Pope's meeting with Father Küng is significant

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns

In the long run the meeting last month between Pope Benedict XVI and Father Hans Küng, the famously controversial Swiss-born theologian, may not amount to anything, but in the short run it has immense significance.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict upon his surprise election as pope last April. I noted at the time that his choice of the name could signal a healing and unifying pontificate, much like that of Benedict XV (1914-1922), who, within two months of his own election to the papacy, called a halt to the internecine warfare between the ultra-conservative Catholics of his day and Catholics of a more progressive bent -- a conflict that had been initiated and exacerbated by the anti-Modernist campaign of his predecessor, Pius X.

If this was the new pope's intention in choosing his papal name, it would mean that Pope Ratzinger would not continue the style and approach of Cardinal Ratzinger, the often feared and sometimes reviled head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and John Paul II's enforcer of orthodoxy.

In 1979, one year after his own election to the papacy, John Paul II stripped Father Küng of his canonical credentials to teach in the Catholic faculty of theology at Tübingen University in Germany. Several times during that second-longest pontificate in church history (not counting St. Peter), Father Küng had sought unsuccessfully to secure an audience with the pope. For more than 25 years he was rebuffed.

And yet when he wrote to the new pope asking for the same opportunity, his request was immediately granted. To be sure, Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Küng had been friends many years ago. It was Hans Küng who brought the young Joseph Ratzinger to Tübingen in the first place, and they would meet every Thursday evening for dinner.

The relationship soured in 1979 after Father Küng's canonical mission had been revoked, with the approval of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, at the time the archbishop of Munich. (He did not become head of the CDF until 1981.) For all practical purposes, the two close friends no longer spoke to one another. And when Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April, Father Küng greeted the news with "enormous disappointment."

But all that has changed now. Not only did Pope Benedict XVI grant his old friend's wish for a private meeting. He invited him to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, in the hills just outside of Rome, where they talked for several hours, had dinner together and jointly approved a statement, composed by the pope himself in their native German, announcing and describing their meeting for the whole world to read.

Father Küng called the meeting "extraordinary." He said that it would legitimately be seen in the Catholic world and beyond as "a hopeful sign because it shows that he (Benedict) has more positive intentions than maybe what was seen at the beginning." He further characterized the meeting as a "sign of mutual respect" and "a step forward."

"That he dedicated to me so many hours," he said, "this was extraordinary. That he talked to me is a very significant event," especially in light of the fact that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, refused to see him -- for 25 years.

The Vatican Press Office released a statement three days later. It described the meeting between the pope and Father Küng as having been held "in a friendly atmosphere." The discussion concentrated on two subjects that have become important in Father Küng's work: The question of world ethics and the dialogue between science and faith.

According to the Vatican's press release, "the Pope welcomed Professor Küng's efforts to contribute to a renewed recognition of the essential moral values of humanity through the dialogue of religions and in the encounter with secular reason. He stressed that the commitment to a renewed awareness of the values that sustain human life is also an important objective of his own pontificate.

"At the same time, the Pope reaffirmed his agreement with Professor Küng's attempt to revive the dialogue between faith and the natural sciences, and to assert the reasonableness of and need for Gottesfrage ("the question of God") to scientific thought. For his part, Professor Küng expressed his praise for the Pope's efforts in favor of dialogue between religions and towards meeting the different social groups of the modern world."

Some may try to diminish the significance of the pope's meeting with Father Küng by citing Benedict's earlier audience with the head of the Society of St. Pius X, the schismatic movement founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. But that is exactly what bridge-builders do.

And it is also what "pontiff" means.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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