Few theologians maintain such a global reach as does Hans Küng, a priest of Lucerne who has spent most of his life and career in Tübingen as a professor at that city’s University and lately the head of its Ecumenical Institute before retiring in 1996. In this second installment of his memoirs, Küng spares no modesty in giving his rendition of some of the most harried events of the post-conciliar Church, many of which found him at the center of the controversies. The first volume (My Struggle for Freedom, 2003) explored his life in the years leading to the Second Vatican Council and Küng’s role as a peritus. In Disputed Truth, Küng focuses on the extensive lecturing tours he has made in the Council’s aftermath, the personalities and places he has encountered, as well as his numerous publications and the vicissitudes of his exchanges with the hierarchy. What comes through on every page is that this is his side of the story.
From the start of the second volume, Küng hoped to highlight two trajectories, namely, the career of Joseph Ratzinger and his own. Initially seeing Ratzinger as on a parallel course, even a partnership in academic theology, Küng’s assessment gradually changed after Vatican II, especially when Ratzinger abandoned Tübingen for Regensberg in 1969, which Küng suggests is like moving from Harvard to Idaho State University. He began to view his contemporary as a climber of intractable and near sycophantic obedience to the magisterium, for which he is rewarded with important posts culminating in a red hat and eventually the papacy. This spoiled Ratzinger’s potential gifts to scholarship, he believes, and indeed, wonders what significance can be read into Ratzinger’s comparatively meager oeuvre in the wake of the future pontiff’s Introduction to Christianity (1968). Through it all, Küng eschews any desire for ecclesiastical office, but hopes merely “to be left alone” to do his work as a church theologian. This is repeated so often, however, that one wonders if at times Küng lets an unacknowledged enviousness overshadow his criticism.
The main theological point of disagreement with Ratzinger is Küng’s insistence on the use of the historical-critical method, especially in the biblical material related to Jesus. This colors all other debates in which Küng finds himself, for what is at stake is nothing short of the free exploration of ideas over against a sheepish capitulation to authority. He finds many Christians who are altogether resigned to cowing to what the higher clergy have traditionally taught. For them, that constitutes the scriptural core of faith. Historical-criticism does not and cannot enter in. For Ratzinger, writes Küng, the utility of the method is made bankrupt when eliminating the element of faith from the study of scripture. Church ministry and tradition must have their place so that the sacral quality of the book remains undefiled or unassailable. Küng believes this has been a constant in Ratzinger’s writings over the last forty years, right on through to the pope’s most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (2007). In truth, Ratzinger’s work on hermeneutics is quite probative of both the historical-critical problems that have exercised biblical scholars since Vatican II as well as the texts’ more cosmic implications relative to a theology of history.
By contrast, Küng’s methodology—evidenced most spectacularly in On Being a Christian (reprinted, 2008)—hopes to open new vistas on faith precisely by boring down into the historical realities of the text by means of a dispassionate examination and critique. Getting closer to the reality of Jesus through a de-mystification of the text is what is needed in a modern Church, if it is to stay vibrant and rooted in truth. He follows this course of reading not to tear down the popular image of Jesus, but to inform it—to lift up Jesus as the eschatological prophet, whose message of justice and peace and hopefulness necessarily has relevance for today. Küng notes that his dialogue partners have been people like Ernst Käsemann and Jürgen Moltmann, who attempt to think about the implications of the historical Jesus and do so in an ecumenically engaged way. Such partners are lacking for Ratzinger. Probably to Küng’s great consternation, the most recent Synod of Bishops on scripture in the Church took its cue, not surprisingly, from a decidedly papal hermeneutic, going so far as to suggest a compendium of magisterial teaching on scripture in order to avoid the pitfalls, in the Pope’s words, of an “exegesis that becomes historiography.” That Küng’s memoir forces this exegetical question is one of its singular merits, even if it is done in black and white terms.
So stark are these contrasts that Küng frequently strains to express them or lapses into petty tirades against those who do not agree with him. The tone of his writing is often tinged with disgust at what he views as the toadying rabble, several of whom he once counted as academic colleagues. For someone who has read Küng avidly for the last fifteen years and who has heard him lecture in person, this is very surprising and disappointing. One gets the sense that Küng is getting in his last licks, partly as payback for some very rough treatment at the hands of the Church’s authorities—a process that lasted several years, involved the German civil authorities, and ended with the revocation of his mandatum to teach as a Catholic theologian. Many of these men are now deceased, so it will be up to historians to plow through the documentation written by them for a more objective picture of the ‘disputed truths.’ It should be said that, during the investigation of Küng’s writings on infallibility and the Marian dogmas, he himself (despite his numerous requests) had hoped to have access to the dossier of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This material has never been published, nor seen by Küng, and, of course, absent these documents, one is forced to judge the veracity of Küng’s claims through his own optic. But from his side, Küng’s account is as thorough as one could hope. Now, at least, the burden of historical transparency lies with the CDF.
As memoir, Küng gives a very long litany of his encounters with important personages in politics (e.g., he recalled his 1963 visit with President John Kennedy both in volume one and volume two), collegial friendships, and theology. He lays out his side of the conflict with Karl Rahner, S.J., who scolded a less mature Küng for his ecclesiological brashness. We see large extracts of letters to him and from him which will fill in gaps in our knowledge of church history. Yet, we do not find much more than passing references on Küng’s efforts at building a global ethic or of his participation in the Parliament of World Religions or his role in Kofi Annan’s “Group of Eminent Persons” which was convened to help construct a “dialogue of civilizations.” Nor are we privy to much that was spoken between Küng and Pope Ratzinger when they met for several hours in 2005. Küng is also sphinx-like on the moments when he experienced self-doubt. Instead we come away with an image of a man supremely confident, not only of his intellectual abilities, but also in his pastoral acumen. In the end, there is one absolute truth: he is a survivor. What impresses is a man who is utterly committed to his Church and his place in it.