Page 13, 29th August 2008

29th August 2008
Page 13
Page 13, 29th August 2008 — The face of Catholic dissidence strikes back

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Locations: Rome, Paris


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The face of Catholic dissidence strikes back

The controversial theologian's second volume of memoirs is enlightening about his struggles with the Vatican but tends towards self-indulgence, says Piers Paul Read Disputed Truth: Memoirs Volume II by Hans Kiing, Continuum £30 Hans Ming is one of the most influential theologians of our times. His flair for promoting his challenging ideas made him the public face of Catholic dissidence in the decades following Vatican II; and moves by the Church authorities to silence him only made him more famous still. When the American magazine Esquire drew up a list of the 100 most important people in the world, Ming tells us in this second volume of his memoirs, there were only two Swiss "the child psychologist Jean Piaget and me'.

Hans Kung was raised in "a hospitable middle-class" home in Switzerland and, after becoming a priest, studied theology in Rome and Paris. In 1962 he attended the Second Vatican Council as a theological adviser to the Bishop of Rottenburg, and there befriended another young peritus, the Bavarian Joseph Ratzinger.

Later. both were appointed to the theological faculty of the university of Tubingen. Kiing found a house for Ratzinger to rent and, because Ratzinger did not drive but went around on a bicycle, occasionally gave him a lift in his Alfa Romeo.

Later Ratzinger moved to Regensburg while Ming, fearing that the reforms enjoined by Vatican II were being thwarted, even reversed, by Pope Paul VI, wrote a book, The Church, calling for intercommunion with other Christian churches, the election of bishops, married priests, equal rights for women in canon law, and "a constructive attitude to sexuality" with the morality of birth control "also by artificial means" left to the conscience of the partners. He also held that in extemis lay Catholics could say Mass.

Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae confirming the "intrinsic evil" of contraception stirred Kling to write Infallible? in which he argued that the dogma of papal infallibility promulgated by Vatican I had no foundation in scripture and was therefore mistaken.

This was music to the ears of nonCatholic Christians and the many Catholics priests and laity who had refused to assent to the teaching of Humanae Vitae. The book was a worldwide bestseller. "That was brilliant," Kung was told, "half in admiration, half in indignation", by Cardinal Julius Dopfner. "to combine the question of infallibility with the question of birth control and to build up your book Infallible? from that." How was the Vatican to deal with this turbulent priest? Attempts to censure him were compared by Kiing and his admirers as a return to the methods of the Inquisition. Not only had Kling tapped into the sexual revolution but he successfully appealed to the libertarian ethos of the Anglo-Saxons. He became an international celebrity staying at the White House with the Kennedys and taking tea with the Blairs. Only the Pope refused to meet him face-to-face.

Was Kting still a Catholic? Karl Rainier came to see him as "a liberal Protestant, indeed a sceptical philosopher"; Huppertz described him as "Dollinger's son".

Propositions in his books were condemned by the Holy Office but Kiing refused either to recant or to leave the Church. Eschewing any false modesty, he compares his ordeal to that of St Paul, Luther and Galileo; Barth. Bonhoeffer, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. One should perhaps add to this list the Swiss liberationist hero William Tell.

This would have been all very well were it not for the fact that Kting was not simply a professor of Theology at Tiibingen but a professor of Catholic Theology. a post which, under the terms of the 1930 Concordat between Germany and the Holy See, required the approval of his local Catholic bishop (missio canonica). Shortly before Christmas, 1979. the tnissio was withdrawn the drama provides the denouement of this second volume of Kting's memoirs.

In fact, as Kung warns his readers. this book of 524 pages "is more than memoirs. It dovetails different literary genres and has to be so long because it is written on many different levels." Much of its contents are, for the record. lists of meetings, lectures, travels, petitions, resolutions even details of his holidays whose relevance and interest is questionable. Written in the present tense, Disputed Truth often reads like the unedited transcript of a diary.

But many will be fascinated by the blow-by-blow account of Kting's struggle with the Vatican, and for the insight the book gives into the man himself.

Despite the "delightful, almost mischievous smile" which I remarked on when I was sent to interview Kiing for the Observer in 1980, and which the reader will see in the portrait on the dust-jacket, there is no irony or humour in his writing. The style is heavy, relentless. academic: the author comes across as learned, intelligent, but self-absorbed, self-important and even vain ("Piaget and me").

He says almost nothing about his life as a priest his attitude towards the Eucharist, his vow of obedience, the virtue of humility and he shows little charity towards his opponents. Cardinal Lehman is "shameful. self-serving" and, together with cardinals Dulles, Kasper, Ratzinger, Tucci, has sold out for the sake of posts in Rome. Pope John Paul II is the creature of "the ominous Opus Dei ... this Fascist-type Catholic secret organisation": he was "inadequately educated in contemporary theology" because "he devoted himself not to theology but to professional acting" and so is the "media Pope par excellence, who misses no opportunity to present himself in a pious way, in many respects like Ronald Reagan-. And what of Ratzinger. the contemporary whose career paralleled his for so many years? He too sold out "to the hierarchical Roman system", "won over by Paul VI with Roman honours and posts". .

As prefect for the Holy Office he used "a technique of insinuation and a polemic of defamation which hardly allows him to recognise the truth of another position-. Ratzinger has contributed little to theology, putting "the Hellenistic tradition above Holy Scripture", and in his 2006 Regensburg speech "disseminated errors about Islam, about the Reformation and about the Enlightenment".

Kung had hoped that Pope John Paul II would be succeeded by "a Pope in line with John XXIII", and so was "disappointed" when the cardinals in conclave chose Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

He must have been more than disappointed: whether or not one believes that the choice was made under the influence of the Holy Spirit, it marked a definitive and final repudiation of Ming's view of the Church.

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