The towering Catholic theologian Hans Küng passed away last week at the age of 93. Obituaries, tributes, and assessments of his contributions to interreligious dialogue were published throughout the Catholic and secular media. Here, Dr. Joseph Prabhu reflects on his relationship with Küng and the many new paradigms of thought and expression he brought to the Catholic Church—Ed.
We are living through times of profound transition. An old order is clearly passing and a new one is being born, slowly and painfully. At times like these, the world needs dreamers who stir the imagination and rouse the soul. One such dreamer was the late Hans Küng, whom I am privileged to have known and to have counted as a friend and colleague.
I first saw Küng in 1954 at the World Marian Congress in 1954 in Bombay, India. He would have been 36 then, and I was 8. I never got to meet him then, because I was a student in Calcutta and only got to see and hear the radio and newspaper coverage of the event. He was a dapper figure in his black tailor-made suits and colorful ties. His speech went well over my head, but my parents and teachers conveyed his main idea: that it was a good thing that such an international congress had been organized and that it was meeting in India, which had newly won its independence from colonial rule. The Indian press and general audience were suitably flattered. The primary impression I carried away was an aesthetic one, as he was a forceful and stylish speaker.
I first got to actually see him in person in 1972, when I was a student of philosophy and theology in Heidelberg, Germany, and went to Tübingen to hear him lecture. He had just published his groundbreaking text, Infallible? An Inquiry (1970), in which he traced the history of the official Catholic dogma and challenged its ecclesial basis. There was a large crowd gathered and much stir and bustle; I was just one member of that crowd who wanted to hear him. I came away struck by his courage and the confident manner in which he presented his painstaking research. He had clearly done his homework, and was able to expose the weakness of the official Catholic line. He was also a historical thinker, who saw that thought and ideas change in time. No greater evidence of such historical change was perceptible than the Second Vatican Council, with its 65 different constitutions, decrees, and declarations spanning the sacred liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium), ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caratitas), Dialogue with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), and the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).
Küng had played a prominent part in the council as a peritus, or expert consultant, together with Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, two of the brightest minds in the Catholic world, along with Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and Edward Schillebeeckx. (As the chair of the Catholic faculty at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s, Küng had hired Ratzinger, an invitation that Ratzinger accepted until 1968 when he left for the University of Regensburg.) The Catholic Church was changing dramatically. It was now a church of dialogue and responsible change rather than a church stuck in a static past of monarchical power and absolutism; it was at last ready to meet the challenges of the modern world thoughtfully and responsibly. Its Roman and absolutist ways still remained, of course, but they were slowly evolving thanks to the ideas and practices of these pioneering theologians.
Yet change in the Catholic Church occurs at a glacial pace, and Küng’s daring vision was fiercely resisted. He was stripped of his missio canonica, or license to teach as a Catholic theologian, both at the University of Tübingen and at other Catholic departments. However, he was hired at Tübingen’s secular Institute for Ecumenical Research while remaining a priest in good standing. Being a priest and participating in sound and imaginative liturgy was always important to Küng. There was a heathy balance between his spiritual and scholarly life, between faith and reason. Dialectical thinker that he was, it was important to him to fashion a holistic theology in which worship, prayer, faith, and reason all played their part.
In 1993, Küng met with a number of spiritual leaders from around the world and was given the charge by the Parliament of the World’s Religions to draft the “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic,” a code of universal values, ethics, and action based on his conviction that there would be no peace on earth unless there was peace among the world’s religions, and no peace among religions unless there was sincere dialogue among religious practitioners. It was an enormous undertaking that spread over 25 years of continual discussion addressing five main ethical principles and values: 1) nonviolence and basic respect for life; 2) solidarity and a just economic order; 3) tolerance and a life of truthfulness; 4) equal rights and partnership between men and women; and 5) sustainability and care for the earth. It is a document that is still being discussed and to some extent implemented by the United Nations and other international bodies today.
After his retirement from active teaching in 2011, Küng cofounded the Global Ethic Foundation at Tübingen as an active body that aims to spread peace and harmony through interfaith and intercultural ethical dialogue. I was pleased to meet him in person at the Barcelona Parliament of Religions in 2004, and we remained friends and colleagues ever since. I visited him several times at his elegant home in Tübingen in my capacity as the Chair of the Committee of the Melbourne Parliament in 2009, after which we continued to keep in touch. The work of both the Melbourne Parliament and of his Global Ethic Foundation remained important to both of us. I am pleased to see its work continue, given how vital such dialogues are, especially in a fractured and divided world.
The interconnected challenges posed by climate change, economic inequality, racism, sexism, and militarism—to mention just the most pressing problems—demand our intelligent and thoughtful consideration and action. Pope Francis is one of those who is setting an example, particularly in the new book he has produced with the help of Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. It is noteworthy that while Küng was quite critical of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, he saw more promise in Pope Francis. In 2019, on the 40th anniversary of having his teaching license as an official Catholic theologian revoked by the church, Küng exchanged a series of letters with Pope Francis. Afterward he told the German Catholic media that he felt, on the basis of this exchange, that he had been “informally rehabilitated ecclesiastically.”
The visions and dreams of Pope Francis and Hans Küng largely cohere. It is up to us to try to bring them to fruition. There is much at stake.
Joseph Prabhu is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles, and the author of books on Raimon Panikkar and Gandhi. His essay “Our Ecological Crisis and the Path of Renewal” appeared in the October 2019 edition of Today’s American Catholic.
Photo: “Hans Küng en la UNED” by Uned Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia is licensed under CC BY 2.0