the present time. In all our argument we were agreed that this is what really matters in theology, and indeed you assured me that we "are agreed on the real basic substance of Christianity."

"Jesus and his cause": this is what matters. Certainly our methods may be different. Yours—if I may perhaps over-simplify—is more (but not exclusively) "transcendental and speculative" in regard to dogmas, mine more "historical and critical" and "systematic" only in that sense. But I share your view that we should "stick together methodically" in order to stand up for "the cause of Jesus Christ" in the face of our times. In the concrete aspects of our theology, even the differences are often extremely slight and scarcely perceptible to the nonspecialist. Is it surprising, then, that some of our mutual friends are wondering what we were really fighting about? Nevertheless, it was not an idle skirmish between theologians. For, with all our readiness—I hope, on both sides—to make concessions, you presumably will not be able any more now than formerly to admit that even a solemn papal or conciliar definition could (though not necessarily "must") in principle be not merely "historically" restricted, limited, inadequate, dangerous, one-sided, mingled with error and therefore open to correction, but—measured against the Gospel itself—downright erroneous. Here then would fie the persistent "slight difference."

Perhaps for the time being we have both said more or less what we could say on this problem. At the moment, it would be impossible to wring a decision on this question from either you or me (or, incidentally, from the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), even if we were to write still more articles or produce further collections of essays. For this reason, I would like to ask you: Isnt it time for you and me to let this question rest and simply leave to history a judgment on the answer? It does not matter much to me whether I am right or not. If the power to produce such propositions with the assistance of the Holy Spirit is in fact given to men, why should I be disturbed? At most, I would ask for a little more use to be made of this opportunity for mans salvation. Our prospects dont look as rosy as this at present. But what then? It is not our "subjective opinion" that matters. The truth is to come to light, no more and no less. Certainly we should be able to see more clearly in a couple of years.

Anyway, if it is at all possible, I would like to make my peace with you on this matter. This does not mean that you are expected to concur in my opinion, but it does mean that you should allow my view to count as Catholic. And, for that reason, I heartily wish also that you would stop describing me—to the joy of our common opponents—as a "liberal Protestant," but accept me expressly as the Catholic theologian that, for all my evangelical concentration, I would like to be.

With continued sincere gratitude for all the many things I have been able to learn from you since my student days and for what I still hope to learn, greetings from

May 15, 1973

DEAR HANS KÜNG: I was very pleased by the tone of your conciliatory letter (not at all like some of the observations directed at me in Fallible?). But this is not the object of my letter. There is no point in trying to reproach each other for real or (as seen from the other side) supposed sins of polemics. Nor does the expression "liberal Protestant" matter to me. I do not describe you as a "liberal Protestant," but merely said that on this one question I could only argue as if I were dealing with a liberal Protestant, for whom a council and Scripture are not absolutely binding factors, particularly not in the sense of a presupposed inerrancy—which the nonliberal Protestant claims at least for Scripture. But, as I said, lets leave that aside. If this expression led common "opponents"—whom we obviously also have—to draw the conclusion that we were no longer agreed about anything or that what divides us is greater than what we have in common, then I would, of course, greatly regret this consequence of using that expression.

You are right when you say I shall presumably not admit that even a solemn papal or conciliar definition could (though not necessarily "must") in principle be not merely historically restricted, limited, open to correction, but—measured against the Gospel itself—downright erroneous. Yes, we differ at that point. I dont know how I can simply bridge the gap. For, as a human being, a Christian and a theologian, in the light of the Churchs nature, I cannot permit myself (so I think) such an independent critical standpoint, in regard to any really definitive teachings, that I, as the ultimately supreme critic, could describe such decisions as erroneous (and, in that sense, fallible). I know that, in the decision in regard to a Church so understood, my conscience is supreme: that is, I am thrown back on my conscience alone. And this decision, which is therefore "liberal," is something which must constantly be made afresh during my whole life. But I also think (in spite of all you say about a distinction between the Churchs remaining in the truth, and individual errors, even those in which the magisterium is completely involved) that my conscience forbids me, where an absolute decision in the faith of the Church is required of me in a particular instance, to be a higher authority than the Church even in regard to the propositions themselves and therefore to be able to reject such propositions as mistaken. Nor do I fear that this attitude will be unmasked in the course of time as old-fashioned. I fear rather that such an attitude will seem too obvious in a future age. But we shall not discuss that further here.

Is this difference great or (as you think) slight? I cant answer that question very easily, for a variety of reasons. I, too, know that it is very difficult in theology to point to the precise, concrete difference between propositions which are merely limited, in the above sense, and those which are really erroneous. At least, it is difficult in many cases. Hence, I have always known also that an official anathema in regard to another concrete teaching in not a few cases represents in reality only a terminological ruling. I have myself wondered (incurring Romes displeasure) whether, in the intellectual climate of today and tomorrow, we can expect papal definitions which go beyond the protection of the basic substance of Christianity (on which, indeed, we are agreed) and have cautiously answered the question in the negative. All this before your book, Infallible? For that reason, I offered a "working agreement" between us two, even though I am clear that agreement with me as an individual theologian is not very important and that the real question still remains open as to whether the Roman magisterium itself would be satisfied with such a working agreement, which as a practical arrangement would continue for years. We shall see. I dont know whether the theoretical disagreement should be described as great or slight. If I were to call it great, I would be reproached for attaching too much importance to theory and overestimating a distinction that many Christians no longer clearly grasp (as you say).

As for the idea of a great difference between us, it might be said, and held against me, that I am forced to "interpret" even very fundamental definitions of former times so broadly that others would regard the interpretation as an implicit rejection of the old teaching as erroneous, especially if their thought runs along historical rather than speculative lines. In such cases (I cant produce any examples here), I would say that my interpretation is necessary today, that it is not a re-interpretation, that I count on the agreement of the institutional Church, that I can in any case, of course, understand same ancient anathemas (far example, against an essentially merely verbal monophysitism in Christology) merely as prohibitions of another form of expression, as a terminological ruling within the Church. Then, admittedly, I may be asked whether the difference between us two is still great and does not mean merely a different way of speaking about the same matter which we both have in mind. If I describe the difference as slight, then I wonder if I am not myself underestimating the concrete effect which would be established in the Church in the long run as a result of such a theory. And I feel almost tempted to ask why you have to "provoke" Rome, if the theory which I defend is in your opinion only slightly different from yours and amounts almost to the same thing in the Churchs practice.

Alongside this great, or slight, difference, there are also—I won’t conceal the fact—other differences between you and me. Why is arthopraxis really more secure than orthodoxy? Why are the little man and the individual more secure than the hierarchs and the institutions? I mean, both sides have their own susceptibilities, and we cant compare them. There are more questions of this kind. Indeed, it might be asked whether there is not a more far-reaching difference between us two on the relationship between society-institution on the one hand and truth on the other in the human sphere in general—and not only with reference to the Church. But I gladly admit that questions which penetrate so deeply, even if they are significant in themselves, have no place or almost no place in a theological controversy which is supposed to be important for the Church.

Dear Herr Küng, let me keep to the point and return again to what I called in the course of our controversy a "working agreement." My frequent use of "if" in what follows is really innocently intended and is not meant to suggest any doubt as to whether you agree with what I say. It is this: if you will see to it that anti-Roman touchiness doesn’t spread among your friends; if, since no definitions are to be expected, you concede to Roman declarations only that degree of (relative) binding force which they claim far themselves; if you will make it clearer and more explicit that there are in fact (as you say yourself) really binding true propositions of faith, which also endure in time and (as you write) can require in a particular situation an unconditional profession of faith involving life or death (incidentally, who in the Church decides which propositions make such a demand?); if we all (you and I and all who want to be Catholic theologians), with all our strength of heart and mind, serve unstintingly the cause of Jesus in our time and do nothing else (varied as this task may be); if all this is assured, then I would be for waiting and letting our dispute rest for a couple of years. For I don’t think that the question you raise, whether your view may be regarded as Catholic, can or must be decided in the immediate future merely by a Roman verdict and still less that it has to be answered by me. In practice, at least for the time being, a solution to the question can be sought in a different way. Far my own part—I wont disguise the fact—I dont see any solution other than that contained in the definition of Vatican I, correctly interpreted and at the same time applied to the present-day situation. But why should I not be permitted to hope that this interpretation of Vatican I, which is necessary anyway (since every dogma must be considered afresh in the light of the particular mental climate of the time, even though it must not be reinterpreted), and your opinion, better expressed and given a more Catholic stamp, can be made to coincide?

I know that there is a great deal in your letter on which I have not touched. I would have had to write more than is possible in a letter of this kind. So I am not even starting on many of the themes. But the reader of both letters should remember this if he wants to be fair to mine. Presumably we shall see one another shortly at the Concilium conference in Dublin. We certainly dont want to discuss our controversy there. But I am very much looking forward to a friendly meeting.


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8 years 5 months ago
Who decuded it was a neuralgic topic? Your article would beg to differ? As would James Carroll's new book and.....
Michael Barberi
8 years 5 months ago
Regarding the Doctrine of Infallibility, there were obvious differences of opinion between these two great theologians. There is no doubt that both men did not want their differences to ruin their respect for each other or their friendship. Nor did they want any of their common opponents to use such differences of opinion to further controversy in the Church. My response to the subject of Infallibility is from an ordinary Catholic lay person's point of view. I believe my views reflect the opinion of many Catholics today. 1. The concept of Papal Infallibility was not a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church until 1869. For those who don't remember this period, it was Pope Pius IX that forcefully pushed through the ecumenical council the doctrine of Infallibility. Pope Pius IX was the Pope who issued the infamous Syllabus of Errors in 1864, a severely criticized document both within and outside the Church. 2. Shortly earlier, in 1858, it was Pope Pius IX who kidnapped a young Jewish child and held the child against his parents' wishes until adulthood. The facts: A young Christian woman secretly baptized a sick child, Edgardo Mortara, in the Jewish home where she was a servant. The child was only one year old at the time. The Inquisition in Bolgona investigated the matter. Despite problems with the woman's story, the police were sent to take the boy away for his parents and brought to Rome. Bologna was still part of the Pope's temporal domain, so the police were his officials. The boys' parents protested but to no avail. The Pope maintained that he was defending spiritual values against a secular world indifferent to matters of faith. In other words, a Christian boy could not be trusted to be brought up by Jewish parents. After all, he was baptized a Catholic. Loud and frequent protests from officials from around the world could not alter the Pope's decision. The boy remained the captive of the Vatican until adulthood. Eventually, Edgardo completed his Catholic education and became a priest. 3. My point about numbers 1 and 2 is that errors of the past (or very poor judgment) do not take away from the fundamental principles of the Catholic faith and the word of God. From AD 31 to AD 1869, no Pope thought it important to issue a Doctrine of Infallibility. This does not mean that a doctrine of the Church must be instituted in a specific time period to be meaningful. However, Infallibility has always been a very controversial issue in the Church ever since 1869. 4. If being a good Roman Catholic means accepting and believing wholeheartedly in Papal Infallibility, then I suppose many Church members are not good Catholics. The belief or not in this dogma does not, have anything to do with your relationship with God or with Salvation. Nor does is it a measure of your Catholicity or importance to God. 5. It is said that Infallibility is exercised only when the Pope "speaks from the chair of Peter". For most Catholics, this is very confusing. In fact, most Catholics do not know that the Pope only used this doctrine twice since 1869. Both times it concerned Mary, the Mother of God; the doctrines of her Immaculate Conception and Assumption. Considering all the issues the Church has faced in the past, and is facing today, one would think the Infallibility doctrine would have been used more often. Perhaps there is a reason for its exceptionally rare usage. I wonder what Hans Kung and Karl Rahner would say today of my response? Respectfully, Mike Barberi
Paul Louisell
8 years 5 months ago
Great, if difficult, reading. Two brilliant men of faith discussing their differences in a civil "Christian" manner. Keep the letters coming.

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