Saturday, February 08, 2003

On the matter of Hans Küng

I've gotten through about three of seven boxes in that back room (it's a sun porch, actually) and am still coming up with things I'd completely forgotten about. I mean totally and completely. I'm really quited impressed with the energy I had in those days. Piss me off and you could find a very long letter in your mailbox. This one was written to the Flordia Catholic, our diocesan newspaper, not too long after the Pope had tried a little semi-tough love with Hans Küng, telling him he wasn't really part of the family anymore, but not locking him out of the house. The Florida Catholic carried a regular column by Father Richard McBrien, who naturally spent the next one trying to defend his German colleague and fellow-traveler. The difference between the two men was that McBrien was shrewder in his utterances. He knew how to cover his ass. But he didn't fool me, and so I wrote, submitting the thing not as a letter to the editor, but as a guest column, begging equal time for the orthodox. Months passed. About eight of them, I think. Nothing. I don't remember exactly when I sent it, but when it was finally returned (with the editor's profuse apology - he'd misplaced it (likely story) and hadn't used it originally because of its length), the date on it was September 2, 1980. He said that I made some "very good points" and that I write "interestingly." Isn't that a lovely word, not to mention very complimentingly?

What interests me upon re-reading the thing (mine, not his) is how little the battle lines have moved. In fact, I don't think they have. The demarcations described in Monsignor Kelly's Battle for the American Church represent a kind of ongoing trench warfare; everybody seems to end up back in the same old ditch. What the Pope did to Küng he could as well have done to innumberable clergy, religious, theologians, and literally millions of laity, and could still do today. Anyway, here's the letter:

Dear Father Page,

I suppose it is too much to hope for, but my gratitude would be inexpressible if you might find room to publish this letter as a response to Father McBrien's column in the Feb. 1 issue of The Florida Catholic. I would not undertake such a task if your paper also carried a more traditional columnist to offset the unorthodox sentiments of men like Greely and McBrien. I pray that this is not a conscious editorial policy.
You will have noticed that I do not use the word "liberal" to describe McBrien's writings, since there is nothing essentially repugnant about liberalism as a political philosophy. In fact, it is too kind a word, for it is wreathed in secular political connotations that do not make much sense when applied to one's position on matters of Catholic doctrine. The Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility are not ideas the Church has thrown up for debate. They are truths to be believed. One's adherence to, or departure from, traditional Catholic teaching is more accurately spoken of in terms of one's orthodoxy, and along these lines I'm sure I do not stand alone among your readers as holding Father McBrien suspect.

He raises a number of questions in his column concerning Hans Küng and the Church, but it seems to me that the one question out of which all others arise, and to which all others are subordinate, is the matter of Papal Infallibility. The question is, in McBrien's own words, "Is the doctrine of papal infallibility so essential to Catholic identity that a rejection or even criticism of it would be enough to put one entirely outside the Catholic tradition?" Having asked, Father McBrien attempts no answer, so I will answer it for him: yes. His use of the word "entirely," (as though one might be "partly" a Catholic) is an accusatory device calculated to make the reader feel cruel if he arrives at just such an answer. His subsequent references to infallibility as a "secondary, not a primary doctrine," and to a "hierarchy of truths" are obfuscations left unexplained, designed to keep us from confronting the issue head on and to excuse himself from resolving it.

I do not wonder that he shrinks from such a duty, for the fact of the matter is that without Papal Infallibility, there is no Tradition. This word Tradition, in the Catholic sense, carries a meaning not given to it by any other person or group of persons outside the Church. It does not refer simply to what Catholics have done down through the ages, though it includes that too; more precisely it refers to the Deposit of Faith given by Christ to the Apostles, to which we cannot add and from which we cannot subtract. All subsequent developments, like the Immaculate Conception, are clarifications, not additions. If this were not so, how could we know that the Immaculate Conception was a true object of our faith? Likewise, we could not know that our devotion to the Real Presence was anything more than an exercise in mass delusion, that the hypostatic union of Christ's human and divine natures has been properly defined, that Mary was ever virgin, that Holy Scripture in its present form is the book we should be reading, and, finally, that the Pope is right and Hans Küng is wrong.

Papal Infallibility has been with us from the beginning and, unlike the Immaculate Conception, its literal mandate can be found in the Gospels. Yet even the Gospels depend on infallibility, for Tradition, and the teaching authority contained therein, precede the New Testament. The doctrine's definition in the 19th century was another clarification, not an addition. It is implicit in the writings of the Church Fathers and in all subsequent Church councils. Vatican II, sharing in this infallibility, endorsed the doctrine in its entirety in clear and unambiguous terms. I wish I had space here to recapitulate the Council's affirmation of this magnificent tenet of our faith, but my Catholic brothers and sisters are perfectly capable of educating themselves, something Father McBrien assumes, probably correctly, that most of them will not bother to do. Suffice it to say that when a serious question of faith or morals arises (e.g. artificial contraception), the Pope will be right when the rest of us are wrong.

As to how this affects Father Küng's catholicity, McBrien asks another question very much to the point but, again, very much without an answer: "If Kung is not a Catholic theologian, why is he not also a non-Catholic?" Again the answer is simple: he is a non-Catholic. Next question: Then why wasn't he defrocked and excommunicated? Simple: the Church jealously guards the soul of every sheep entrusted to her care, even Father Küng's, and does not wish to lose it. She has mercifully left open the door to reconciliation, and awaits only Father Küng's act of humility. His apostasy, short of excommunication, does not invalidate his ability to consecrate the bread and wine, only his ability to lead his flock along the path of truth. But if he continues to push it, he may yet discover what it is to be fully separated from the true fellowship of the Lord's table.

The final word on Küng's catholicity is, really, his own. He denies the physical resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, Infallibility, and teeters precariously on Christ's divinity, all crucial Catholic holdings. Without any help from the Church at all, he has defined himself right out of it. McBrien would make him out the sacrificial lamb, and though he may have been sacrificed as a warning to others, he is certainly no lamb. Rather, a ravening wolf who would devour that which the Father has revealed unto babes and concealed from the wise and learned. As Chesterton once observed of Martin Luther, the mind of a Küng or McBrien would be invisible on an intellectual map the size of Aquinas, yet even the Angelic Scholar had his limits: he was opposed to the idea of the Immaculate Conception. I would throw away Küng and McBrien to follow Aquinas, but I would throw away Aquinas to follow the Pope.

"Doctrinal development," which Father McBrien seems so concerned to protect, is not really the issue. Hans Küng does not favor us with further insight into the meaning of infallibility by advocating its abolition. He does not enrich our understanding of the Resurrection by suggesting that it did not occur. He does not magnify our devotion to the Blessed Virgin by contending that she really wasn't. And he does not enhance our Catholic identity by trying to make us Protestant. Even a Protestant would choke on Küng's christology.

What we Catholics must remember, and of what the McBriens are so loath to remind us, is that Christ has given us the vessel of truth. The Catholic Church is not just another scenic path among many along which we might find our way back to God; it is itself the path. God would not come to earth and depart without leaving us a guardian against error. An individual Buddhist or Muslim or Christian Scientist might be justified in God's eyes, but that does not mean He has abrogated His desire that we become one fold, with one Shepherd. A good Baptist will make a better Catholic. A bad Catholic will not make a good Baptist; having become lukewarm, he will not make much of anything. Having lost that which is best, he will not know how to save even that which is least.

"Truth unites, error divides," writes Father John Hardon, author of my favorite Cathechism. Said another of my favorite Authors: "A house divided against itself cannot stand," and His, truly, are the last words. A church is not infallible today and fallible tomorrow; if one doctrine falls, they all fall; if one is untrue, none may be true. The Catholic faithful should pray for Father Küng, and if he returns there will be much joy in heaven; if he does not they will throw a party in hell. But it is for Father Küng that we pray, not his heretical teachings. On the day the news broke I asked a priest friend of mine, a man much loved and much learned in these affairs, "Have you heard, Father? The Pope finally came down on Hans Küng." He just looked at me a moment, then clasped his hands at his waist and murmured, "Thanks be to God." Amen.


you say, God would not come to earth and not leave us a guardian against error-and that is the Pope? I say it is His Word, and a life according to it's teaching.
Posted by bob email at February 9, 2004 10:54 AM

Having studied Scripture and the history of Christianity for over 20 years, last year I realized I did not want to face my Lord without being able to confess the sufficiency of the Cross. Faith in Jesus Christ and belief in the fulfillment of the Cross allowed me to leave behind all the erroneous man-made mandates of the Catholic Church. On September 7, 2003 I was baptized into Christianity and was assured of my salvation by the Word of God. Are you willing to tell our Lord that what He did wasn't enough?
Posted by barb taushanoff email at March 21, 2004 06:01 PM

Baptism isn't enough by any means; it is more important to persevere in Christ afterwards - Jesus said that "He who endures to the end will be saved" Paul implied that it was very possible to fall out of favour, having won it through Baptism, when he said "provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off." Jesus suggests that people would fall out of favour if "believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away".
Posted by Greg email at March 24, 2004 07:33 AM

Thanks for pitching in, Greg. Spot on citation.
Posted by William Luse email at March 25, 2004 01:10 AM

I don't know why you decided to pick that gnit and in this odd spot, but Mr. Luse was ranting, and ranting smashingly, about the apostasy of a particular individual.
There are things about Jesus which we need to know and have confidence. We need to know that he was born according to the scriptures, and lived according to the scriptures and died and rose again according to the same scriptures. I don't get the sense that the wayward preist ascribed to those basic doctrines.
I'm glad that you have come to understand God's incredible love for you in Christ Jesus and hope that your baptism is a step in a journey that will faithfully follow God. It is not an easy journey. Be strong and courageous.
Posted by Julie email at March 27, 2004 08:13 PM

Thanks, Julie.
Posted by William Luse email at March 29, 2004 04:23 AM

I have read Kung for over twenty years, and I have continued to receive the grace of God in our Lord Jesus by way of Kung's writings. I read the Bible every day, as I have for most of my life, and this morning I spent about an hour studying the Sermon on the Mount. I like Hans Kung. H.C.
Posted by H.C. email at July 7, 2004 01:21 PM

I'm glad you like reading the Bible. Küng doesn't believe half of what it says.
Posted by William Luse

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