Hans Küng is one of the most important theologians of our times, but also a controversial figure. He has once again put forth an outstanding piece of work: his memoirs. In this fascinating autobiography Küng gives a frank and outspoken account of the first four decades of his life. He tells of his childhood days in Switzerland and his decision to become a priest, of his doubts and struggles as he studied in Rome and in Paris, and of his experiences as a professor in Tübingen, where he received a chair at the age of thirty-one. As he looks back over his early years in Rome, his contributions to Vatican II, and his struggles for a church in service of the gospel rather than structure, he not only remembers but reveals. It is this revelation that gives us an authentic account of the conflicts behind the scenes. The personalities and the politics, the splendor and the squalor of hierarchs, theologians, and politicians are laid bare in these pages.
In his introduction Küng indicates why he is writing his memoirs at this time and not later. It is for the cause that he firmly believes: true form of the Catholic Church, the ecumenical world, indeed of Christianity generally. For both personal and political reasons, he was convinced that an account of his life should appear now. For Küng, he saw a new period of the world and church, and felt he had to capture that moment while he is still able to write. Of course, Küng recognizes that any history, including the history of his life, is interpreted history. But as autobiography it is history that he has interpreted himself, and so it has authenticity of its own. His voice is one that counters harmonizing historians who in the most recent histories of the church, theology, or councils conceal unwelcome developments and trivialize conflicts. An autobiography with first-hand information can contribute towards avoiding hypotheses, conjectures, and false interpretations. In his work, Küng is concerned with historical truth, which does not allow any confusion between reality and invention, fact and fiction. As an involved witness to our time and as a Christian, Küng attempts to combine intensity of experience with clarity of analysis in order to understand the past better in the light of the present.
This work consists of nine chapters, each one about 30-40 pages. Because of the length of the book, perhaps, one might be tempted to skip chapter one, which deals with family and childhood years, and move to chapter two, the beginning of priesthood studies. However, it is the first chapter which reveals where the roots for Küng's passion for freedom, conviction, and determination are set. His family roots him in his clear and free thinking, the political events of his country make him listen, read, and act in a new way, and his parish priest, pastoral and open to the world, influences him along the way of priesthood.
Küng's book offers an acute analysis, compelling in its drama, of meetings with presidents like John F. Kennedy, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, popes such as John XXIII and Paul VI, and great theologians like Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Edward Schillebeeckx, Gregory Baum, Leon Suenens, to name but a few. Of course, of interest to all of us is Küng's working, not only as a Vatican II theologian but also a colleague at University of Tübingen, with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
With its rich thought and vivid narrative, this book paints a moving picture of Küng's personal conviction: Christianity characterized not by domination of an official church but by Jesus. For Küng, everything is examined against the backdrop of the life of Jesus and the New Testament Church.
Küng's book is a valuable contribution to the history of Vatican II. The insights that it shares with us show the struggles that existed in reforming the church. While some criticized and even condemned Küng's writings, others saw them as the challenges that the church must embrace. Probably his memoirs will be received in the same way. His explicit openness with details on the inside workings of Vatican II will be rejected by some people, but will be valued by many others.
At a time when there is so much discussion on the church, its constitution and its mission, this book would serve as a valuable resource. In sharing his experience of Vatican II and his image of the church, Küng challenges all his readers to examine their images of the church in an exegetical and historical-critical method. Therefore, every Christian college/university, school of theology, and parish adult theology programs would benefit greatly from this book.