Hans Küng: A Creative Theologian and Catholic Priest

By: Thomas Dabre

April 29, 2021

Hans Küng and the Global Ethic

I was delighted to note the statement of Cardinal Walter Kasper that Pope Francis asked him to convey his greetings and blessings to Hans Küng, in the spirit of Christian communion: “Hans was overjoyed. It was important for him. He now felt reconciled with the Church and with Pope Francis.”

There were serious issues of a doctrinal nature in the theology of Hans Küng that led the Vatican to derecognize him as a Roman Catholic theologian, in 1979. 

Therefore, it was quite humane and magnanimous on the part of Pope Francis and his advisors not to open up his case again, as he was already 93 years old, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and on his deathbed.

Unlike some others, Küng did not leave the Catholic Church and did remain a Catholic priest to his last breath. The Vatican, too, did not strip him of his priesthood. 

A Bridge Builder

The creative and independent theologian that Küng was, his aim was to build bridges with Protestants, various religions, and cultures. He tried to remove misunderstanding about Christian teaching and doctrine among Catholics and Protestants and to promote peace, harmony, and understanding among the religions and cultures of the world. His thesis on Karl Barth, published while Küng was only in his twenties, showed how Barth’s concept of justification by Christ was essentially the same as that of the Church.

The creative and independent theologian that Küng was, his aim was to build bridges with Protestants, various religions, and cultures.

The characteristic perspectives of Küng on the doctrine of justification and ecumenical relations are reflected in various joint declarations between Protestants and the Catholic Church on justification, Mary, and mutual collaboration since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Continued Renewal

The Christian faith calls upon believers to constantly live new lives. Jesus spoke of the new wine in new wine skins (Matthew 9:16–17), indicating that we should shun the old, hackneyed ways and live the fullness of new life in him. Quite in keeping with the Gospel imperative of a continual process of renewal, the Church has stood by the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda, meaning the Church should always be renewed.

This commitment to renewal is unambiguously embraced in Lumen Gentium, a document from the Second Vatican Council which states that “the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal” (no. 8). In truth, the documents of the Second Vatican Council indicate, not without the influence of Hans Küng, the path of reform and renewal in the comprehensive mission of the Church.

Quite in keeping with the Gospel imperative of a continual process of renewal, the Church has stood by the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda, meaning the Church should always be renewed.

The entire history of the Church is witness to the process of renewal, emblematically indicated by the various local, regional, and ecumenical councils. The desired renewal, however, has been interpreted in diverse manners. 

Realistically, the Church will have to live with a dialectical tension given the bipolarity of change and continuity, tradition and modernity. However, possessed of the charisms of the Holy Spirit, the inherent tension will have to be lived creatively. That is where we realize the significance of Küng’s broad, open, liberal, and ecumenical theological explorations, imbued with the demand of ecclesia semper reformanda

Change and Continuity

The fountainhead of the Church is Jesus Christ and the fullness of life in him. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). So paradoxically, in the pastoral imperative of renewal and change, the Christological norm remains intact and permanent. While the Church seeks to carry on with the process of change and renewal, she has to be faithful to her Lord.

Küng was endowed with an unfettered mental capacity to enter into the core of the Christocentric faith. Already in his mid-thirties, he made an impact on the Second Vatican Council, for which he served as a theological expert along with Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope. It cannot be forgotten that both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI recognized the authenticity of Hans Küng’s commitment to the Church, to which he remained faithful till his last breath, despite his problems with the Vatican on the correct interpretation of the doctrine of faith.

While the Church seeks to carry on with the process of change and renewal, she has to be faithful to her Lord.

His book on papal infallibility was also an attempt to think outside the box. Individual Catholics may find it difficult to understand the doctrine of papal infallibility. Even so, the Church is the community of faith in Jesus Christ, as the entire New Testament and especially the Acts of the Apostles make it abundantly clear. Already, the people under the leadership of Moses were gradually being formed into a community of faith, ultimately to be fulfilled in the Church community. 

Any human society requires a guiding and governing authority, so also the Church, endowed with a hierarchical authority with the preeminent position of Peter, along with the College of Apostles, whose successors are bishops.

Given the legitimate concerns regarding papal infallibility, it cannot, however, be ignored that the doctrine was endorsed by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Along with ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church must also embrace the dictum sentire cum ecclesia. This means members of the Church form one community of the people of God, thinking and feeling with this community. This, of course, is a big challenge before creative and independent theologians like Hans Küng.

Paradigm Shift in Theology

It was quite in keeping with his character that Küng sought to apply the concept of paradigm shift in theology. Thomas Kuhn was the first to speak of paradigm shift in the history of science and its development over time. There is some meaning in and justification for the use of paradigm shift in the Church’s self-understanding of her pilgrimage, as she seeks to purify and renew herself constantly. 

The language of paradigm change in theology suggested by Küng does contain helpful elements for reform and renewal, in fidelity to the Deposit of Faith.

It is obvious that the faith must be understood in the context of changing times with new needs, aspirations, problems, and different mindsets. Growing familiarity with a variety of religions and cultures, as well as unimagined developments in science and technology, bring up new issues, problems, and challenges. All of these certainly call for new approaches, perspectives, and solutions both in the Church and theology. The language of paradigm change in theology suggested by Küng does contain helpful elements for reform and renewal, in fidelity to the Deposit of Faith. 

A Global Ethic

His restless passion for a renewed Church and a renewed theology led Küng to the pursuit of the global ethic.

Küng was convinced that there will be no world peace without interreligious peace. For the creation of a world of peace, harmony, justice, and joy, he founded the global ethic movement. Küng showed that he was not just an academic turning out controversial books—he was a game changer, a praxis-oriented and visionary theologian, striving to make a difference in the prevailing situation.

Küng showed that he was not just an academic turning out controversial books—he was a game changer, a praxis-oriented and visionary theologian, striving to make a difference in the prevailing situation. 

The moral advice of Jesus Christ, “As you would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Mathew 7:12; Luke 6:31), is the leitmotif of Küng’s global ethic. It guided him to find similar statements in different world religions. On the basis of this foundational biblical utterance, he developed the concept of a global ethic comprised of the following elements: 

  • a fundamental attitude of humane treatment toward every human being;
  • a culture of non-violence and respect for life; 
  • a culture of solidarity and a just economic order;
  • a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; 
  • a commitment to equal rights and partnership between men and women; 
  • and respect and love for one another.

Küng believed that on the basis of such a common minimum, a new world order of a united humanity amid a plurality of religions and cultures is a realizable goal.

While it is not possible to reconcile some of the positions of Küng with the doctrine of the Church, his steadfast commitment to the Church of Christ can hardly be underestimated. The questions and issues he raised and perspectives he emphasized will be of significant help as the Church community strives to renew itself and grow in its self-understanding as a universal community of hope and love.

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