The effect of the Doctrinal Congregation's declaration depends very much on how it is interpreted by the Church at large. At one extreme it could be regarded as merely underlining the obvious. After all, the whole point of Kung's hook "Infallible?" was the impossible dilemma he found himself in by rigorously following to its logical conclusion the traditional Roman understanding of infallibility.
At the other extreme, the declaration could be seen as encouraging a witch-hunt among Catholic theologians and intellectuals. But, if this is to be the result, we should at least hope that any such witch-hunt will not be motivated by any desire to prevent confusion among the simple faithful.
For the plain fact of the matter is that on questions like infallibility the simple faithful are far more confused than any theologian could ever make them, It is revealing that a survey conducted in West Germany in 1967 found that 55 per cent of all Catholics, and even 44 per cent of practising Catholics, held that "the Pope cannot be infallible because he is only a human being." A further 11 per cent of all Catholics (and an alarming 14 per cent of practising Catholics) thought the Pope was infallible every time he made a public statement.
Quite apart from this, the position Kung adopted in "Infallible?" is clearly open to criticism. It could crudely be paraphrased by saying that, while the Church is indeed indefectible in the truth, this indefectibility can never be pinned down in action To answer Kung's critique it is no use simply referring to the definitions of Vatican I and Vatican II. An undergtanding of the Church's infallibility has to be worked out that does not gloss over the all too frequent occasions when the Church has committed itself to something later generations of Christians see as wrong.
In 1949, for example, the American Jesuit Fr Leonard Feeney was condemned for holding the maxim that there is no salvation outside the Church in precisely the same sense as it was held by St Cyprian of Carthage when he enunciated it in AD 251.
An even morerecent change of understanding concerns the origin of mankind. Until very recent years Catholics were considered to be bound to believe that the human race originated from a single pair.
In this way, the prOblem of reconciling continuity and change lies at the heart of the infallibility debate which Rome has now revived by means of the former Holy Office's declaration.
The other two points raised by the declaration do not really enter into the discussion. In describing his views on the Church's teaching authority as "another error which seriously affects Professor Kung's teaching," the Doctrinal Congregation does not specify what it has in mind but merely falls back on brief quotations from Vatican II to indicate what it claims Kung is not saying. Considering the seriousness of the charges being made, this is just not good enough.
And it has laid itself open to criticism by specifically finding fault with Kung's suggestion that in an emergency situation a valid Eucharist could be celebrated by someone not ordained to the priesthood, a view which, it says, cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the Fourth Lateran and Second Vatican Councils (a strange combination. of authorities).
In fact, in his book "The Church," Kung did not so much "suggest" this as put it forward as a group of "at least debatable questions."
It is something that has in fact happened at least once in the Church's history. Towards the end of the 18th Century, the first Korean Christians found themselves totally cut off from the outside world apart from the annual embassy to Peking thanks to which the first of their number had been converted.
In this situation of complete isolation they appointed and ordained their own bishop, priests and deacons so as to be able to exist as a Church centred on the celebration of the Eucharist.
In view of the widely accepted theological maxim that God is not bound by his sacraments, most theologians would regard the validity of this kind of "lay" ordination and "lay" Eucharist as among "at least debatable questions" and to suggest otherwise is surely rash, temerarious, scandalous and offensive to pious ears.