Hans KṺNG. Can We Save the Catholic Church? New York: HarperCollins US, 2014. pp. 368. $16.99 pb. ISBN 978-00-075-2202-6. Reviewed by Paul MISNER, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
As one can see from the title, Hans Küng has written a study in his old age that reflects a dire conviction about the state of the Catholic Church, more specifically its administration. Namely, the Catholic body is suffering from disabilities that are severely hampering its mission. “We” can take measures to cure our body’s afflictions, but only at the cost of changes in our ecclesial way of life, cures that some will see as worse than the disease.
The health-care analogy is Küng’s, and the outline of the book can be summed up accordingly. First, in three central historical chapters, he presents a detailed diagnosis (on the analogy of a clinical “etiology”) of the ailments threatening the well-being of the Church. Having concluded that they stem from, as it were, advanced “osteoporosis” (p. 259), he then proposes the corresponding therapeutic measures to be taken. These are based on an analysis of how the New Testament witness of Scripture bears on the contemporary world in which Catholicism now lives and works. One can see immediately that the Second Vatican Council in its most groundbreaking pronouncements furnishes the inspiration for this analysis. Küng’s own involvement with Vatican II began during its preparatory phase with his first international publishing success, The Council, Reform and Reunion of 1960.
The intervening half century has only sharpened Küng’s instinct for ferreting out the deficiencies in practice and theory of the institutional Church. After the Introduction, he does not dwell unduly on the sexual abuse scandals of the clergy (pp. 216-17), but he sees them as rooted in the illnesses that he focuses on. These are, in cursory summation, a “Roman monopoly over power and truth;” juridicism and clericalism; hostility to sexuality and lingering misogyny. These are shown to have infected the Latin Church for centuries. Their pertinence to the travails of the postconciliar Church is nothing if not evident.
Küng’s posture in all of this is that of an involved clinician. The historical facts he reports are generally reliable, even though (as befits an exposition for a broader public) there is little scholarly documentation; his connecting of the dots may be overdrawn at times. Here and there one encounters interesting bits of very personal observations or judgments. Take for example the case of Gerhard Müller, appointed to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI and subsequently made cardinal by Pope Francis. Küng depicts him as a worse clericalist than Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst (who in the meantime has been forced to resign from the bishopric of Limburg amid great publicity). He cites Müller as cracking down on critical discussion of church reform as if it were simply anti-Catholic (p. 40). It would seem, almost in passing, that Küng is defying the CDF to issue a monition against his book.
In Disputed Truth, he sounded the call. One unmistakable instance is his account of the case of the Belgian Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens, leader of the progressive majority at Vatican II. He cited an April 1969 interview (note the year), in which Suenens spoke of “the `system’ which holds [the Pope] captive. . . . The abolition of this system is desirable—also for the Holy Father; people have been complaining about it for centuries without really succeeding in detaching themselves from it and reshaping it. For even if the Popes succeed one another, the Curia remains.” By 1972, however, seeing that his fellow bishops were not supporting him in this initiative, Suenens switched to another avenue of enlivening the faithful, namely the new charismatic movements. Henceforth he dropped references to institutional church reform from his public utterances.
Joseph Ratzinger naturally comes in for special attention here as in Küng’s memoirs. Their relationship, positive for a long time despite different theological approaches, goes back to their work at the Council as the two youngest periti there—now the two most notable surviving witnesses of that event. There is even a brief theological analysis of where their basic divergence lies, in their respective views of post-scriptural tradition. In 2005, shortly after Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI, they met for a long and respectful conversation one afternoon at Castel Gondolfo. Benedict soon disappointed; he takes his place here with John Paul II in Küng’s category of “restoration popes.” In particular, he targets Ratzinger’s failure to attack the mania for secrecy in the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in line with contemporary standards of transparency and human rights.
After the diagnosis, the prescriptions for treatment: what therapies can be applied? In a way, the doctor’s orders resemble what the Roncalli pope recommended: “Open the windows!” Küng’s overall label is “ecumenical therapy” in a broad sense. Take seriously the contributions of non-papal Christianity once again, he urges, especially the synodal polity of the Eastern Churches (first millennium) and the biblical sources stressed by the Reformation Churches. The Enlightenment (standing in for modern developments in the cultural, public, and political spheres) also offers resources for the reform of church institutions. Freedom, autonomy, democracy and pluralism are values compatible, indeed congenial, with modern biblical and Catholic Christianity. For all dimensions of the Church, the basic attitudes revealed in the “historical Jesus Christ” must constitute the guiding criteria (pp. 252-56).
Reform of the mindset in the Roman Curia is a must, starting with more utilitarian and less pompous titles. Is “summus pontifex” still appropriate? There is no excuse for a profusion of titular bishoprics or the title of monsignor with every routine appointment. Nor need one tap the dwindling reservoir of priests for every such office. Lay women could be a leaven in the recipe, if they don’t all come from the movimenti favored by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Some such reform is in process for the Vatican bank, it appears. As to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, the CDF simply has to be abolished, consigning to the past the ingrained patterns of control it has inherited from the Inquisition. Canon law needs a new foundation and structure, not just another updating. Priests and bishops should be allowed to marry. Catholics and Protestants should be able to worship together in joint celebrations of the Eucharist. Küng provides reasons for each of these proposals in a few pages.
This book, I think, is destined to resonate in the chanceries and dwellings of ecclesiastics for a long time, depending on the reception it finds among the Catholic faithful. Beyond providing an impressive list of the actual harm wrought by “the Roman System,” its most important contribution may be to provide a historical etiology of the obvious symptoms of dysfunction in the Roman Catholic communion. At the end of the papacy of Pope Benedict and the beginning of that of Pope Francis, responsive church members and leaders can better chart a course of recovery with its help.