When Hans Küng's 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.
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, Küng's summing up and answer to his critics in 200 pages and about 20 pages of documents, including Küng's 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