Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The problem with Hans Kung

The problem with Hans Kung is that, like the rest of that part of the post-Christian world that has been reluctant to let go of its sentimental attachment to Christianity, he wants to change the meaning of Christianity to conform to his post-Christian commitments rather than to admit that his beliefs are no longer, in any traditionally recognizable sense of the term, Christian. In short, Kung wants to belong to the historical Christian community without accepting key historical Christian beliefs. This is amply clear, once again, from his recently published autobiography, My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs [Amazon link], in which he replays his old lamentations about the Vatican's "authoritarian repression" of his academic freedom to teach whatever he wants, even if the Church may consider it heretical, and its denial of his canonical right to present himself to the public as a Catholic theologian. He reminds me, in a way, of the members of the original British Humanist Association, all of them atheists, who used to gather in one of their homes to sing traditional Christian hymns for their sentimental value--a phenomenon not altogether different from the annual Christmas albums put out by entertainers not otherwise known for their piety.

Kung was born in 1928 and educated during the heyday of Protestant Liberalism, when that lovely legacy of the Enlightenment, the acids of the rationalistic historical-criticism of the Bible, were eating out the heart of mainline Protestant denominations. He was one of those Catholics who had already been drinking deeply at those contaminated Protestant fonts of biblical scholarship before the Second Vatican Council seemed to permissively fling open the doors of the Church to the world of non-Catholic scholarship. It is understandable, then, how he must have looked eagerly for Vatican II to sanction a revisioning of the Catholic Faith along lines that he saw as reasonable from his own studies of secular Protestant sources. His Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection [Amazon link] (1964) shows that he was already interested in drawing converging lines between Catholic and the secularized Protestant theologian, Karl Barth (pictured below right). I realize that many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, hold Barth in high esteem, viewing him as a champion of "Neo-Orthodoxy" in contrast to the "Liberalism" of demythologizing thinkers such as Rudolf Bultmann, and I realize that they might find my labeling of him as a "secular Proestant" offensive. Yet I make my remarks advisedly. Barth is deceptive. He writes and talks as if he believes in the traditional Christian doctrines. But he doesn't. As University of Edinburgh Professor J.C. O'Neill writes in his chapter on Barth in The Bible's Authority [Amazon link] (1991):
Barth begins from from the starting-point that none of the miracles in the Bible actually happened .... Opponents of Barth like Bultmann were infuriated by Barth's seeming to say that he believed that the resurrection happened (in the normal sense, by which he grave became empty and the transformed body of Jesus left this universe) when he did not believe anything of the sort--but Barth never really concealed his actual position from those who took care to read carefully what he wrote. (p. 273)
While other Protestant theologians, like Paul Tillich (pictured left), clearly distinguish when they're writing "devotionally" (when they sound like evangelical Christians) and when they're writing "scholarly" (when they sound like atheists), Barth is more subtle and requires greater discernment. Many of these Protestants continued to employ a Christian vocabulary while investing their terms with demythologized post-Christian meanings. Hans Kung is one of the numerous fatalities resulting from this historical development.

A sampling of Kung's publishing record is telling. The Church [Amazon link] (1967) offered several corrosive revisionings of the traditional understaning of the Church. Apostolic Succession: Rethinking a Barrier to Unity [Amazon link], an edited anthology (1968), shows ecumenical sympathies being enlisted in the less-than clandestine service of further revisionism. Infallible?: An Inquiry (1971), later reissued as Infallible?: An Unresolved Enquiry [Amazon link] (1994), continued Kung's crusade of dissent. On Being a Christian [Amazon link] (1979), offered a denaturing "up-dating" of Christian belief from the standpoint of modern secularist concerns, including an uncritical acceptance of radical historical-critical biblical interpretations and "demythologizations" of traditional doctrines. For example, the crucifixion "becomes an appeal to renounce a life steeped in selfishness." Lovely: the Passion of the Christ can be reduced to the message of Barney and Friends.

The same year, on December 18, 1979, the Vatican curia (finally!) issued a declaration against Kung's doctrinal views, withdrawing his canonical mission to teach Catholic theology, although his academic tenure was protected by the University of Tubingen. Kung, though stripped of his canonical mandatum as a Catholic theologian, continued his attack on the Church undaunted. In 1981 he published Does God Exist?: An Answer for Today [Amazon link]--a bizarre discussion in which he continues to affirm that, yes, God does exist, even though Jesus never existed, Noah's flood never occurred, the story of Exodus is a myth, the universe has always existed and has no need for a creator, and the Bible is a morass of contradictions, and he provisionally accepts a feminist notion about a "goddess" and primitive matriarchy. The Church in Anguish: Has the Vatican Betrayed the Council? [Amazon link], an anthology edited with Leonard Swidler (1997), exhibits Kungs hostility to the Vatican's insistance that Vatican II was never intended as a rupture with Catholic Sacred Tradition. Why I Am Still a Christian [Amazon link] (1986) offers a personal rationale for why Kung still wants to be identified as a Christian and a Catholic despite the fact that he's not, and despite his vociferous renunciation of Rome's authority, which he commonly refers to as the "Roman Kremlin."

Recently Hans Kung was interviewed by Stephen Crittenden for The Religion Report on Radio National (December 15, 2004). The interview, "A conversation with Number 399/57 i" is named after the file number that Kung keeps for life in the offices of the Inquisition, or Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In the interview, Kung describes his personal acquaintance with the popes since Pius II, and calls John Paul II a man of "the mediaeval, anti-reformation, anti-modern paradigm of the church." Remarks such as these must be understood on some level as grandstanding, since otherwise they would be nearly unintelligible. No pope, after all, has done more to address contemporary concerns centering on the subjective experiential dimension of the lived experience of the believer than Karol Wojtyla, the student of phenomenology, author of The Acting Person [Amazon link], The Theology of the Body According to John Paul II: Human Love in the Divine Plan [Amazon link], Love and Responsibility [Amazon link], the philosopher who wrote two dissertations (one in philosophy on Max Scheler, the other in theology on St. John of the Cross) and went on to become Pope John Paul II. Kung is not stupid. He knows this. But what irks him is that the Pope does all of this without in any way intending to compromise the objective authority and integrity of the dogmatic constitution of the Catholic Faith. This is what Kung cannot stand. Kung wants the personalism and subjective focus on experience without the authority of objectively binding dogma; but the latter is what keeps John Paul's (objectively grounded) subjective personalism from becoming Kung's (historically relativistic) personal subjectivism.

Prominent in the interview is Kung's admiration for the aforementioned Karl Barth, along with some grandstanding scare tactics refencing Opus Dei. He says:
The next [papal] election will certainly be very decisive, and there is no doubt that especially all these Cardinals from the Opus Dei, who are favourable for this secret organisation which is an authoritarian, Spanish organisation [... is he playing to the hype over Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code here? ...] which has a great influence and which was supported heavily already by Karol Wojtyla when he was Archbishop of Krakow. And the whole question will be: will now the Catholic church be dominated again by a clique of people who is in this authoritarian organisation which is, as a matter of fact, living in a mentality of, I would say, the counter-Reformation, of anti-Modernism, or will we have enough bishops who still remember the Second Vatican Council and who see especially the terrible situation in which our church is in, in the present moment?
What is even more remarkable is how Kung immediately goes on to characterize this "terrible situation in which our church is in, in the present moment":
If you see for instance that the Church of Ireland -- I know that a lot of bishops and priests in Australia too, come from this beautiful and most constructive Ireland -- I mean constructive in a way that they constructed a great deal of churches, especially in the Anglo Saxon world, and I admire very greatly these people, I was often there. But it's terrible to see what happens to a Catholic country like Ireland, that this country, who was practically sending priests, hundreds and thousands of priests all over the world, they are practically lost now. They had in 1990, they still had 300 ordinations a year. Last year they had eight ordinations. Eight! As a matter of fact, also in other European countries, and this will happen also to other parts of the world, I'm sure also in Australia, practically the celibate clergy is dying out. And we have already in our German speaking countries, more or less half of the parishes who have not anymore a pastor. We are losing the Sunday Eucharist, all because we do not want to have ordained married men, and why we don't want to have ordained women.
So the reason for the vocational crisis and plummeting Mass attendance in Ireland and Germany, according to Kung, is all because we do not want to have ordained married men or ordained women--when, in fact, it is the disbelief underlying such attitudes of revisionism and dissent that have rendered the Catholic populations of these countries indifferent to priestly vocations and Mass attendance!

Again, when asked his opinion of the present pontificate, Kung responded:
I would agree that [John Paul II has] preached the gospel for the poor, he was for human rights in the world. But all this was in blatant contradiction with what he has done in his own church, because he repressed human rights in the church, he repressed the rights of theologians and he reintroduced the Inquisition, he offended very often women because of his Marian piety, exalting the Virgin Mary as an example, and repressing women in the church discipline.
The fact that Kung sees a "contradiction" between the Pope's social teaching and his other teaching reveals Kung's secular commitments, because there is simply no contradiction at all when the matter is viewed from within the perspective of traditional Church teaching itself. Because the secular vantage point is inevitably superficial, it can easily misconstrue the Pope's affirmation of the traditional Catholic veneration of Mary as contradicting his affirmation of the traditional Catholic prohibition of women priests. Likewise, the Pope's support for human rights and compassion for the poor may seem to contradict his willingness to allow the Church to censure theologians (like Kung) who dissent from Church teaching. Yet there is altogether no contradiction between these things when seen from within traditional Catholic understanding of the matter. The problem comes only with unbelief: if one no longer believes in an authoritative Revelation, preserved and proclaimed by the Church under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, then everything caves in. There is no longer any objective basis for censuring views that dissent from traditional Catholic beliefs, because all beliefs are relative and subjective. The exclusion of women from ordained ministry then becomes no more than a long standing arbitrary and unjust convention of the Church; and one might as well lobby for the elevation of Mary into a "goddess" as to maintain that God is a triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is evident throughout the interview is Kung's unrelentingly secular--that is to say, immanent, naturalistic (anti-supernaturalistic) viewpoint. This is particularly evident in his discussion of the pope's charism of infallibility. But I have discussed enough of Kung. He has done his share of damage over the past two generations. I am only too pleased that I did not waste much of my time as a student reading his books. My prayer is that others would not waste their time on him either, and, still more, that they would not be taken in by his misleadingly sophistical, tired reformulations of the failed and secularized Protestant/Enlightenment project.