The following interview with noted theologian Hans Küng was published today (2/24/09) in French in Le Monde. We bring it to you in English -- translation by Rebel Girl.
A long silhouette with glabrous face and unruly hair, Hans Küng, considered to be the greatest living rebel Catholic theologian, received us at his home in Tübingen, Germany, in his elegant property with walls covered with books. His own -- numerous and translated into all languages -- have a place of honor in his personal office. Here, he comes back to the storm triggered by the hand Pope Benedict XVI stretched out to Catholic fundamentalists.
How do you analyze the decision of Benedict XVI to lift the excommunication of the four bishops from the fundamentalist branch of Archbishop Lefebvre, one of whom, Richard Williamson, is an alleged Holocaust denier?
I was not surprised. Back in 1977, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, Archbishop Lefebvre stated that "some cardinals support (his) branch" and that "the new Cardinal Ratzinger has promised to intercede with the Pope to find a solution for (them)." This shows that this case is neither new nor a surprise. Benedict XVI has always talked a lot with these people. Today, he has lifted their excommunication, because he believes the time has come. He thought he could find a formula to reintegrate the schismatics, who, while maintaining their beliefs, could give the impression that they are in agreement with Vatican II. He was very wrong.
How do you explain why the pope did not measure the uproar that his decision would create, even beyond the negationist words of Richard Williamson?
The lifting of the excommunications was not a communication or tactical failure, but it was a mistake by the Vatican government. Even if the Pope did not know about the negationist statements of Bishop Williamson and even if he is not anti-Semitic himself, everyone knows that the four bishops in question are anti-Semitic. In this case, the fundamental problem is the opposition to Vatican II, and notably the refusal to have a new relationship with Judaism. A German pope should have considered this to be a central point and shown no ambiguity about the Holocaust. He failed to understand the danger. Unlike Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has reacted strongly.
Benedict XVI has always lived in a church. He has traveled very little. He has remained locked in the Vatican - which is like the Kremlin of the past - where he is protected from criticism. So he was not able to realize the impact of such a decision in the world. Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who could been a counterforce, was his subordinate at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but he is a doctrinal man, absolutely submitted to Benedict XVI. We are dealing with a problem of structure. There is no democratic element in this system, no correction. The pope was elected by conservatives, and now he appoints conservatives.
To what extent can we say that the pope is still faithful to the teachings of Vatican II?
He is faithful to the council, in his own way. He still insists, as John Paul II did, on the continuity with "tradition". For him, this tradition goes back to the Hellenistic and medieval period. He especially doesn’t want to admit that Vatican II caused a breakthrough, for example, in the recognition of religious liberty, which had been opposed by all the popes before the Council.
The basic concept of Benedict XVI is that one must welcome the Council, but that it should be interpreted, perhaps not in the manner of Lefebvre, but always with respect for tradition and restrictively. For example, he has always been critical of the liturgy of Vatican II.
In essence, Benedict XVI has an ambiguous position on the texts of the council, because he is not comfortable with modernity and reform. Whereas Vatican II represented the paradigm of integration of reform and modernity in the Catholic Church. Archbishop Lefebvre has never accepted it, neither have his friends in the Curia. On this point Benedict XVI has a certain sympathy for Archbishop Lefebvre.
Furthermore, I find it outrageous that on the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the Council by Pope John XXIII (January 1959), the pope has not praised his predecessor, but has chosen to lift the excommunication of persons opposed to this Council.
What kind of Church is Pope Benedict XVI bequeathing to his successors?
I think he supports the idea of the "little flock". It's somewhat in line with the fundamentalists, who believe that even if the Church is losing many of its faithful, there will in the end be an elitist Church, composed of "real" Catholics. It is an illusion to think that we can continue like that, without priests, without vocations. This development is clearly a movement of restoration. That is manifested in the liturgy, but also by acts or gestures, for example, when he tells the Protestants that the Catholic Church is the only true Church.
Is the Catholic Church in danger?
The Church is in danger of becoming a cult. Many Catholics expect nothing from this pope anymore. And it's very painful.
You once wrote: "How could such a talented, friendly and open theoretician as Joseph Ratzinger change at this point and become the Grand Inquisitor of Rome?" Well then, how?
I think the shock of the protest movements of 1968 resurrected his past. Ratzinger was a conservative. During the council, he opened up, even though he was already skeptical. In ‘68, he returned to very conservative positions, ones he has kept up to today.
Can the current Pope still correct this course?
When he received me in 2005, he made a courageous gesture and I really thought he would find the path to reform, even if slowly. But in four years, he has proven otherwise. Today, I wonder if he is able to do anything courageous. Already, he would have to recognize that the Catholic Church is undergoing a deep crisis. Then, he could very easily make a gesture towards the divorced and say that under certain conditions they can be admitted to communion. He could correct the encyclical Humanae Vitae (which condemned all forms of contraception in 1968) by saying that in some cases the pill is possible. He could correct his theology, which dates from the Council of Nicaea (in 325). He could say tomorrow: "I abolish the celibacy requirement for priests." He is much more powerful than the president of the United States! He does not have to report to a Supreme Court! He could also convene a new council.
A Vatican III?
That might help. Such a meeting could address the questions that Vatican II did not answer, such as the celibacy of priests or birth control. There should also be a new method of electing bishops, one in which the people would have more say. The current crisis has sparked a resistance movement. Many faithful refuse to return to the old system. Even bishops were forced to criticize the policy of the Vatican. The hierarchy cannot ignore this.
Your rehabilitation could be part of these strong gestures?
In any case, it would be easier than the reinstatement of schismatics! But I do not believe it will happen, because Benedict XVI feels closer to the fundamentalists than to people like me who have worked and accepted the council.
Interview by Nicolas Bourcier and Stéphanie Le Bars