Friday, September 23, 2011

Knives Out for Hans Küng as He Critiques Pope Benedict: My Reflections

I find the discussion following my posting yesterday about Hans Küng's reflections as Pope Benedict visits Germany fascinating.  I haven't yet responded to the comments following the posting.  I plan to do that later today. 

Meanwhile, as a reader points out in response to my posting about the ongoing (non-) conversation of Catholic centrists re: and with their gay brothers and sisters, there's been sharp criticism of Küng in the past day or so at the Commonweal blog site, in response to Eric Bugyis's posting about the same Spiegel interview on which my Küng piece commented yesterday.  The gist of this posting is that Küng is over the hill and unable to accept his desuetude in a church and world that have passed him by, and operates out of a vastly inflated sense of his own importance.

And here are some of my reflections as I read these comments--and the responses to my own posting about Küng yesterday: in the first place, though I recognize Hans Küng's monumental contributions to the Catholic church in the 20th century, I have never been a huge fan of Küng.  Küng's a liberal.  

I prefer the school of Catholic theologians in the latter half of the 20th century who call themselves political (in the European context) or liberationist (in the context of the developing) nations.*  These theologians have, in significant ways, exploded the paradigm out of which liberals like Hans Küng function.  They call for a socio-economic analysis of theological issues that is largely lacking in Küng's theology.  

To point to one issue among many that might be raised here to illustrate what I'm saying about the distinction between liberal theologians like Küng and political or liberationist theologians: Küng's interview with Spiegel rightly notes the overweening influence of the secretive right-wing Catholic group Opus Dei on many German bishops today, and on the Catholic church in general.

What Küng fails to note, however, is that the influence this group exerts on Catholic leaders (and on many mainstream, centrist journalists who are now knocking Küng and defending Benedict) is rooted in money.  Opus Dei is not merely a movement of conservative religious reaction within Catholicism.  It is primarily a pseudo-religious movement whose overriding concern is economic.  It wants to assure that the critical social teaching of the Catholic church about capitalism and economic issues does not play any crucial role in what the church proclaims to society today.

It's impossible to do adequate theological analysis of Opus Dei and other movements like it--e,g., the Legionaries of Christ--without adverting to the enormous influence that wealthy conservative economic elites now exert over the thinking and actions of the leaders of the Catholic church.  And over the leaders of most mainstream churches.  And over the gurus of the mainstream media.  It's impossible to understand the theological notions and intentions of these movements without trying to follow the money trails that lie behind them.

Whether political/liberationist theologians actually engage in such analysis of movements like Opus Dei is not so much the point I want to make here.  My primary point here is to note that political and liberation theology opens the door to such analysis, and makes it an intrinsic part of theological analysis, so that no adequate theology can ever be done, if one follows the lead of these theologians, when one remains blind to the economic (and cultural and social) context within which theological reflection takes place.

One cannot adequately understand religious ideas and what they are all about without looking at the effect of those ideas on real people living in the real world--and on real people living in a real world that is, among other things, an economic world.  Liberal theology is weak in this respect.  Theologians like Gutiérrez, Boff, Metz, Segundo, Sobrino, Balisurya, Moltmann, and on and on, offer a valuable corrective to liberal theology by opening the door to socio-economic analysis of the cultural context out of which theological ideas arise, and the socio-economic context that theological ideas always address.

As a classic liberal in the Catholic tradition, Küng has also been largely blind to the questions of justice raised by gay and lesbian Catholics and their supporters, re: our treatment within the Catholic church.  Like many liberal Catholics of the era of Vatican II, he tends to see us as the problem.  He tends to view the problems exhibited by the church's clerical elite as problems rooted largely in the celibacy requirement.  

This way of thinking about the problems of the priestly system as it's currently configured often implicitly assumes that celibacy remains in place primarily because a gay cabal at the top of the church--which is ironically vociferously anti-gay in its public statements--wants to keep the priesthood all-male and celibate, in order to keep women out.  This way of thinking also assumes that the gay cabal has driven out heterosexual priests who would have preferred to marry, and that much of the dysfunction within the church today stems from the domination of the church's leadership and priesthood by gay men.

These assumptions of liberal Catholics of the Vatican II generation never engage the homophobia and heterosexism lurking inside the assumptions, just as they do not ever engage questions about the radical injustice that the church's leaders--whether they are hidden gay men or not--inflict on gay and lesbian Catholics, or, through the moral influence these leaders exert in the world at large, on gay and lesbian people in general throughout the world.

In summary, I am not a wild fan of Hans Küng.  At the same time, I recognize that Küng is one of the most significant Catholic theologians of the 20th century.  His ecclesiological work is now considered magisterial--magisterial in the sense that one cannot talk with any credibility about Catholic ecclesiology in the 20th century, and fail to engage Küng.

But then there's this: it does not escape my notice that those now attacking Küng so loudly are primarily journalists and not theologians.  As journalists, they are, to a certain degree, tone-deaf to the kinds of theological concerns he raises in interviews like the Spiegel interview to which I linked yesterday.  

Küng, after all, is one among some 110 Catholic theologians whom the current pope, acting as the right-hand man of the previous pope, John Paul II, has silenced.  Has removed from his employment and vocation.  Blocked from teaching.  Ditched and canned, permitting him (and all the other theologians to whom this has been done by the current pope) no hearing, no right to know the names of those filing secret charges against him or them, no right to face his or their accusers and respond in any adequate way to them or their charges, to charges never shared in any substantive way with those charged with theological error.

Küng understands from the inside the tremendous price the entire church has paid for the period of repression restoration set in motion by the last two papacies.  Institutions that seek viability do not massacre their thinkers, poets, and prophets.  The Catholic church has been engaged in a figurative, but nonetheless real, bloodbath ever since John Paul II began the restorationist "reform of the reform" with Cardinal Ratzinger, the current pope, as his attack dog--a bloodbath in which one theologian after another has been silenced, removed from teaching positions, forbidden to speak or write.

And all of this has occurred at a period of history in which the health of the Catholic church can hardly be said to be robust--in which (as Küng notes in the interview to which I linked yesterday) the church is bleeding members, rectories are empty, religious communities are dying, the moral influence and credibility of the church's pastors could not be more in shambles due to their mishandling of the abuse crisis, etc. 

Those journalists now attacking Küng as a self-aggrandizing, over-the-hill egomaniac are simply not engaging these real pastoral and theological problems Küng is raising.  These real pastoral and theological problems Küng is raising as a theologian.  These real pastoral and theological problems Küng is raising as a theologian who knows how things function from the inside, since he was a peritus at Vatican II along with the current pope, and has watched how the current pope has decimated the church's intellectual class--its teachers, poets, thinkers, and prophets--in an amazing campaign of betrayal of the promise of Vatican II.

What has become of the Catholic church at this point in history has everything to do with this campaign of repression disguised as restoration of the true church.  Institutions seeking a future, seeking viability, do not massacre their thinkers, poets, and prophets.

And so I agree with those contributors to the Commonweal thread to which I point above who ask if we can't please get beyond the personality-cult preoccupations with Hans Küng and focus on the incontrovertible problems Küng puts in front of our faces.  Because those problems are real, and they're not going to go away, no matter how much we dislike or distrust Küng.

(Interestingly enough, the contributors to the Commonweal discussion about Küng making these eminently sensible points are, to a large extent, women.  And the journalists vilifying Küng are to a great extent men.  One has to wonder if some testosterone-driven ego games are going on with these attacks on an aging theologian who once had great influence in the Catholic church, but whose influence now appears to be waning--as if a pride of cocky young lion kings in the making smell the weakness of the old lion king who is up against the limitations of mortality as he ages . . . .)

I also sense in the journalistic attacks on Küng in recent days the attempt of a group of centrist Catholic journalists to develop a dominant meme about Küng that implicitly exonerates the current pope of blame for his role in creating the situation of disarray in which the Catholic church now finds itself.  There is something altogether too pat about the formulaic cry now emerging among centrist Catholic journalists that Küng is over the hill, out of touch, and, after all, full of his own importance.

This analysis is altogether too pat because it refuses to look squarely at the theological problems at the heart of the Catholic church's precipitous decline at this point in history--problems rooted in abuse of power and authority by the man now sitting in the chair of Peter and by those with whom he has surrounded himself.  To repeat: those problems, and the disarray they have created, are not going to vanish solely because Küng happens to be the one pointing them out to us.  Nor will they go away if we do not face honestly and critically the source from which they emanate: and that is the Vatican itself, in which the current pope played the king-making role for decades before he got himself crowned with the crown of Peter.

Centrists never fail to disappoint, with their utterly predictable penchant for sniffing the winds to see where power lies, and their penchant for siding with the powerful (or with those who give the illusion of having power).  And they never fail to disappoint with their their predictable penchant for attacking anyone who threatens to expose the injustices and limitations of those on whose heads crowns rest uneasily, due to the abuse of power that has earned them their crowns.

But above all, centrists never fail to disappoint with their predictable penchant for banality in a world in which more imagination, critical acumen, and willingness to stand apart from circles of power are desperately necessary, if the world is ever going to become what it has the promise to be.

*And I certainly do not intend to leave out black and feminist theology; I'm focusing here on the theological traditions that arose within a context similar to that in which Küng himself has done theological reflection throughout his career, but which have come to some fundamentally different conclusions about the scope and method of theology.  As my references to particular political and liberationist theologians demonstrate, those two movements have very much needed feminist theology as a critique of their gender-blindness (and, often, their heterosexism).

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