The Küng debate in hindsight

Lately I’ve taken a look at the debate that Hans Küng’s book Infallible? An Enquiry caused in the early 1970s. My sources for these thoughts are Joseph Costanzo’s The Historical Credibility of Hans Kung, Küng’s memoirs in Disputed Truth as well as some German articles in Zum Problem Unfehlbarkeit, a collection of responses to Küng by top theologians (such as Rahner and Ratzinger) right after the publication of his book.

The positive outcome of the debate, as Küng sees it, is a threefold agreement among theologians. First, theologians seem agreed that the magisterium can err and has occasionally erred. Second, there is a tendency to avoid talking about infallibility and to prefer other terms. Third, there is agreement on the fact that the Church is preserved in truth despite its errors.

According to Küng the difference is only over the question whether the Holy Spirit can guarantee the a priori infallibility of propositions. This, he claims, no theologian has been able to (or even tried to) prove. But as Fr. Costanzo pointed out, it is not very clear what would constitute such proof.

The way Küng puts the questions seems to me to confuse things somewhat. The emphasis on propositions takes the debate too much toward philosophy and directs attention away from the biblical and historical data. Pastor Aeternus appeals to the Bible and to history; it does not phrase the issue in terms of propositions and philosophy.

The Bible and history do seem to be decisive for Küng as well. He lists three insights brought out by the debate: 1) The inventor of papal infallibility is the 13th century Franciscan (heretic?) Petrus Olivi, 2) The teaching authority of the councils does not rest on infallible statements but on the gospel, 3) There is no support for the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome either in the NT or in the tradition of the first three centuries.

So, we could infer that for Küng the proof would have to be clear biblical teaching and an apostolic tradition stemming from the very first centuries. This is not an unreasonable demand, in fact it is precisely what Vatican I claims. But Küng is right to say that nobody has been able to bring forth such evidence.

Instead, the dogma of Vatican I has been reinterpreted in Catholic theology along very moderate lines. Küng quotes a letter from Brian Tierney pointing out that Küng’s opponents such as Rahner never notice that their nuanced theories are incompatible with the dogma of Vatican I. One amusing insight is that according to the moderate interpretation Vatican I actually ended up defining papal fallibility.

Instead of trying to bring out evidence from the Bible and Church Fathers, Rahner’s strategy against Küng was to dispute his theological method. According to Rahner, Küng’s book posed a “deadly threat” to his Catholic faith. Rahner said this was no longer an intra-Catholic debate but a dialogue with a liberal Protestant.

It is true that Küng’s views and methods were much influenced by Karl Barth and Ernst Käsemann. But is it enough to simply denounce Küng and question his Catholicism? Unfortunately even Ratzinger takes this approach: How can one claim to be French or German or Swiss if one puts oneself against everything that constitutes one’s tradition?

I would say that as long as one had German blood and German citizenship, one would be German even if one didn’t want to speak German or sing German songs or follow German law. Similarly, as long as one is in communion with one’s bishop who is in communion with the Pope, as long as one is nourished by the blood of Christ, one is a Catholic.

Ratzinger did manage to point out many historical errors in Küng’s book (so did fr. Costanzo), but these remain peripheral in terms of the main argument of the book. Ratzinger also criticized Küng’s militant rhetoric, which was fair enough. But he had some good things to say, too: he praised Küng’s exposition (or exposal) of “Roman theology”, which is not necessarily the same as Catholic theology.

Some interesting statements by Karl Rahner include that Jesus would’ve understood nothing of Pastor Aeternus and that papal infallibility guarantees the infallibility of other dogmas, but is not itself infallible. Or, if one wants to say it was infallible on the basis of the infallibility of the ecumenical council, one simply pushes it a step back, because that will not be an infallible teaching.

In other words, the doctrines of infallibility are not what faith is based on, they are rather parts of the system that is accepted on other grounds. Küng told Rahner his book was not really a threat to his Catholic faith but to his theological method, which constantly started from dogmas in order to return to them.

In general, skimming through the contributions to the Küng debate, it seems that much of it missed the point. Whether Humanae vitae was infallible or whether it was wrong, whether propositions are true or false or both or neither, whether Küng is Catholic enough or not. But as we have seen, there were some positive and concrete results, too.

The debate died out for some decades, but now it seems it is time for it to rise from the grave, transformed, in the form of an non-polemical ecumenical dialogue. In my estimation it should systematically lay out the biblical, historical and hermeneutical problems and offer tentative solutions for the Church to work with in a future council.

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