Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hans Küng on Church Reform: "The Base Must Gather Its Strength and Make Itself Heard"

On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Germany, renowned Catholic theologian Hans Küng (pictured at right) spoke with Der Spiegel about the increasing bureaucratic banality of the Catholic Church and the need for reform.

Following are excerpts from Der Spiegel's two-part conversation with Küng.


Der Spiegel: You and Benedict are traveling along two different paths. You want to reform the Church to keep it alive. The pope is trying to seal off the Church from the outside world and increasingly restrict it to a conservative core, which may possibly survive.

Küng: Indeed. In the past, the Roman system was compared with the communist system, one in which one person had all the say. Today I wonder if we are not perhaps in a phase of “Putinization” of the Catholic Church. Of course I don’t want to compare the Holy Father, as a person, with the unholy Russian statesman. But there are many structural and political similarities. Putin also inherited a legacy of democratic reforms. But he did everything he could to reverse them. In the Church, we had the Council, which initiated renewal and ecumenical understanding. Even pessimists couldn’t have imagined that such setbacks were possible after that. The Polish pope’s restoration policy, beginning in the 1980s, made it possible for the like-minded head of the highly secretive Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), once known as the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition — and it’s still an inquisition, despite its new name — to be elected pope.

Der Spiegel: That’s an audacious comparison.

Küng: It shouldn’t, of course, be overstretched. But unfortunately, even as we acknowledge the positive things, the negative developments that are taking place cannot be overlooked. Practically speaking, both Ratzinger and Putin placed their former associates in key positions and sidelined those they didn’t like. One could also draw other parallels: the disempowerment of the Russian parliament and the Vatican Synod of Bishops; the degradation of Russian provincial governors and of Catholic bishops to make them nothing but recipients of orders; a conformist “nomenclature”; and a resistance to real reforms.

Der Spiegel: What would be the treatment?

Küng: The base must gather its strength and make itself heard, so that the system can no longer circumvent it. . . .

Der Spiegel: More than a year ago, you wrote an open letter to all bishops in the world, in which you offered a detailed explanation of your criticism of the pope and the Roman system. What was the response?

Küng: There are about 5,000 bishops in the world, but none of them dared to comment publicly. This clearly shows that something isn’t right. But if you talk to individual bishops, you often hear: “What you describe is fundamentally true, but nothing can be done about it.” It would be wonderful if a prominent bishop would just say: “This cannot go on. We cannot sacrifice the entire Church to please the Roman bureaucrats.” But so far no one has had the courage to do so. The ideal situation, in my view, would be a coalition of reformist theologians, lay people and pastors open to reform, and bishops prepared to support reform. Of course they would come into conflict with Rome, but they would have to endure that, in a spirit of critical loyalty.

Der Spiegel: That’s what led to the Reformation 500 years ago. But at the time, the Roman system was incapable of understanding the criticism from within the ranks.

Küng: After 500 years, we are surprised that the popes and bishops of the day did not realize that a reform was necessary. Luther didn’t want to divide the Church, but the pope and the bishops were blind. It seems that a similar situation applies today.

. . . Der Spiegel: You don't just want to reduce the power of the pope. You are also calling for an end to celibacy, you want women to be ordained as priests and you want the Church to lift its ban on birth control. Catholics loyal to the pope say that these elements are part of the core values of the Catholic Church. If you peel all of this away, how much of the Church is left?

Küng: What remains is the same Catholic Church that used to exist -- and which was better. I'm not saying that the papacy should be abolished. But we need offices that serve the congregations, and we need the kind of papacy that was practiced by John XXIII. He didn't seek to dominate. Instead, he simply demonstrated that he was there for everyone, including other churches. He laid the groundwork for the Council and a new dawning of ecumenical Christianity. He allowed a new church to come alive.

To read the complete interview, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Vatican II: Lost and Betrayed – Giovanni Franzoni (via
Iglesia Descalza, September 19, 2011).
Fr. Hans Küng On Benedict's Trip To Germany – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (
Enlightened Catholicism, September 22, 2011).
Church "Needs to Undergo Revolution" – Marie Crowe (The Independent, August 28, 2011).

See also the previous PCV posts:
Hans Küng Says Only Radical Reform Can Save the Catholic Church
A Meeting with Hans Küng
A Priest's Call for a Catholic Reformation
Encouragement for Those Disappointed with the Church
A Tradition Worth Returning To
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3)
Urgent Tasks for Church Renewal
"All Voices Must Be Heard": A Response to Archbishop Nienstedt
It's Critical That Catholics Find Their Voice
Let Our Voices Be Heard!


  1. It is difficult for me when I have to disagree with my hero Hans Kung. My apologies for any past failures if there were any! I think that we are witnessing EVOLUTION not reform, not revival, not revolution. Cultural evolution, as has been the trajectory since Homo sapiens began, no, let’s make that -- since advanced life forms began. Human knowledge historically, philosophically and scientifically is where our cues reside. We need to study these signs. So the next council, conference, or gathering should be a great big study hall. And it could be online. In fact that’s the most viable mode. The answers are in the making.

  2. Part of the problem with the concept clarification or the necessary mode of church modification i.e. not reform, revival, or revolution but rather, evolution, is that theologians like Kung, the hierarchy, and searching laity, are coming from this perspective. Website: got Questions?org
    Question: "What is the definition of theology?" Answer: The word “theology” comes from two Greek words that combined mean “the study of God.” Christian theology is simply an attempt to understand God as He is revealed in the Bible. No theology will ever fully explain God and His ways because God is infinitely and eternally higher than we are. Therefore, any attempt to describe Him will fall short (Romans 11:33-36).
    Romans 11:33–36 (ESV)
    33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
    But a given theology may have additional emphases such as liberation, feminist etc.
    Contemporary human knowledge has moved to some extent from the inadequacy of our interpretation of biblical knowledge as well as to the acknowledgement of required knowledge of relevant interdisciplinary scholarship and non-academic expertise. And that is why we need to update our understanding of faith and morals (moral agency). This is cultural evolution (transformation), not reform (restructuring), not revival (restoration), not revolution (rebellion).

  3. As an ecclesiologist who has recently published a study on the question of Catholic papal authority, in which I survey Joseph Ratzinger’s theology very closely, I can say without any doubt that Küng is once again talking rubbish (see my *Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy* from the University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), which is no great surprise as he’s not had an original, much less interesting, thought in half a century.

    Evidence against this thesis of centralization of power is abundant, though facts never get in the way of a good caricature: Summorum Pontificio (issued motu proprio, ie., on the pope’s own initiative) of 2007 freed priests around the world to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite without any hierarchical intervention; the 2009 offer to erect Anglican ordinariates so that much of their local customs (liturgical, etc.) could be preserved free from hierarchical, much less curial, meddling; returning beatifications to the local churches without Roman, much less papal, involvement; and now the offer of a personal prelature to the SSPX, giving them a vast degree of “autonomy” if they accept it. If there’s much more “centralization” like this, then the Vatican is going to start looking like Switzerland!

  4. Dr. DeVille, are you suggesting that the tolerance of non-conformist groups within the Catholic church as long as they are also restorantionist is the kind of collegiality that Vatican II promoted? The difference between freeing of control on restorationist groups and the empowerment of movements that seek the Holy Spirit in the world is a very great difference. I'm sure you see this difference. Why have you chosen to deny it?

  5. Please Sir, -- (Dr Adam DeVille), Progressive Catholic Voice gives us so much latitude to post. Could we be very careful that what we say is correct and respectful? To ‘eat your words’ has a short-term consequence (embarrassment), and a long-term consequence (one’s credibility becomes damaged) and maybe unknown consequences as well. If we fail to be decent, PCV may put in rules like other Web sites do.
    Hans Kung is my hero for his enormous work on the Global Ethic enterprise. He has been an instant ‘life-changer’ for me. I refer you to google and the sites. And I cringe to crimson when you say “he’s not had an original, much less interesting, thought in half a century.”
    “The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago commissioned me to develop a draft of a "Declaration of the Religions for a Global Ethic." “ (Hans Kung)
    By any chance Dr DeVille I respectfully ask, were you on a long sabbatical (possibly visiting Mars?)?