February 2004--Hans Kung is a Christian theologian whose influential writings have been criticized by the Vatican, which in 1979 stripped him of his right to teach as a representative of the Church. Ordained a priest in 1954, Kung was the youngest theologian to participate in Vatican II, the council which dramatically modernized aspects of the Catholic Church. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about his new memoir and about his concerns with the Curia, the Rome-based departments and officials through which the pope governs the Church.
Your book focuses on the years of Vatican II–you say the Council's promise has not been fulfilled. What was your most severe disappointment relating to Vatican II?
The most severe disappointment for me was that the Council never really [was] free and was not able to control the curial machinery, but was constantly hindered, corrected, and sometimes even obstructed by the Roman Curia.
That is the reason why a lot of basic, very important questions were not resolved by the Council. I mention just a few:
Meaning marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics.
Between Catholics and non-Catholics, especially with regard to the upbringing of children.
So you think all these things could have been settled by Vatican II, but were not?
The Curia opposed both vigorously, but because the Council in this case really was strong enough, [it] was able to resolve these questions. And if the Council had not been hindered--after one morning of discussion--in going on with the discussion on the Pill, the Council would certainly have given a positive answer to that.
So you're saying that in the space of just a few days, the question on birth control could have been decided in a way you approved of?
Well, that was always a process. If you had a discussion that would have been frank and unhindered, then this would have been discussed in the commission, and the commission would have made a proposal. And I am sure it would have been possible to resolve it. It’s a rather easy question, because the principles are already stated in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
But the Curia was able to add, especially in the notes, the reactionary documents of Pius XI and Pius XII. So they based Humanae Vitae [the 1968 birth control document] on these reactionary documents.
In the text itself, you have a clear affirmation of the responsibility of the parents, but that is only one example of how the Council suffered on the compromises. The result of the compromises was that after the Council, the Curia was able to interpret these compromises in its own way, so we got Humanae Vitae.
I did not use this word. I just stated the facts that he never participated in the [Pill] commission, but [rather] sent letters to the Vatican. You may call this an intrigue.
That’s how it’s translated in the English version of your book. Perhaps it’s a translation question.
For me, this was already an indication that this pope is not interested in serious scholarly discussions on controversial issues, dogma, and morals, but just in the decisionmaking process by authoritarian means. Imposing doctrines as he has done now during his 25 years of the pontificate. This was already an indication of his methods.
On the more positive side, of the Vatican II reforms that were implemented, which reforms pleased you most?
First, the importance of the Bible being valued highly in the liturgy, in theology, and in the whole life of the Church.
Second, we also got a more authentic liturgy of the people of God, in the vernacular language. It is an absolutely unique success of the church community to have introduced such an epoch-making change, in just a few years, without having a serious division.
And a third thing is the understanding of the Church as a community, a communion which is just a hierarchy but the people of God, whose servants are the priests and bishops. That is a result which has daily consequences in our parishes.
What do you think about Dominus Iesus [the Vatican's 2001 statement on other denominations and religions]?
The Council’s decree Nostra Aetate—On World Religions—is a very open decree which does not offend anybody but which estimates highly all the other religions.
[Nostra Aetate is not] definitive in a way that you could not go on developing practical relations with other religions and also having a further theological elucidation of the other world religions.
Dominus Iesus has affirmations which are on the old line, the old proconciliar line, of considering the Christian religion as an absolute, and the other religions--as they say explicitly—as 'deficient' forms of religion. That is an offense for all the other religions, and it’s arrogance on the side of the Catholic Church to think that we are not at all deficient. As a matter of fact, you have deficiencies in all religions, but you have truth in all religions.
There are points where I think, for instance, Judaism or Buddhism are more constructive than the Catholic position, and vice versa.
Do you see hope for ecumenism now, or do you think Dominus Iesus has been a major setback?
We are certainly at an impasse, because on the grassroots level, we have a lot of ecumenical understanding, encounter, cooperation, even liturgy. But from the point of view of the hierarchy, they do everything to hinder, for instance, Eucharistic Communion.
Let me recall only one fact: the first big, national, ecumenical meeting of the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation in Berlin [in 2003], public opinion polls showed that more or less 85 percent of German Catholics and Protestants wanted to have intercommunion. But that was absolutely no argument for the bishops, because the bishops in the present system say only what Rome says, and they just ignored it. That gave a great deal of anger, and is only one example of how Rome, the pope, the Curia, is hindering progress in ecumenism. They are very strong in words and gestures and they are always saying we are very ecumenical, but practically speaking, they are hindering it.
But hasn’t John Paul II given Communion to non-Catholics, making exceptions every now and then?
Of course he made exceptions, and probably also Cardinal Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict XVI] has made exceptions. That is the Roman way: to give favors to the favorites. It is an indication that they are not honest in this issue. If they would be honest, they would permit the others what they do themselves.
Let me say first a general statement. Because of the compromises made in the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Curia has done everything to get control of the Church again in a preconciliar way. For that, they follow two methods.
One is to publish one document after the other, affirming traditional theology and practice. And the second is to appoint bishops who have to sign... who have to agree beforehand that they are for Humanae Vitae, that they are for the law of celibacy, that they are against the ordination of women.
In the question of homosexuality, the Vatican was rather permissive or lenient, with regard to all these crimes of sexual abuse.
You’re talking about the clergy abuse scandals?
Yes, the church abuse scandals. They have been rather permissive. They permitted that these priests have been transferred. They knew quite well what was going on. They are always well informed.
Some American Catholics think Rome didn't know that much.
That’s because American Catholics are sometimes a little naive. I’m sorry to say that, but I think it’s a fact. Can you imagine that in Rome they do not know? They get a lot of denunciations. Everybody is allowed to write to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith; [the CDF] receives denunciations and sometimes accusations that are true. They know quite well what is going on in the different dioceses. They have nuncios, they have in every episcopal conference a fifth column which is always reporting to the Curia what is going on.
Now, after all this was discovered, and especially after the fact that this was brought to courts, the Vatican--who said that’s not our business, it’s the American church who has to see that.
I was in the States when this happened. I remember the Curia said, that’s up to the American bishops, not up to Rome. Afterwards they saw that the anger and the protests were so hard that finally the Vatican said, yes we have to make an... And now finally they have published a document on homosexuals.
You’re saying there’s a connection between the clergy abuse scandal and the Vatican’s decision to publish a document on homosexual unions?
It’s a connection because both are on homosexuality. It’s a question of fact. They want to justify themselves by a strong statement. They had been rather lenient before, you didn’t hear very much about all these scandals that existed already in America. [It's] not a new phenomenon, and [is] in other countries, in Europe--in Ireland, in Poland and also in Germany.
But now they make an affirmation, which is in many ways, not very understanding for homosexuals. But I am not a specialist in this matter; I have not studied this document thoroughly. About the document itself, I would have to study it more carefully.
The document seems to concern consenting adult homosexual relationships, whereas the clergy abuse scandal involved young people: non-consenting relationships. But you seem to draw some parallels.
One partner is always an adult, isn’t it? And to think that this has no relation is just not possible. It’s both on homosexuality.
In Rome, of course, they always have the tendency to say that these are all different questions. It’s the same [when] they say that this sexual abuse has nothing to do with clerical celibacy. But of course it has to do. If priests were allowed to marry, if this would be an optional thing, and if he could have wife and children, he would certainly have less temptation to satisfy certain sexual impulses with minors.
I like most that I belong to the whole universal comprehensive Catholic church and that it is not just a national church. I like the catholicity in time: our tradition is one of 2,000 years. And I like the catholicity in space, because it's a universality of faith and a community of faith which embraces all groups, nations, and regions. But I have to add--and this answers your other question--this catholicity in time and in space is only meaningful for me if there is, at the same time, a concentration on the Gospel. If [the Church] includes everything, and has no criteria for what is really Christian or not, then Catholicism becomes a syncretism of all sorts of superstitions and abuses. The Gospel has to be the norm. I am evangelical and am for a continual reform of the Church, which was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council. Where do you see the Catholic Church not concentrating on the Gospel or becoming superstitious? For instance, this whole thing about Fatima. Popes going to Fatima and preaching there--the Gospel of Fatima is exaggerated. Which books of the Bible are your favorite? Well, the whole history of Jesus--we need what exegetes call source Q. The Sermon on the Mount. The gospels and the authentic epistles of Paul, I like very much. The Epistle to the Romans is an extremely important synthesis of the whole theology of St. Paul. What about from the Old Testament-is there a book you especially love to re-read? I prefer everything that the Jews themselves call the Torah, the five books of Moses. What in the Roman Catholic Church today do you think Jesus would approve of? What do you think is right with the Catholic Church?
He would certainly not be very interested in Church dogmas and medieval canon law, but he would be interested to see where his spirit is alive. It is active in individual Christians who are working and acting in the spirit of Christ himself.