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On October 11, 1954, the newly-ordained Father Hans Küng celebrated his first Holy Mass at the tomb of St. Peter. Exactly eight years to the day later, Vatican II would open in the grand basilica above, and the precocious priest would emerge as one of its most influential characters.

When Father Hans Küng died during Easter Week, I happened to be reading the final section of Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, doing some research for an essay on the Holy Spirit. The short final section of that 1969 book on the creed contained some gems. And the thought occurred: Does anyone read Hans Küng anymore?

The Swiss theologian, born less than a year after Ratzinger, became an international theological and media sensation with his 1961 book proposing a reforming agenda for Vatican II: The Council, Reform and Reunion. He lectured to huge American audiences in 1963, welcomed to the White House by President John F. Kennedy as “what I would call a new frontier man of the Catholic Church.”

At the council, Küng would not draft any major speeches or conciliar texts, but wielded significant influence nonetheless as a skillful presence in the mass media. On the eve of his abdication in 2013, Benedict XVI would speak about the “real council of the Fathers” and the “council of the media,” lamenting that “the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers.” It was Küng’s work that he was speaking about.

Küng was a creative and brilliant theologian. During and after the council, his project of ecumenical reunion became, in effect, remaking Catholicism to be more like liberal Protestantism. In 1971, he broke with Catholic doctrine on the papacy and by 1979 had his license to teach Catholic theology removed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

He would continue as a prolific scholar, but the frisson was gone. A Catholic priest and professor adopting liberal Protestant positions on subjects of public controversy was novel and startling in the 1960s; by the 1980s it was old news. And after Küng was definitively judged to not be teaching Catholic theology, it seemed less urgent that attention be paid.

By the 1990s he was promoting a “global ethic” across religious and philosophical traditions. It was not an unworthy project, but quite a comedown from his doctoral dissertation, in which he proposed that Catholic and Protestant doctrines of justification were compatible. The “global ethic” was the Tao of C. S. Lewis in academic fancy dress, not altogether unlike those posters—prominently displayed in interfaith meeting rooms by Unitarian chaplains—of the Golden Rule in a dozen different traditions.

Even twenty years ago Küng was in the rearview mirror; we didn’t read him at the Gregorian when I studied theology there, despite the sympathy he would have enjoyed among not a few professors. What happened?

Peter Seewald—Ratzinger’s interlocutor on four interview books—published his definitive biography, Benedict XVI: A Life, last year. Hans Küng gets extended treatment. Seewald’s biography is an essential and highly accessible treatment of what he calls the “German Wave” at Vatican II. The two young professors—one Bavarian and the other Swiss—would represent the two kinds of reformers at and after the council.

“To some extent, the two theologians personified the conflict in the church in general—on the one hand, faithfulness to tradition; on the other, adaptation to the present time—the split between authority and invention,” Seewald writes. “Ratzinger answered the question of what a council was on the basis of historical evidence and the nature of the church. Küng answered it by clutching at artful rhetoric.”

The tension between authority and invention is put rather imaginatively by a friend of mine, Scott McCaig, bishop of the Canadian military diocese. When speaking about institution and charism in the church, Bishop McCaig likes the image of a river. Without living, flowing, coursing water, a river is not a river at all, but a stagnant ditch. Yet without banks, the water becomes a destructive flood which, when it recedes, leaves shallow pools of fetid water.

Applied to theology, the influx of new ideas and new questions, and the retrieval of lost parts of the tradition, is what makes theology fresh and nourishing. Powerful currents even alter the shape of the banks over time. Yet the banks of authority, defined doctrine, and fidelity to settled tradition are needed to preserve the river.

At the time of the council, when the “Rhine flowed into the Tiber,” as the title of Ralph Wiltgen’s famous book put it, Ratzinger and Küng agreed that that living water was needed in the sluggish Tiber of Roman traditionalism. They would come to disagree on the necessity of the banks. Ratzinger’s renewal remained within the banks, providing greater depth as the flow of neglected ideas, new and old, were explored. Küng sought to breach the banks instead, resulting in ever shallower pools of stagnant water, incapable of giving life and offering only a poor reflection of the immediate environment.

Küng died at 93; Benedict will turn 94 this Friday. Küng and his theology seemed dated decades ago, stuck in the 1960s. Whatever was fresh there has long since dried up. Ratzinger, meanwhile, served both the flow and the banks over a long life. His theology still brings water and gives life.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped. 

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