An Open Letter to Hans Küng
Apr 21, 2010
by George Weigel
A decade and a half ago, a former colleague of yours among the younger progressive theologians at Vatican II told me of a friendly warning he had given you at the beginning of the Council’s second session. As this distinguished biblical scholar and proponent of Christian-Jewish reconciliation remembered those heady days, you had taken to driving around Rome in a fire-engine red Mercedes convertible, which your friend presumed had been one fruit of the commercial success of your book, The Council: Reform and Reunion.
This automotive display struck your colleague as imprudent and unnecessarily self-advertising, given that some of your more adventurous opinions, and your talent for what would later be called the sound-bite, were already raising eyebrows and hackles in the Roman Curia. So, as the story was told me, your friend called you aside one day and said, using a French term you both understood, “Hans, you are becoming too evident.”
As the man who single-handedly invented a new global personality-type—the dissident theologian as international media star—you were not, I take it, overly distressed by your friend’s warning. In 1963, you were already determined to cut a singular path for yourself, and you were media-savvy enough to know that a world press obsessed with the man-bites-dog story of the dissenting priest-theologian would give you a megaphone for your views. You were, I take it, unhappy with the late John Paul II for trying to dismantle that story-line by removing your ecclesiastical mandate to teach as a professor of Catholic theology; your subsequent, snarling put-down of Karol Wojtyla’s alleged intellectual inferiority in one volume of your memoirs ranked, until recently, as the low-point of a polemical career in which you have become most evident as a man who can concede little intelligence, decency, or good will in his opponents.
I say “until recently,” however, because your April 16 open letter (click here) to the world’s bishops, which I first read in the Irish Times, set new standards for that distinctive form of hatred known as odium theologicum and for mean-spirited condemnation of an old friend who had, on his rise to the papacy, been generous to you while encouraging aspects of your current work.
Before we get to your assault on the integrity of Pope Benedict XVI, however, permit me to observe that your article makes it painfully clear that you have not been paying much attention to the matters on which you pronounce with an air of infallible self-assurance that would bring a blush to the cheek of Pius IX.
You seem blithely indifferent to the doctrinal chaos besetting much of European and North American Protestantism, which has created circumstances in which theologically serious ecumenical dialogue has become gravely imperiled.
You take the most rabid of the Pius XII-baiters at face value, evidently unaware that the weight of recent scholarship is shifting the debate in favor of Pius' courage in defense of European Jewry (whatever one may think of his exercise of prudence).
You misrepresent the effects of Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg Lecture, which you dismiss as having “caricatured” Islam. In fact, the Regensburg Lecture refocused the Catholic-Islamic dialogue on the two issues that complex conversation urgently needs to engage—religious freedom as a fundamental human right that can be known by reason, and the separation of religious and political authority in the twenty-first century state.
You display no comprehension of what actually prevents HIV/AIDS in Africa, and you cling to the tattered myth of “overpopulation” at a moment when fertility rates are dropping around the globe and Europe is entering a demographic winter of its own conscious creation.
You seem oblivious to the scientific evidence underwriting the Church’s defense of the moral status of the human embryo, while falsely charging that the Catholic Church opposes stem-cell research.
Why do you not know these things? You are an obviously intelligent man; you once did groundbreaking work in ecumenical theology. What has happened to you?
What has happened, I suggest, is that you have lost the argument over the meaning and the proper hermeneutics of Vatican II. That explains why you relentlessly pursue your fifty-year quest for a liberal Protestant Catholicism, at precisely the moment when the liberal Protestant project is collapsing from its inherent theological incoherence. And that is why you have now engaged in a vicious smear of another former Vatican II colleague, Joseph Ratzinger. Before addressing that smear, permit me to continue briefly on the hermeneutics of the Council.
While you are not the most theologically accomplished exponent of what Benedict XVI called the “hermeneutics of rupture” in his Christmas 2005 address to the Roman Curia, you are, without doubt, the most internationally visible member of that aging group which continues to argue that the period 1962–1965 marked a decisive trapgate in the history of the Catholic Church: the moment of a new beginning, in which Tradition would be dethroned from its accustomed place as a primary source of theological reflection, to be replaced by a Christianity that increasingly let “the world” set the Church’s agenda (as a motto of the World Council of Churches then put it).
The struggle between this interpretation of the Council, and that advanced by Council fathers like Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac, split the post-conciliar Catholic theological world into warring factions with contending journals: Concilium for you and your progressive colleagues, Communio for those you continue to call “reactionaries.” That the Concilium project became ever more implausible over time—and that a younger generation of theologians, especially in North America, gravitated toward the Communio orbit—could not have been a happy experience for you. And that the Communio project should have decisively shaped the deliberations of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, called by John Paul II to celebrate Vatican II’s achievements and assess its full implementation on the twentieth anniversary of its conclusion, must have been another blow.
Yet I venture to guess that the iron really entered your soul when, on December 22, 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI—the man whose appointment to the theological faculty at Tübingen you had once helped arrange—addressed the Roman Curia and suggested that the argument was over: and that the conciliar “hermeneutics of reform,” which presumed continuity with the Great Tradition of the Church, had won the day over “the hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture.”
Perhaps, while you and Benedict XVI were drinking beer at Castel Gandolfo in the summer of 2005, you somehow imagined that Ratzinger had changed his mind on this central question. He obviously had not. Why you ever imagined he might accept your view of what an “ongoing renewal of the Church” would involve is, frankly, puzzling. Nor does your analysis of the contemporary Catholic situation become any more plausible when one reads, further along in your latest op-ed broadside, that recent popes have been “autocrats” against the bishops; again, one wonders whether you have been paying sufficient attention. For it seems self-evidently clear that Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have been painfully reluctant—some would say, unfortunately reluctant—to discipline bishops who have shown themselves incompetent or malfeasant and have lost the capacity to teach and lead because of that: a situation many of us hope will change, and change soon, in light of recent controversies.
In a sense, of course, none of your familiar complaints about post-conciliar Catholic life is new. It does, however, seem ever more counterintuitive for someone who truly cares about the future of the Catholic Church as a witness to God’s truth for the world’s salvation to press the line you persistently urge upon us: that a credible Catholicism will tread the same path trod in recent decades by various Protestant communities which, wittingly or not, have followed one or another version of your counsel to a adopt a hermeneutics of rupture with the Great Tradition of Christianity. Still, that is the single-minded stance you have taken since one of your colleagues worried about your becoming too evident; and as that stance has kept you evident, at least on the op-ed pages of newspapers who share your reading of Catholic tradition, I expect it’s too much to expect you to change, or even modify, your views, even if every bit of empirical evidence at hand suggests that the path you propose is the path to oblivion for the churches.
What can be expected, though, is that you comport yourself with a minimum of integrity and elementary decency in the controversies in which you engage. I understand odium theologicum as well as anyone, but I must, in all candor, tell you that you crossed a line that should not have been crossed in your recent article, when you wrote the following:
There is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (1981-2005).That, sir, is not true. I refuse to believe that you knew this to be false and wrote it anyway, for that would mean you had willfully condemned yourself as a liar. But on the assumption that you did not know this sentence to be a tissue of falsehoods, then you are so manifestly ignorant of how competencies over abuse cases were assigned in the Roman Curia prior to Ratzinger’s seizing control of the process and bringing it under CDF’s competence in 2001, then you have forfeited any claim to be taken seriously on this, or indeed any other matter involving the Roman Curia and the central governance of the Catholic Church.
As you perhaps do not know, I have been a vigorous, and I hope responsible, critic of the way abuse cases were (mis)handled by individual bishops and by the authorities in the Curia prior to the late 1990s, when then-Cardinal Ratzinger began to fight for a major change in the handling of these cases. (If you are interested, I refer you to my 2002 book, The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church.)
I therefore speak with some assurance of the ground on which I stand when I say that your description of Ratzinger’s role as quoted above is not only ludicrous to anyone familiar with the relevant history, but is belied by the experience of American bishops who consistently found Ratzinger thoughtful, helpful, deeply concerned about the corruption of the priesthood by a small minority of abusers, and distressed by the incompetence or malfeasance of bishops who took the promises of psychotherapy far more seriously than they ought, or lacked the moral courage to confront what had to be confronted.
I recognize that authors do not write the sometimes awful subheads that are put on op-ed pieces. Nonetheless, you authored a piece of vitriol—itself utterly unbecoming a priest, an intellectual, or a gentleman—that permitted the editors of the Irish Times to slug your article: “Pope Benedict has made worse just about everything that is wrong with the Catholic Church and is directly responsible for engineering the global cover-up of child rape perpetrated by priests, according to this open letter to all Catholic bishops.” That grotesque falsification of the truth perhaps demonstrates where odium theologicum can lead a man. But it is nonetheless shameful.
Permit me to suggest that you owe Pope Benedict XVI a public apology, for what, objectively speaking, is a calumny that I pray was informed in part by ignorance (if culpable ignorance). I assure you that I am committed to a thoroughgoing reform of the Roman Curia and the episcopate, projects I described at some length in God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, a copy of which, in German, I shall be happy to send you. But there is no path to true reform in the Church that does not run through the steep and narrow valley of the truth. The truth was butchered in your article in the Irish Times. And that means that you have set back the cause of reform.
With the assurance of my prayers,
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.