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The theologian who challenged papal infallibility

Father Hans Küng was dubbed 'Antichrist' for his views on governance, liturgy, birth control, clerical celibacy and abortion

The theologian who challenged papal infallibility

Father Hans Küng crossed swords with the Vatican on many issues. (Photo: YouTube)

Catholic theologian Father Hans Küng challenged papal infallibly and lost his license to teach Catholic theology.

The controversial Swiss-born theologian’s lucidly expressed thoughts found a place in more than 50 books and countless speeches.

Father Küng’s relentless tirade against the Church’s hierarchy, particularly popes, earned him the sobriquet “Antichrist” as he was accused of being the greatest threat to the Church since Martin Luther.

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The priest, who died peacefully in his sleep in Germany on April 6 at the age of 93, crossed swords with the Vatican on important issues such as governance, liturgy, birth control, clerical celibacy, priesthood of women, mixed marriages, same-sex unions and abortion.

His views on papal infallibility made him persona non grata with the Vatican.

At the end of his rigorous and imaginative scholarly career, Father Küng’s works focused on commonalities in all religions as a means to peace.

Father Küng emerged as a torch bearer of reform in the 1960s at the Second Vatican Council, which he served as an official theologian (he was the youngest) at the behest of Pope John XXIII.

Even after the conference, he stood for more reform in Catholic dogma, including the ban on birth control and clerical celibacy.

He had his missio canonica, the license to teach Roman Catholic theology, canceled in 1979 and was banned from teaching Catholic theology after he challenged papal infallibility.

Father Küng then became a professor of ecumenical theology until his retirement in 1996. However, he remained a Catholic priest throughout his life.

Soon after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who led a campaign against Father Küng, assumed the papacy in 2005 as Pope Benedict XVI, he invited the priest to his summer residence in Rome where they buried the hatchet.

On the other hand, Pope John Paul II never entertained more than a dozen requests from Father Küng for a one-to-one meeting.

His critics said that the sort of democratic church advocated by Father Küng, however meritorious it may be, did not ensure the spiritual truth.

Father Küng cultivated a distinctive non-clerical personality. He was athletic and handsome, wore crisp business suits in place of a priest’s collar, drove a sports car and preferred to be addressed as a “professor” or “doctor”.

At the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993, Father Küng’s proposals were endorsed and two years later he founded the Global Ethic Foundation, a research organization to promote ethical values worldwide.

In a book published in 2011, he spoke of clerical abuse, saying that the Church was terminally ill and only radical therapy could cure it.

Robert Kaiser, who covered Vatican II for Time magazine, wrote in 2006 that if he had “played his cards differently, Hans Küng could have been pope.”

One joke doing the rounds was that that Father Küng did not wish to be a pope because he would not be infallible.

Bishops praise rebel

German and Swiss bishops who knew and worked with Father Küng described him as a man who loved the Catholic Church, even though the theologian sometimes went beyond the limits of Catholic doctrine and criticized the decisions of church leaders.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, speaking to L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, described Father Küng as a person who knew deep in his heart that he was Catholic and never left or wanted to leave the Church, even if "his behavior" was not always that of a Catholic.

Cardinal Kasper, a theologian and retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke about having served as a doctoral assistant to Father Küng from 1961 to 1964 before a long period of distance and deeply diverging views on a host of theological questions and the proper way to raise them.

But in the past few decades, the cardinal said, their relationship was one of "mutual respect" and exchanges of cards and letters for holidays and other celebrations. "Certainly, the theological differences remained, but on a human level, the relationship was straightforward and peaceful."

Father Küng was more than a critic of the Church; "he was a person who wanted to promote renewal of the Church and realize its reform," the cardinal said. "However, in my judgment, he went too far -- beyond Catholic orthodoxy -- and so did not remain tied to a theology based on the doctrine of the Church, but 'invented' his own theology."

The cardinal said he found "unacceptable" the way Father Küng had sometimes spoken about Pope Benedict XVI, with whom he had served as an expert at the Second Vatican Council, but "I know Benedict prayed for him."

Still, Cardinal Kasper said, Father Küng always was ready to talk, discuss and debate, and he knew how to write and talk about religion in a way that was understandable to people who were not Catholic or had moved away from the church. He also was a pioneer in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.

Nearing the end of his life, Father Küng drew close to Pope Francis, the cardinal said.

"Last summer I phoned the pontiff to tell him that Küng was near death and wanted to die at peace with the Church. Pope Francis told me to pass on his greetings and his blessing."

"Certainly, the theological differences remained and were not resolved," the cardinal said. But "on a pastoral and human level, there was a reconciliation."

"He wanted to die at peace with the church despite all the differences," Cardinal Kasper said.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops' conference, said: "Hans Küng never failed to stand up for his convictions. Even if there were tensions and conflicts in this regard, I thank him expressly in this hour of parting for his many years of commitment as a Catholic theologian in communicating the Gospel. The dialogue of religions in the quest for a global ethic was of great concern to him. Hans Küng was deeply influenced by the Second Vatican Council, whose theological reflection he sought."

Although he taught in Tübingen, Father Küng remained a priest of the Diocese of Basel, Switzerland. Bishop Felix Gmür of Basel, president of the Swiss bishops' conference, said that for all his criticism, "Hans Küng was a lover of the Church."

"He did not want to make the Church superfluous and did not want it to perish. He wanted a renewed church, a church for today's people," Bishop Gmür said.

"He fought for a church that would deal with the realities of life as they are and with the world as it is. He wanted a Christian church and a Christian faith and people of Christian faith who listen and are heard, with whom one can discuss, who get involved, who live out of their trust in God, who serve peace together with other believers," the bishop said.

"That is why he dealt with the Church as it is. He did the same with me, his bishop. He loved, and because he loved, he demanded. That could sometimes also be exhausting. This was experienced by some with whom he did not hold back with criticism, especially the popes," he said.

Bishop Gmür said he was sometimes surprised by the way Father Küng "positively stood by the papacy despite all his struggles."

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