A theme that emerges at several points in Hans Küng's book Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), and which catches my eye, is the inability or refusal of far too many Catholic theologians in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (and still today) to stand against and correct the megalomaniacal claims of both popes — claims that have seriously damaged the Catholic church at this point in its history. I like the fact that Küng does not let us, the people of God, off the hook as he surveys the dismal state of a Catholic church sick unto death today. The problems are not all due to mismanagement at the top of the institution, by any means.
As a theologian, I appreciate that Küng seeks to remind theologians of our responsibility to speak the truth in love for the good of the entire body of Christ, and to exercise our teaching office in the church courageously, with a willingness to risk our job security and our reputations as we remain faithful to our calling to be teachers in the church, and not automatons programmed automatically to repeat Vatican diktats and catechetical formulas. As he notes, unfortunately, this is far from how most theologians have viewed their ministry during the years of JPII and BXVI, and the cravenness of far too many theologians has contributed significantly to the deplorable state in which the Catholic church finds itself today.
Early in his book, Küng writes,
I repeat: I would have preferred not to write this book. In fact, I would not have written it, if: . . .
• the theologians had, as in former times, strongly and publicly stood together to oppose Rome's new repressive measures and its attempts to control the selection of the next generation of teachers in university faculties and seminaries. Instead, however, most Catholic theologians, fearing censure and marginalization, now skirt around taboo topics of dogmatic or moral theology rather than face up to them in an unbiased and critical manner. Only very few, therefore, dare to support the global and grassroots Catholic reform organizations such as We Are Church, Call to Action, and, in Ireland, the Association of Catholic Priests (3-4).
And the predictable (and entirely lamentable) result of the repressive exercise of Petrine ministry by the two restorationist popes, JPII and BXVI, both of whom deliberately targeted theologian after theologian for speaking the truth in love and daring to exercise her or his vocation as a teacher in the church, as someone engaged in honest critical inquiry and not ideological spin-doctoring? Academic theology in the Catholic church has, to a great extent, become dumbed down, Küng maintains — and he's correct:
The decline of academic theology goes hand in hand with the crisis in the Church and of those in its service. Of course, many conscientious theologians still exist, and, fortunately, many of them are women. But young independent-minded theologians with the stature of the conciliar theologians are few and far between. How can they possibly develop in this climate of suspicion where independent thought and intellectual creativity are so unwelcome and advancement depends on toeing the line? Critical topics are hardly ever addressed, and the voices of dissenting authors are silenced. In many theology departments, intellectual life and staff are wasting away (234).
It's easy to see the dumbing-down reality to which Küng is pointing here, a reality that JPII and BXVI intended as they attacked theologians, on full display at any meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in recent years. The most recent CTSA meeting is no exception.
At that meeting, the presentation that has everyone excited (see, e.g., this Commonweal thread responding to a report by Grant Gallicho) was one by Paul Griffiths, one of the conservative Anglicans who swam across the Tiber to Rome under JPII, and who holds a chair in Catholic theology at Duke University without having any strong academic credentials in the area of Catholic theology. The gist of Professor Griffiths's presentation to CTSA: Catholic theologians need to become more and not less subservient to Rome at this point in history.
Or, as Michael Sean Winters, who naturally eats up Griffiths's thesis enthusiastically, summarizes Griffiths's point,
What the Church needs today is theologians who start with the doctrines of the Church and seek understanding of those doctrines in light of their experiences.
What Winters hears in Griffiths's appeal for more subservience to Rome among theologians is a call, in short, for more policing of Catholic theology. For more boxing in. For more pre-formatting, curbing, curtailing, and controlling. For more centralized regulation of what theologians may think and may say. For more cut and dried formulations of what doctrine means, rather than for more creative and critical explorations of doctrine — explorations that allow us to distinguish between papal utterances masquerading as doctrine (e.g., the ban on ordaining women or the declaration that gay human beings are intrinsically disordered) and real doctrine (e.g., the teaching about the Trinity).
What Küng is clearly reminding us of in this book is that the Spirit is by Her very nature (and the following assertions are deeply rooted in Christian doctrine) the antithesis of policing, of boxing in, of pre-formatting, curbing, curtailing, controlling, of centralizing and regulating, of cut and dried formulations. The Spirit blows where She will, and the primary task of theologians is to listen, on behalf of and with the entire church, to what the Spirit is saying to the church as She blows freely through it — not to pretend that every word dropping from papal or episcopal or curial lips is the Spirit's manifestation within the body of Christ.
What Hans Küng is seeking to remind us of in this book is that without the Spirit, one simply doesn't have church in any meaningful sense of the word, no matter how much one has strong papal regulation and an unbending emphasis on never-varying doctrine (an emphasis that illicitly apotheosizes each and every utterance of a pope and pretends that papal utterances constitute unchanging Catholic doctrine). One doesn't have church without the Spirit, because one has an inanimate, lifeless corpse when one subtracts Spirit from the body of Christ — no matter how precise the doctrine describing what the deceased body was all about, and no matter how rigid the control over theologians turned into catechism-parsers exercised from the heart of the stone-cold corpse. And that's a far cry — it's light years away — from how Paul Griffiths and Michael Sean Winters imagine the theological enterprise.
How they imagine it is part and parcel of what has brought the Catholic church to its current sickness unto death. Their "remedy" for Catholic theology is, in short, a prescription for the church's demise.