Hans Küng on the ‘Putinization of the Catholic Church’

Since being exposed, many moons ago now, to Hans Küng’s excellent book The Church, I’ve tried, slowly, to get my eyes upon everything available by Küng. In fact, I’ve just finished reading his book Eternal Life?: Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem. Like his other work – indeed, as with all great thinkers – one need not agree with everything he says to learn much from him. Anyway, I’m waffling. The point of this post is simply to draw attention to the fact that Der Speigel has just published a very frank and interesting two-part interview with Küng (‘Part 1: A Putinization of the Catholic Church’, and ‘Part 2: The Catholic Church Will Undoubtedly Become More Protestant’) in which the main subject of attention is, somewhat unsurprisingly given the titles, the non-gospel shape of Pope Benedict’s leadership. It made me wonder for a moment if Küng had been reading Forsyth! Anyway, here’s a few snippets:

Ratzinger’s predecessor, John Paul II, launched a program of ecclesiastical and political restoration, which went against the intentions of the Second Vatican Council. He wanted a re-Christianization of Europe. And Ratzinger was his most loyal assistant, even at an early juncture. One could call it a period of restoration of the pre-council Roman regime …

In my view, the Catholic Church as a community of faith will be preserved, but only if it abandons the Roman system of rule. We managed to get by without this absolutist system for 1,000 years. The problems began in the 11th century, when the popes asserted their claim to absolute control over the Church, by applying a form of clericalism that deprived the laity of all power. The celibacy rule also stems from that era … It’s true that this absolutism is an essential element of the Roman system. But it was never an essential element of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council did everything to move away from it, but unfortunately it wasn’t thorough enough. No one dared to criticize the pope directly, but there was an emphasis on the pope’s collegial relationship with the bishops, which was designed to integrate him into the community again …

The shamelessness with which the Vatican’s policy has simply hushed up and neglected the concept of collegiality since then is beyond compare. An unparalleled personality cult prevails once again today, which contradicts everything written in the New Testament. In this sense, one can state this very clearly. Benedict has even accepted the gift of a tiara, a papal crown, the medieval symbol of absolute papal power, which an earlier pope, Paul VI, chose to surrender. I think this is outrageous. He could change all of this overnight, if he wanted to …

In the past, the Roman system was compared with the communist system, one in which one person had all the say. Today I wonder if we are not perhaps in a phase of “Putinization” of the Catholic Church. Of course I don’t want to compare the Holy Father, as a person, with the unholy Russian statesman. But there are many structural and political similarities. Putin also inherited a legacy of democratic reforms. But he did everything he could to reverse them. In the Church, we had the Council, which initiated renewal and ecumenical understanding. Even pessimists couldn’t have imagined that such setbacks were possible after that. The Polish pope’s restoration policy, beginning in the 1980s, made it possible for the like-minded head of the highly secretive Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), once known as the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition – and it’s still an inquisition, despite its new name – to be elected pope.


  1. Personally, I am not even sure Kung understands the Gospel, and lets call it the Augustinian Gospel of a Benedict/Ratzinger? Kung’s problem is more or chiefly ecclesiastical! This is just a political piece by Kung, to compare the Roman Church to the Russian Putin. And note, I don’t even believe in the papal doctrines myself, but this goes well beyond that issue, and attacks the core of the whole papal or Catholic Church structure itself. Authority has always been a problem for Kung!


  2. I could only rejoice if Küng attacked the Catholic Church structure itself, because I do believe quite strongly that the gospel stands radically against it. I’m not sure how much of that Küng grasps, but he’s a prophetic voice in the wilderness.


  3. @Robert and David: I’d be interested to know if you’ve read Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let us Keep the Feast and, if so, what you thought of it, and particularly of some of Hunsinger’s ‘proposals’ about eucharist and ministry.


  4. @Jason,

    Yes, I had that Hunsinger book, and read some of it, but passed it on. We know Hunsinger is a Barthian somewhat. It must be obvious that I tend toward conservative theology, though I am no overt conservative I don’t think. But as one raised Irish Roman Catholic in Dublin, I do tend toward conservative theological ideas, Thomism somewhat, certainly Augustinianism. But of course I am now an Anglican (well over 25 years, closer to 30), and Reformed. And I have myself been ecumenical minded at times, being close to the EO in the past. But I must confess that I don’t care for Kung, but I have read him some. I have read that older book too, ‘The Church’.

    *Note I was a Catholic Benedictine for a few years (in my 20’s). Just after my first tour in the RMC’s. For what its worth, my first degree and BA was in philosophy, and Roman Catholic.


  5. As an ecclesiologist who has recently published a study on the question of Catholic papal authority, in which I survey Joseph Ratzinger’s theology very closely, I can say without any doubt that Küng is once again talking rubbish. (See my *Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy* from the University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), which is no great surprise as he’s not had an original, much less interesting, thought in half a century.

    There is abundant evidence against this thesis of centralization of power, though facts never get in the way of a good caricature: inter alia any fair-minded observer must recognize that Summorum Pontificio (issued motu proprio, ie., on the pope’s own initiative) of 2007 freed priests around the world to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite without any hierarchical intervention; the 2009 offer to erect Anglican ordinariates so that much of their local customs (liturgical, etc.) could be preserved free from hierarchical, much less curial, meddling; returning beatifications to the local churches without Roman, much less papal, involvement; and now the offer of a personal prelature to the SSPX, giving them a vast degree of “autonomy” if they accept it. If there’s much more “centralization” like this, then the Vatican is going to start looking like Switzerland!


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