Hans Küng is our patron and the source of much of our inspiration. We cherish his ideas and writings and are proud that his Church from Above - Church from Below, appears in our pamphlet series.Hans Küng was born in Switzerland in 1928. After leaving school he entered the German College in Rome and studied theology at the Gregorian University. He was ordained priest in 1954 and continued studying in Rome for a further year. After that he moved to Paris for two years and completed his doctorate in theology at the Sorbonne in 1957. The thesis is a massive study of the theology of Justification in the works of Karl Barth. Barth was the leading Lutheran theologian of the twentieth century and essentially Küng showed that Barth’s interpretation of Luther was consistent with the Catholic view. The book, Rechtfertigung was first published in German in 1957and subsequently translated into English as Justification. English readers will be glad to note that Küng gives generous acknowledgement to Cardinal Newman, who had put forward basically the same theory in the 1840’s in his Lectures on Justification.
After completing his theological studies Küng spent three years in parish work in Switzerland. In 1960 at the age of 32 he was appointed Professor of Fundamental Theology in the University of Tübingen’s Faculty of Catholic Theology. (As in many German universities there are two faculties of theology, Catholic and Protestant.)
Kung’s first well known book was published in 1961, entitled The Council and Re-Union, in which he popularised Père Congar’s thesis from the latter’s masterpiece, Vrai et Fausse Réforme dans l’Eglise. On account of that book Congar was removed from his teaching post, forbidden to write anything further, and banished to England - Cambridge, though not the worst place imaginable. His four conditions for a valid reform of the Church are: Reform must be motivated by charity and apostolic zeal, must entail a return to the sources, must preserve unity and the reformers must display patientia, which is best translated ‘determined endurance’. In the light of the third condition, it is significant that despite hostility and bad treatment from the Vatican, Küng has never contemplated leaving the Church.
In 1962 Pope John XXIII nominated Küng as a peritus (expert advisor) to the Second Vatican Council - an honour also bestowed on Fathers Congar and de Lubac.
After the Council Küng’s literary output was prodigious. In 1974 his book, On Being a Christian became a German best seller. In 1978 he published an enquiry into the doctrine of papal infallibility, which earned him the displeasure of the Roman authorities. He refused under pressure to change his published views. Accordingly, his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian was removed by the Vatican authorities. Fortunately, the university took his side and straight away appointed him to the chair of ecumenical research at Tübingen, where he has remained.
In recent years his writings have covered the wider ecumenism, namely the dialogue with non-Christian faiths. He has also embraced the theology of saving the planet, and the moral choices which must be faced, if we are to avoid destroying the earth on which we live. He is currently President of the Global Ethics Foundation.
For many years Hans Küng sought a meeting with Pope John Paul II, but the latter always refused to receive him. As soon as Ratzinger was elected pope Küng wrote to him. Very quickly he received a personal letter in reply, inviting him to come for supper. They spent several hours together talking informally over old times, and who knows what else!
Hans Küng Picture donated by the Havel's House of History
Michael M. Winter