A letter from Hans Küng


Hans Küng is a famous Swiss Catholic theologian and a personal hero of mine, so I was over joyed to receive a personal letter from him yesterday. Küng was a peritus at Vatican II, and is most famous for his criticism of Papal Infallibility in his book Infallible? and for his influence upon the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. He is a priest, an ecumenical professor at Tübingen and is a prolific writer.

Küng turned 88 on March 19th, so wrote to him earlier to wish him happy birthday and thank him for his life work, and then I received this letter in response (see the header image). Küng recently appealed Pope Francis regarding the problem of infallibility that has plagued Küng all these years, and after receiving an encouraging response from the pope, he wrote a statement regarding it, and then included a signed copy of that statement in the letter he sent to me.

Hans Küng has changed the way I understand the Catholic Church through his writings and biography, especially through his books Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflectionand The Church (and its companion, Structures of the Church). Through these books I learned about the legacy of Hans Kung and that there is no longer any reason for Catholics and Protestants to remain separated, and whatever disagreements happened in the past, do not apply to the Church today. Karl Barth came to the same conclusion and endorsed Küng's books. Küng helped me understand that the Catholic view of Justification is not synergistic and is compatible with Barth's doctrine of Justification, and he even addressed my concerns about the Council of Trent anathema of salvation by faith alone. Now, I constantly asking myself if I am a schismatic for remaining separated from the Catholics Church after the progress made in Vatican II.

Here is a list of articles I've written about Hans Küng.

Contents of the letter:


To Wyatt, many thanks and kind regards

Hans Küng

The Pope answers Hans Küng

On 9 March, my appeal to Pope Francis to give room to a free, unprejudiced and open-ended discussion on the problem of infallibility appeared in the leading journals of several countries. I was thus overjoyed to receive a personal reply from Pope Francis immediately after Easter. Dated 20 March, it was forwarded to me from the nunciature in Berlin.

In the Pope’s reply, the following points are significant for me:

  • The fact that Pope Francis answered at all and did not let my appeal fall on deaf ears so to speak;
  • The fact that he replied himself and not via his private secretary or the Secretary of State;
  • That he emphasizes the fraternal manner of his Spanish reply by addressing me as
    Lieber Mitbruder (Dear Brother) in German and puts this personal address in italics,
  • That he clearly read the appeal, to which I had attached a Spanish translation, most attentively;
  • That he is highly appreciative of the considerations which had led me to write Volume 5 in which I suggest theologically discussing the different issues which the infallibility dogma raises in the light of Holy Scripture and Tradition with the aim of deepening the constructive dialogue between the “semper reformanda” 21st century Church and the other Christian Churches and post-modern society.

Pope Francis has set no restrictions. He has thus responded to my request to give room to a free discussion on the dogma of infallibility. I think it is now imperative to use this new freedom to push ahead with the clarification of the dogmatic definitions which are a ground for controversy within the Catholic Church and in its relationship to the other Christian Churches.

I could not have foreseen then quite how much new freedom Pope Francis would open up in his Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Already in the introduction he declares “that not all doctrinal discussions, moral or pastoral, need to be resolved with interventions of the Magisterium.” He takes issue with “cold bureaucratic morality” and does not want bishops to continue behaving as if they were “arbiters of grace”. He sees the Eucharist not as a reward for the perfect but as “nourishment for the weak”. He repeatedly quotes statements made at the Episcopal Synod or at national bishops’ conferences. Pope Francis no longer wants to be the sole spokesman of the Church.

This is the new spirit that I have always expected from the Magisterium. I am fully convinced that in this new spirit a free, impartial and open-ended discussion of the infallibility dogma, this fateful key question of destiny for the Catholic Church, will be possible. I am deeply grateful to Pope Francis for this new freedom and combine my heartfelt thanks with the expectation that the bishops and theologians will unreservedly adopt this new spirit and join in this task in accordance with the Scriptures and with our great church tradition.

Translation: Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, Vienna


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  1. Just a quick comment. To say that Barth “endorsed” Küng’s thesis needs some qualification. In his “letter to the author” (which is, as you know, published in Küng’s book), Barth praises Küng for accurately and beautifully presenting his position on justification, and that is a significant comment indeed. But Barth immediately thereafter expresses some reservations about whether Küng is accurately presenting the Roman Catholic position. Barth is happy to find himself and Rome in accord if indeed Küng is right about the latter, but “Of course, the problem is whether what you have presented here really represents the teaching of your Church.”

    I have actually been doing quite a bit of research lately on the Catholic reception of Barth in Europe. Küng’s book received numerous reviews and was widely discussed. Emmanuele Riverso, the Italian Catholic who wrote a book on Barth, is one example of a peer who would disagree with Küng’s thesis, and the point of criticism would be — reflecting Barth’s hesitance — especially directed at Küng’s selective, albeit extensive, use of source material for presenting the Catholic position. As for myself, I am not convinced of Küng’s interpretation of Trent and in relation to the Protestant simul or law-gospel or his peculiar neglect of mortal sin, penance, and such. Nonetheless, I certainly do not think that the “synergistic” label (or, worse, “Pelagian/Semi-Pelagian” label) is accurate or helpful when it comes to understanding Rome’s doctrine of justification and sanctification. But that would require a post of my own. I believe that there is a way forward for reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, but I am more inclined to say that it is the Protestant, not the Catholic, who needs to give more credit to the Catholic doctrine on justification and sanctification, including its rich dogmatic and exegetical history. Küng is a wee bit too anxious to morph the Catholic doctrine into the Barthian-Protestant mold.

    Having said all of that, I am nonetheless in agreement with the spirit of this post!

    • Here is what Karl Rahner said about it:

      “Thinking as we do, as we shall shortly explain, that we do not understand Barth’s doctrine better than Barth, and that Küng propounds on all essential points a doctrine of justification which is in accord with Catholic doctrine, nothing very noteworthy can be said here on the actual theme of the book. Our considerations are therefore marginal notes with regard to the object and contents of the book, and we wish them to be understood as such.”

      Rahner, Karl. “Questions of Controversial Theology on Justification.” Theological Investigations Volume IV: More Recent Writings. Vol. IV. Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966. 189. Print.

      • Thanks for this. That’s not surprising given the similarities between Rahner and Küng and all those associated with the Concilium journal. In Grover Foley’s article, “The Catholic Critics of Karl Barth” (SJT, June 1961), he compares Riverso, Bouillard, and Küng — all having published extensive treatments of Barth. Riverso is the more traditional Catholic of the three, and so he contrasts Barth and Catholicism the most. Bouillard represents la nouvelle théologie (with de Lubac, Bouyer, Daniélou, Ratzinger, Balthasar, et al.), so it is not surprising that he stands somewhere between Riverso and Küng when it comes to relating Barth and Catholicism. Bouillard finds more consonance than Riverso does, but he is more critical than Küng. On justification, both Riverso and Bouillard, unlike Küng, are certain that Barth and Catholicism are not essential teaching the same thing, at least not in many crucial matters

        As for your statement from Rahner, I would ask Rahner what he determines to be “all essential points.” Certainly there is a great deal of value in Küng’s book, recognizing how the soteriological terms (“justification,” “redemption,” et al.) were differently defined and polemically weighted and how this unduly heightened the contrast between Protestants and Catholics. And most importantly, Küng is drawing out the christological basis for both sides. With Christ as the beginning and end of our salvation, for both Catholics and Protestants, then all are agreed on this most essential point. But there are also subsidiary points, which many would find to be essential as well. For example, whether salvation can be forfeited is answered very differently by Rome and by the Reformed.

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