Hans Küng at the German Protestant Church Congress, Duesseldorf, Germany, September 1985 (INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo)


[This interview originally appeared in Commonweal’​s April 9, 1971 issue]

Forty-three-years-old, tan, blue eyes, rectangular face, Hans Küng is a happy man, tranquil, and pugnacious. He was born at Sursee, in the canton of Lucerne in Switzerland: “I am a citizen of a very small country which has a long tradition of liberty. He also explains: “​My family was Catholic, without complexes. That left its mark on me. I am both free and rigorous with theologians and churches, Catholic or Protestant. Hans Küng made his secondary studies at the coeducational Gymnasium of Lucerne: “​I wanted to withdraw. I went to Rome in search of more discipline, to deepen my knowledge of traditional theology and the workings of the church. I arrived with a very, very obedient attitude. It took me at least five years to understand that the way of conceiving theology in Rome was outdated.

Studies at the Gregorian, directed by Jesuits: “​No doubt that’s the reason it is so often said I am a Jesuit. I’​m quite flattered, of course. But I am a secular priest of the diocese of Basel. He adds: “​I suspect that there are intelligent people outside the Society of Jesus.

Ordained in 1954, a vicar at Lucerne, he was sent to Paris to pursue his studies. He speaks with respect of his teachers, Congar, de Lubac.... After his doctorate in theology, he was named professor at the University of Tübingen. In 1962, John XXIII named him an official theological advisor at the Council. Küng explains: “​My concerns cannot be understood if you ignore the university milieu in which I live. I urge a battle for a Christianity with a more human face. I do not separate scholarship from everyday life: I love to celebrate Mass on Sunday with the whole community, to preach at home in Switzerland and to deliver the Christian message—all day long—to the patients at the hospital where I am assigned.


Claude-Francois Jullien: The preface of your book is very hard on Paul VI. It borders on insolence: “​it’s true that a journey to Jerusalem was undertaken.... But... the state of Israel has not been recognized.” You are speaking of the Pope?

Hans Küng: I respect the personality of Paul VI, his good will. I am persuaded that he has the best intentions, for the church and humanity. But how are these intentions realized?  Obviously, one could keep quiet. I know that there are people in the church and outside it who suffer because of this lack of honesty. I say only what other theologians, bishops, and Christians say in private… If the Catholic Church wants to be a community of free Christians, we must not follow totalitarian patterns. Criticism without loyalty is destructive; loyalty without criticism is totalitarian.

CFJ: You take the warpath against papal infallibility, defined by Vatican I as a revealed truth....

HK: Once upon a time, Catholics affirmed that the pope needed a papal state in order to be the pope. Those who disagreed were excommunicated. The pope’s state was taken from him: he remained the pope. It is the same with infallibility, in the sense of infallibility of propositions. For my part, I say: the church is infallible because it is sustained in the truth despite all errors, but it does not need infallible propositions to manifest its infallibility. Besides, I prefer the term indefectibility. This conception has behind it the original Christian message and the strongest tradition. It is not even in contradiction with Vatican I. When the infallibility of the church was defined at that time, it was supposed, in naive fashion, that this could not be conceived without infallible propositions, just as without a papal state. I have questioned this supposition. It is an inquiry. I simply ask for a well-grounded, well-argued response. My argument for a faith which knows why it believes relates to the concern of numerous Christians who no longer want to receive truths without reflection. We need propositions not only guaranteed from without, but which manifest their own truth....

CJF: This placing in question of infallibility implies also the end of the church as a monarchy....

HK: The pope’s authority will not be diminished but transformed. John XXIII did not have less authority than Pius XII and nevertheless he did not insist on formulas. He did not define dogma. The authority of John XXIII derived from the fact that it was founded not on him but on the Gospel.

When Paul VI builds on the Gospel (Populorum Progressio), he receives a warm welcome. But when he stresses a traditional truth of the church, as on birth control, he encounters difficulties. Now, I think—it is the point of departure for my argument—that infallibility was implicated in this very questionable stand taken on birth control.

CJF: You seem to enter into rebellion. You have refused to ask for an imprimatur.

HK: My gesture is not a rebellion. It shows that the imprimatur, prior censorship, is outmoded, like the inquisition. Sometimes one must resist authority to prove the necessity for changes.

The imprimatur did not spare my book, The Church, from proceedings by the Roman inquisition.... I know there are theologians and bishops who want an end to this absolutist system.

CJF: Has the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instigated new proceedings against your latest book?

HK: Not to my knowledge. But I would not be surprised if that is begun soon. Perhaps it is underway: it is always possible to instigate special proceedings by an irregular tribunal.

Rome asked the German bishops to declare themselves. They said that it seemed to them—it is a prudent enough statement—that certain decisive doctrinal elements were not safeguarded. They did not say which. They leave the theological discussion to the theologians. They have not replied to my very explicit question: does the infallibility of the church require infallible propositions? They even avoided the word infallible in their statement. I would hope that they repeat, after Gamaliel in the Acts: “​if their enterprise comes from men, it will destroy itself of its own accord, but if truly it comes from God, you will not succeed in destroying it.”

CJF: You have been reproached with overestimating the domain of infallibility. Since the publication of this book, the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, who is not a conservative, considers you as a “​liberal Protestant.”

HK: It is regrettable that my friend Rahner did not discuss this book with me before publishing his critique. His accusations are not well-founded; besides he is going to publish a new article a good deal more nuanced. Neither in the first article nor in the second, does he demonstrate that the authorities of the church can make in­ fallible statements. His method seems neoscholastic to me. He bases himself on dogmas without asking himself how they are to be interpreted in the light of the Gospel message. He speculates on dogmas and attempts to adapt them to today’s world. Our conflict is not that of a Catholic theologian and a Protestant theologian, but that of two theological methods. History will judge.

The essential question is this: What is the Catholic faith? You cannot reply only by enumerating I don’t know how many propositions. There must be a rather radical change in the Christian existence itself. I don’t think that it will be my book which provokes it. It has been coming for a long time. French theology, for example, accentuated the personalist aspect of faith—one believes in a person and not in some truths or propositions.... As for me, I struggle for a less rationalist and more existential Christianity.

CJF: The dogmas which have been taught as truths it was necessary to believe so as to have the faith—these seem placed in doubt....

HK: In reality, there is only reflection on dogmas. Personally, I have nothing against dogmas. I have spoken very seriously of the possibility of definitions in certain urgent cases, when the church must define that which is Christian and that which is not.

But dogmas must not be considered the way jurists consider laws. Jurists do not reflect on the fashion in which the law is to be taken. They are content to apply it. Dogmas are not laws but “​indicators,” perhaps, which must be interpreted in the light of the Christian message itself.

CJF: Hans Küng, you are violently criticized in the church. Have you ever been tempted to quit it?

HK: I have had numerous temptations, never that of leaving the Catholic Church. If I criticize it more than some others do, it is, on the contrary, a sign of profound adhesion.

Many people would be happy to see me leave the church. Certain ones wait for me to rejoin them on the outside. Others, within the church, desire my departure: they do not accept the notion of criticism from within. In Civiltà Cattolica, the old Jesuit review published in Rome, Father Rosa accuses me of heresy. They would like a new witch hunt.

Me? I feel the church is where I belong.

[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

Claude-Francois Jullien is on the staff of Le Nouvel Observatuer.  

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