Professor Hans Küng, who has died aged 93, was one of the 20th century’s most important theologians and the Roman Catholic Church’s sharpest critic.
In 1960, when he was only 32, Küng became Professor of Fundamental Theology in the Catholic faculty of the German University of Tübingen; but in December 1979, after many years of conflict with the Vatican authorities, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that he had deviated from the complete truth and that he could no longer be regarded as a Catholic theologian or teach as such. At the same time Pope John Paul II, a recent arrival from Poland, failed to appreciate Küng’s reforming zeal and withdrew his licence to teach.
The university responded by stating that although Küng was debarred from teaching in the Catholic faculty, he would be appointed to a chair of Ecumenical Theology and retain his position as Director of its Institute for Ecumenical Research which he had held since its foundation in 1963.
Notwithstanding his reputation as a controversial figure and the worldwide publicity that attended his disagreements with Rome, he was recognised in the realm of learning as a theologian of the first rank who had the unusual ability to present theological questions clearly and comprehensively.
His output of written work was phenomenal. By 1984, when he was in his mid-fifties, he had published more than 30 books, 15 of which were major works, often ranging from 500 to almost 900 pages, and more than 400 other studies. Moreover, his writings ranged not only over theology, but over modern art and music, psychology, philosophy, feminism, anti-Semitism, racism, economics and the environment. He had not always been a papal gadfly.
Hans Küng was born on March 19 1928 in the Swiss canton of Lucerne and attended the cantonal co-educational gymnasium. Having from an early age felt drawn to the priesthood, he went on to study at the Jesuit-run Germanicum College in Rome. Pope Pius XII was then at the pinnacle of his power and influence and the young Küng was initially impressed by what he experienced of the pomp of traditional Roman Catholicism. This did not last for long.
Küng remained in Rome to study Philosophy and Theology at the Gregorian University, and the more he saw of the inner workings of the Vatican the less highly he regarded the machinery of his Church’s central government. He had also embarked on a study of the work of the greatest 20th-century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, and soon after his ordination to the priesthood in St Peter’s in 1954 he presented a dissertation on Barth’s interpretation of the doctrine of Justification by Faith.
This was expanded into a book, Karl Barth and Catholic Reflection (1957), for which he was awarded a doctorate by the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he had continued his studies, as well as at the Sorbonne. He argued that Barth’s understanding of Justification by Faith (the keystone of Protestant theology) was hardly different from that of the 16th-century Council of Trent – an opinion that created a sensation and made Küng a marked man in the Vatican.
He then spent 18 months on pastoral work at the Hofkirche in Lucerne and at the same time qualified for a university teaching post in Germany. This led in 1959 to appointment as a research assistant in dogmatic theology at Münster, and spiritual director of the College of St Thomas More. In the same year Pope John XIII announced the convening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Küng responded to this with the publication of The Council and Reunion (1960), which proved to be even more controversial than its predecessor.
He accused the church hierarchy of being “self-righteous” and added: “There are no unreformable areas of the Church because the divine and immutable is nowhere except embodied in the human and mutable.” He went on to make a number of proposals for reform that he believed should be addressed by the forthcoming Council, including restoring the authority of the bishops (thereby reducing the power of the Papacy), rethinking clerical celibacy, recognising the significance of the laity, revising the liturgy and opening the way to serious conversation with the other Christian communities.
The reaction in Rome was explosive, but Küng’s reputation as a serious scholar was recognised in 1960 by his appointment to a university chair at Tübingen. Besides his teaching responsibilities, he spent the two years there lecturing on his hopes for the Council in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland and England.
Despite his controversial opinions, or possibly because of them, his local bishop nominated him to be one of the official advisers to the Council, and during the next three years he spent much time in Rome.
Within the Council itself, and especially at fringe meetings often attended by hundreds of bishops, Küng and a group of like-minded German and Dutch scholars provided the theological basis for substantial reform of the Church. They also assisted bishops with the preparation of their Council speeches. All this proved to be highly influential in the content of the Council’s decrees, and one wag remarked: “The Rhine has flowed into the Tiber.” A new journal, Concilium, was founded by Küng and his colleagues to ensure continuation of the thinking of that time.
But following the death of Pope John XXIII while the Council was still in session, and his succession by Pope Paul VI, it became apparent to Küng and his fellow reformers that the most important of the proposed reforms would not be implemented. So he returned early to Tübingen to a newly created chair of Dogmatic and Ecumenical Theology and to be the first Director of a new Institute of Ecumenical Research.
At the end of the Council Küng received a warning from Cardinal Ottaviani, the deeply conservative head of the Holy Office (soon to be renamed the Council for the Doctrine of the Faith) because of what was alleged to be his negative judgments on some aspects of the Council’s proceedings, and also because of a lecture he had given in New York on “Truthfulness in the Church”.
Two years later, in 1967, when it became known that he had expanded this lecture to become a major book, the Vatican issued a decree demanding that its publication and translations should be stopped until a discussion of its contents had been held in Rome. Küng ignored this and dedicated the book to Dr Michael Ramsey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, who recommended it to the bishops of the Anglican Communion as preparatory reading for the forthcoming Lambeth Conference.
In May 1968 Küng was summoned, with only four days’ notice, to appear at the Vatican for a “discussion”. He was unable to keep this appointment but, after laying down certain conditions, including the presence at the “discussion” of competent experts in biblical exegesis, history and dogmatics, he went to Rome for what turned out to be a series of meetings extending, on and off, for several years.
The publication in 1970 of another controversial book, Infallible? An Enquiry, to mark the centenary of the declaration of papal infallibility, made the “discussion” more intense and sometimes acrimonious. In 1975 it was announced that Küng had been admonished not to advocate his teachings on infallibility – to which 300 Catholic and Protestant theologians of the German and English-speaking worlds responded with a declaration of solidarity with him.
In the previous year Küng had published his 720-page On Being a Christian, which sold more than 160,000 copies in Germany alone and many hundreds of thousands of copies in several other languages. This was not an especially controversial volume, but expressed basic Christian truths in a clear language rarely encountered in official church circles. The German Catholic bishops spent a few years conducting a critical investigation of its contents, and expressed concern about the author’s teaching on the divinity of Christ.
Before they could reach any firm conclusions, however, Küng had published another major work, Does God Exist? (1980). After a masterly survey of modern Western thinking on this question, he concluded that it is neither possible nor impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God: “one affirms the existence of God by a free act of reasonable trust.”
In August 1978 Küng was among a group of leading Roman Catholic theologians who published a document calling for the reform of the Papacy, and for the Pope to seek to remove obstacles to unity with the other major Churches. It was in December of the following year that the Vatican withdrew Küng’s authority to teach as a Catholic theologian.
The Church’s action in respect of his Tübingen post was ultra vires inasmuch as the concordat agreed between the Vatican and Hitler in 1933, which allowed the German state control over professorial appointments, had never been abrogated. But Küng chose not to pursue this line of defence, and in any case the university was providing him with another equivalent post.
Throughout the 1980s and until his retirement in 1996 he continued to teach, brilliantly, at Tübingen where, in spite of his exacting demands, he won the affection of his students. He also undertook visiting professorships in other universities worldwide, while new books still appeared at an astonishing rate. Some of these were still concerned with church reform, and one, Why I am Still a Christian (1987), was a robust defence of his stance vis à vis the Church’s hierarchy.
Six years earlier a former Tübingen colleague and reformer, Joseph Ratzinger, who had changed direction, became a notably conservative Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and would become Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
But during the early 1990s Küng published 500-page volumes on Judaism, Christianity and Islam and declared that there could be no world peace until the great religious faiths had learned to live and work together.
In 1991 he produced Global Responsibility: in search of a world ethic, and afterwards received a telephone call from an unknown German count who offered 5.5 million Deutschmarks to finance a foundation to pursue this subject. The foundation was established in 1995, with Küng as its president, and he wrote more books, as well as organising seminars and exhibitions and holding consultations with international statesmen.
In 2013, Küng published Experienced Humanity, in which he stated his belief that anyone had the right to end their lives if illness, pain, or dementia became intolerable. He was, he suggested, considering it for himself, suffering as he was from Parkinson’s disease and was losing the ability to see and write.
Hans Küng was highly opinionated and very talkative, which some found tiresome, but he was a kind and generous priest who believed that the constant search for truth required no less a commitment than to the way of Christian love.
He was unmarried.
Hans Küng, born March 19 1928, died April 6 2021