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14 July 2014

Hurricane Küng: a Stimulating Theologian

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Hans Küng is probably the most internationally-renowned contemporary Catholic theologian. Born in 1928 in Sursee (Switzerland), he studied theology and philosophy in the “Germanic and Hungarian College” of the Pontifical Seminary in Rome, where he was a classmate of Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedicto XVI). Both fellow students were innovative and “progressive” in the world of theology and, as such, participated in the Second Vatican Council as consultants or advisors, at the express invitation of Pope John XXIII.

The views of both young theologians were not always pleasing to the conservative wing of the Church and in 1968 Pope Paul VI called them to task, asking them to moderate their youthful impetuosity and conform to the traditional and “orthodox” line of thinking. Ratzinger obeyed the suggestion and became conservative. Küng, however, understood that it was a moral obligation in his conscience to teach what he believed to be the truth, while they did not expressly prohibit it. He was and continued to be a Professor of Catholic Theology at the prestigious German University of Tübingen until, in 1979, Pope John Paul II withdrew his teaching license, although kept his status as a Catholic priest. In other times he would have been declared a heretic and expelled from the Church. His critical views have always brought a fresh breath of air to traditional theology. Or rather, a hurricane.

The University of Tübingen understood this decision to be unfair and created ex novo a Chair of Ecumenical Theology expressly for Küng, who continued to teach until his retirement in 1996, mainly devoted to inter-Christian and inter-religious dialog. The union of the Christian churches has been his main concern.

In 1995 he created, with financial support from industrial sponsors, the “Foundation for Global Ethics” which he was the Chairman of until 2013. The Foundation has sponsored lectures at the University of Tübingen in which such illustrious figures as Tony Blair, Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Horst Köhler, Jacques Rogge, Helmut Schmidt and Desmond Tutu have participated, among others. Küng has personally traveled the world lecturing on the need for a global ethic, while studying the major religions of the world (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism etc.), trying to define the contours of a universal ethical core that could be accepted by all peoples. He firmly believes that there can be no peace among nations without peace among religions. Peace between religions requires knowledge of common ethical principles and mutual respect between them, which is necessary for reciprocal treatment and ongoing dialog.

In this effort to build closer ties between religions, the first obvious task is ecumenical union, i.e. the union of all Christian churches. The main obstacle to this union is the Catholic dogma and therefore Küng, an expert and specialist in the subject, strives to the limits as far as possible in search of interpretations and approaches of dogmas that makes them acceptable for non-Catholics. This is a very difficult, almost impossible, mission especially in light of the most recent dogmas, such as the declaration of papal infallibility (1870) or the assumption of our Lady to heaven (1954). These are the latest dogmatic definitions, which were promulgated by Popes Pius IX and Pius XII, respectively. The oldest dogmas are Trinitarian and Christological dogmas; the former defined in the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) and, the latter, in the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). These Councils tried to point out the details and features of the Trinity, and the divine and human nature of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. These doctrines are based on philosophical interpretations by remote thinkers who tried to connect ideas taken from the Scriptures and Jewish traditions with Hellenistic philosophy. The result is difficult to explain and even harder to be accepted at present by other cultures. This is why Küng intends to go back to the first 300 years of Christianity and take early Christianity, powerful, fraternal and supportive, as a model that has been diluted in the midst of later theories. Some theologians have said that God is not explained (He is unknowable), but instead He is felt. This is more or less what Küng suggests in his more than 60 books on these subjects.

Focusing our attention on the proto-Christian or early Christian (Christianity of the Gospels or the Good News) would also make it easier to dialog with Islam, especially if Muslim scholars give more heed to the first interpretations of the Koran. It is for good reason that the figures of Mary and Jesus (taken for a great prophet) also appear in the Koran, as well as, of course, the figure of Abraham, the Father of all Believers.

Going into depth in inter-religious differences inevitably leads to fundamentalism, which is based on the literal interpretation of the respective sacred texts and the belief that “others” live in error. Hence the interest of Küng to find a global ethic that is the common denominator of understanding between peoples. In his book “The End of History”, Fukuyama predicted that we had finally reached the ultimate solution to the problems of humanity: democracy, freedom and economic liberalism. The international political scene is shown from its unwarranted optimism because today’s world is a hotbed of inter-religious conflicts based on hatred between Muslims and Jews (Israel and Palestine), between Muslims and Hindus (India and Pakistan), between Christians and Muslims (Nigeria, Balkans) or simply between Shia and Sunni Muslims (Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen). The list is disheartening. It seems certain that peace between nations is only possible when there is, first of all, peace among religions.

Ramón Reis

Economist, Madrid (Spain)

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