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Dining and reminiscing with Hans Kung, blind.

OXFORD, England -- In Tubingen last month, I melt Hans Kung, who officially "retires" next February, and Peter Hunermann, who succeeded Kings as professor of dogmatic theology in 1981 when Kung lost his license to teach "as a Catholic theologian."

More about Hunermann another time. It will be enough to say that he brought German theology back from the brink of disaster after the Cologne Declaration of 1990, when 77 German-speaking theologians publicly denounced the appointment of Cardinal Joachim Meisner as archbishop of Cologne as unconstitutional. They also declared it intolerable that the teaching of Humanae Vitae on birth-control should be placed on the same level as redemption in Christ Jesus.

Hunermann's rescue act was achieved by founding the European Society for Catholic Theology. In the nick of time it enabled dialogue with the bishops to be resumed. It gave theologians something to do as the frontiers of Europe came tumbling down and old antagonisms resurfaced. No doubt its best work lies ahead.

I got to Kung's residence at Walhauserstrasse 23 in time for lunch. His assistant, Karl-Joseph Kuschel, showed me his own massive Christological work, recently translated into English as Born Before All Time?

Kung prefaces Kuschel's book, introducing its author as a layman and literary critic as well as a theologian, and concludes: "It is a book I would like to have written myself."

Kung's modern house is spacious and book-lined. Its broad windows overlook the valley in which the medieval university town of Tubingen is set and across to the wooded hills opposite. Kung was delayed because he was having a minor cataract operation. That did not quite prepare me for the shock of his arrival, a cotton-wool blindfold held in position by eye patches.

For three days he would be unable to read and write. For a man of his restless energy, this is a blow. But his cheerfulness was undimmed, and he accepted being spoon-fed like a child.

It would certainly be premature to speak of Kung "mellowing." His angry retort to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's The Catholic Catechism dispelled any such thoughts. Yet, he is more reflective and seems to think a stage in his lifework is over.

He is looking forward to his rehabilitation. He played for me the Bavarian Radio presentation of his Munich lecture to the Catholic Academy on Oct. 10. Great applause greeted Heinrich Friers' questions: "Is the Catholic church so narrow that it can't find room for Hans King? Or so rich that it doesn't need him?"

Kung, knowing I had just finished my biography of Paul VI, reminisced about his dealings with him. He first met Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini as a member of an ecumenical group convened by the Dutch theologian Jan Willebrands. It was hush-hush work. The curia did not like it.

Kung found that Montini already knew his first book, a study of his fellow-Swiss theologian Karl Barth, called simply Justification. Barth used to say that if Kung's interpretation was correct, the Reformation reposed upon a mistake.

Montini, an omnivorous reader, knew about it because he sometimes stayed with the monks at the abbey of Engelbert. The bursar, Brother Anselm, hailed from King's hometown of Sursee and was proud of his fellow citizen.

During the first session of the Council, Montini, ever the talent-spotter, remarked that there were two young German theologians from whom we expect a lot: Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Kung. Their names were linked for ever after.

"I do not think my fate could have been very different," muses Kung. For a period, both theologians were colleagues at the University of Munster. Ratzinger's sister, who acted as his secretary, was very protective of her brother, covering his desk with a sheet so that visitors could not see what he was working on. No one ever knew what he had to hide.

Toward the end of the Council, Kung had an audience of three quarters of an hour with Paul VI, while Pericle Felici, secretary of the Council and his sworn foe, paced impatiently up and down outside. Paul said he should put his theology at the service of the church. This was his constant theme.

Kung's difficulties really began in the post-conciliar period, especially when Hans Urs von Balthasar entered the world stage in 1969 as member of the newly founded International Theological Commission.

Kung's "charismatic" view of the church was attacked in the ITC's official reports. Infallibility? in 1971 was even more fiercely attacked and was said to be part of the "anti-Roman prejudice" that marked cis-Alpine scholarship.

Yet, throughout this period Paul VI avoided condemnations. "Treat this man with charity," he minuted Kung's file 399/57i in the CDF archives. Later, he told its president, Cardinal Franjo Seper: "He must be allowed to give a sign of goodwill."

Kung said, "I may have had my differences with Paul VI, but he treated me well and refrained from condemnations." Then, in 1978, came another pontificate and another style.
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Title Annotation:theologian
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 11, 1992
Words:825
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