I discovered today that Hans Küng died earlier this week. There is an obituary by Peter Stanford in The Guardian. Küng was a Roman Catholic priest and academic theologian, a prolific writer of accessible as well as erudite works on religion.
His work in the 1970s had a formative influence on me, setting the pattern for my own liberal framing of Christian faith. I requested his book On Being a Christian as a 21st birthday present in 1977.
As a significant adviser to the Second Vatican Council Küng was seen by many Christians back then, both inside and beyond the Roman Catholic Church, as a torch-bearer of a new dawn for the Christian Church. I had high hopes as I entered training for the Church of England priesthood that it would not be long before Christian churches, certainly in the West but including the Roman Catholics, would embrace and deliver the kind of agenda Küng and other modernisers outlined. This would include intercommunion and mutual recognition of the ministries of the different churches; a rejection of clericalism and hierarchical structures even in episcopal churches; equality for women including opening all orders of the sacred ministry to them; the end of patriarchy as the default mode of church cultures; a new ethics of human sexuality based on compassion and knowledge, informed by the experiences of the faithful and the human sciences, in genuine dialogue with the ancient traditions.
The unbelievable sudden death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 after only a few weeks in office set church history on a different course. In his place came the charismatic but also deeply traditionalist John Paul II. He encouraged others, like Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, who sought to row back from the progressive vision of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger had turned away from an earlier radicalism he had shared with Küng, his erstwhile academic colleague.
In politics too in the West, democratic and socially progressive ideals were being stifled and conservative traditionalism reasserted with the elections of Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in the UK as the 1980s began. Globally, religious fundamentalism was on the rise, most evident in the Iranian Revolution; and in the USA and in Britain conservative churches teaching traditional interpretations of Christian faith and ethics, often allied to the methods of market capitalism with a stripping away of the historic Christian symbolism, were seen as growing in relevance and strength. Efforts to bring the institutional churches closer together as institutions failed and churches began to be caught up in the culture war between progressive and reactionary visions of society. Huge resources of creativity in the Church of England for example were sunk into the long arduous battle through the 1980s to get to a positive decision on the ordination of women.
Küng, who was himself delisted as a legitimate teacher of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II, has come to stand for me as a symbol of those who speak the truth before most are ready or willing to receive it. There are many examples in history both inside and outside the Church.
There is no inevitability that the Roman Catholic church, and other churches, will eventually embrace the reforms Küng called for. History does not necessarily run in the direction of greater human flourishing. Yet it’s hard to imagine that 100 years from now the mainline Christian communities will be barring women from any form of leadership, or teaching that same-sex marriage is sinful.
What is easier to imagine is that the institutional forms of the churches as we know them will no longer be the effective carriers of dynamic Christian faith and witness; if they are surviving in fossilised form by 2121it’s more likely they will be social curiosities still practicing archaic customs long since abandoned by the majority across the world.