Preface: An Unresolved Enquiry

Herbert Haag

From Infallible by Hans Küng 1989 edition 
and reprinted here with the usual permissions

This book is a singular document in the history of theology. Since it was first published in 1970, it has sparked off an international and interconfessional debate without precedent in more recent theology. Hence its republication here.

There are three good reasons for this new edition:

First, the author of Infallible? was constantly being asked about the substance of his criticism of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Since earlier editions of the book are out of print, it is very difficult for readers now to make up their own minds on the basis of the evidence. This new edition should solve that problem. The original text has therefore been reprinted unchanged (with the omission of the ‘Portrait of a Possible Pope’).

Secondly, in 1989, as I write, ten years after Hans Küng had his missia canonica withdrawn (in December 1979), it is quite clear that none of the problems tackled at that time with disciplinary sanctions have been solved (all the documents of 1979/80 were published in Der Fall Küng. Eine Dokümentation, ed. N. Greinacher and H. Haag, Munich 1980). On the contrary, it is now becoming increasingly clear how the measures taken then were canonically illegitimate, theologically unfounded and counter-productive as church policy. To put the reader in the picture about the formal basis for the Roman proceedings, the two texts which the Curia used as a pretext for its intervention at the time are printed here as documentation.

Thirdly, attentive observers of the Church scene all over the world are disturbed that ten years of the pontificate of John Paul II have not removed the crisis in our Church which was already beginning to break under Paul VI, but rather have intensified it. It is no exaggeration to speak of the indignation with which both scholars and the faithful generally are reacting to the present course adopted by Rome. Letters published in German newspapers are full of the disappointment or resignation of Catholics who lament the change in climate in the Church since the Second Vatican Council and John XXIII, such a different Pope. Conferences on the crisis have been held in Catholic academies (Rottenburg-Stuttgart and Munich) and Catholic Associations (the Austrian Academic Association). Articles have appeared in Catholic journals like Christ in der Gegenwart and Publik-Forum. New critical journals are springing up:Kirche intern in Austria and Aufbruch in Switzerland. Indeed even Catholic theologians and journalists who in other respects are restrained and tend to be more conservative are making critical comments — not only on the controversial nomination of bishops and the disciplining of professors but also on the style in which the Roman teaching authority is exercising its office.

In January 1989 the chief editor of the Catholic Herder-Korrespondenz David Seber, complained about the rise of a ‘fundamentalism’ in the Catholic Church: ‘In the absolutizing of certain traditions or papal doctrinal statements with no consideration of the historical context in which they appeared and no sense of the hierarchy of individual truths within the structure of Catholic faith or even Christian faith generally, we have Catholic variants of a religious fundamentalism with no proper biblical basis which is spreading all over the place and becoming an increasingly significant factor.’ Indeed Seber did not hesitate to criticize certain forms of contemporary ‘papal piety’: ‘Distorted forms of veneration . . . (e.g. the many totus tuus banners on papal trips), from which it can be seen that it is not so much the trinitarian God as the Pope, thought of in monocratic terms, who is the real point of reference for religious feelings and Catholic devotion with all the consequences that has for the Church. A prior decision which in principle is irrational goes with fundamentalism. It leads to the arbitrary replacement of reality as a whole with a particular reality, and anything which does not fit in with this one absolutized reality as a sole norm is excluded.’

Even clearer statements are to be found in Academia, the journal of the German Catholic student associations, which in June 1989 devoted a whole issue to the question of where the Church is going: “Quo vadis ecclesia? The leading article lamented ‘a frosty climate’ in our Church. A statement by the Central Committee of German Catholics was quoted with approval: ‘Is not a false opposition being built up between binding church instructions and the claim of the individual conscience? Is there not a one-sided emphasis in the Church on the virtue of obedience at the cost of the virtue of Christian freedom of spirit?’

A stir was also caused by a well-argued article by the Regensburg dogmatic theologian Wolfgang Beinert, which appeared in the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit in April 1989, under the tide ‘Church and Anxiety’. Terrifying results from demographic surveys were making it clear to the author that solidarity with the Church was rapidly disappearing. He speaks of many complaints among church people and the ‘markedly aggressive attitude of the church government’. A divergent, inconvenient and nonconformist view immediately incurs the suspicion of disloyalty to the Church, disobedience and deviation. The number of processes against theologians, bishops and priests is on the increase. They are largely, or completely, anonymous. There is also a tendency towards ideology. It emerges in the efforts to restrict free discussion as far as possible by central measures. Anxiety seeks to beget anxiety so that ‘the sought-after state of consolidation is achieved’. That can even extend to the damnatio memoriae which was already practised in antiquity: ‘Certain authors may not in fact be quoted any longer, even if in specific instances they testify to orthodoxy.’ No wonder, then, that many effects of the real church system ’cause anxiety even today’: ‘so the institutional Church is frightening – in particular to sensitive Christians.’

The critical remarks by the distinguished Catholic ecumenist Professor Heinrich Fries of Munich, published under the tide ‘Suffering over the Church’, are no less fundamental: The present state of the Church is essentially also brought about from within, caused by the Church itself, through the measures and decisions of the hierarchy in the Church, through the way in which the Petrine office is perceived and presented, through a defective realization of what communio and people of God means as the basic structure of the Church – through continuing to fall short of the intention and the aim of the Second Vatican Council, to offer a spirit of hope, encouragement and confidence. It is the continual falling short of what was once a concrete reality in the Catholic Church and led to a high degree of assent, identification and credibility for the Church – which today have almost turned into the opposite’ (Christ in der Gegenwart, 12 December 1989). This reads like an echo of the volume of essays Katholische Kirche – wohin? Wider den Verrat am Konzil (1986), edited by Norbert Greinacher and Hans Küng with the collaboration of many well-known theologians.

All these are disturbing alarm signals. So disturbing that the Bonn moral theologian Franz Böckle feels led to ask, ‘Is the Pope provoking a split in faith among Catholics? Unfortunately this question must be taken with deadly seriousness* (Die Zeit, 3 March 1989). How seriously is shown by a comment from the doyen of Catholic moral theology, Professor Bernhard Häring, under the headline ‘I am Deeply Disturbed’. Häring complains about the present conservative, even reactionary, course of the church government and concludes: “We need patient mourning for our past sins, but also mourning by the Church, by head and members, for the many serious false doctrines which are constantly reasserted. The most serious was perhaps the doctrine constantly inculcated anew by dozens of papal bulls, that witches had to be tracked down and compelled by torture to speak the truth. Granted, recently Popes have spoken humbly about the case of Galileo, but they have never spoken specifically about very much more regrettable wrong decisions. And these in particular are a heavy burden on the papacy in an ecumenical perspective — indeed on the understanding of the Petrine office within the Church’ ( Kirche intern, March 1989).

Now others are experiencing what certain theologians already experienced years ago. The Pope did not think it worth answering the letter of Bernard Häring, who at one time was even invited to lead spiritual-exercises for the Pope and his curial staff in the Vatican, any more than he thought the protest letter from thirty-four Christian Socialist deputies from the Bavarian Landtag worthy of a reply. Their spokesman, Peter Widmann, commented: ‘If a letter from thirty-four Landtag deputies of the Christian Social Union who publicly represent Christian positions no longer receives a reply from the Pope, then we may as well shut down the Church. In that case it is no longer a Church in the spirit of Jesus Christ’ (Kirche intern, ibid.).

But what was the occasion for all these alarming statements? Along with scandalous nominations of bishops and measures taken against professors, the provocation for them has been two addresses which the present Pope gave on Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae on birth control. A worse time for these addresses could hardly have been chosen. Whereas according to the most recent reports 100 million children worldwide are living a wretched life on the streets (the topic of a UNICEF and Childhope conference in Catholic Manila, cf. Die Zeit, 19 May 1989), the Vatican has no greater concerns than to urge the banning of methods of birth control which are indispensible today. A congress of moral theologians met in Rome from 8 to 12 November, which had been called by the Study Institute for Marriage and Family at the Papal Lateran University and by the Roman academic centre of the secret organization Opus dei. Only carefully chosen supporters of the papal doctrine were invited. The whole undertaking was financed by the reactionary American “Knights of Columbus’.

One of the two addresses was the foundation address which the Pope delivered personally to the participants in this congress on 12 November. In it he not only praised Paul VI’s encyclical for its ‘clarification and somehow prophetic value’. He went far beyond Paul VI in respect of the foundation of Humanae vitae: ‘It (Humanae vitae) is not about a doctrine devised by human hand; rather, it has been written by the creative hand of God in human nature and endorsed by him in revelation. To subject it to discussion is therefore tantamount to refusing God himself the obedience of our understanding. It means that we prefer the light of our reason to the light of the divine wisdom, and thus fall into the darkness of error, finally to attack even more fundamental cornerstones of Christian doctrine.’ In other words: a rejection of Humanae vitae amounts to a rejection of Christianity generally. Catholics who use ‘artificial’ means of birth control thus to some degree depart from God’s order of creation and redemption!

Alarmed by this address, the moral theologian Franz Böckle immediately went on to draw the consequences which follow from it: ‘A moral doctrine hitherto proclaimed as an authentic interpretation of natural law or the law of reason is elevated to the status of an indubitable doctrine of faith revealed by God. The decision for the choice of a method of birth control thus becomes a challenge of faith for the believing Catholic. This is an unheard-of event compared with the doctrinal proclamation of the late Pope Pius VI, and one which is nowhere attested in the sources of revelation. The consequence is clear to anyone: the majority of believing Catholics would in that case – in the Pope’s view – no longer be orthodox in a not insignificant part of the Christian faith’ (Die Zeit) 3 March 1989)

No wonder that Catholic theologians were deeply disturbed by the papal statements. In addition, they were disturbed by reactionary nominations of bishops in the Netherlands, in Austria, Switzerland, and finally Cologne. Once again it is Professor Franz Böckle who draws attention to the ominous connections between personal papal policy and theological policy: ‘One must bear in mind that the controversial appointments to sees in Austria, Switzerland and Germany, and the Vatican objections to appointments to professorial positions in the theological faculties, are the expression of a deliberate personal papal policy. In the end, the pure “doctrine of marriage and family, especially the prohibition of any active contraception”, is to be imposed. Anyone who attracts even the slightest suspicion that he is not in full accord with the Pope on this point is no longer considered to be a candidate for a see or a chair of moral theology. A letter has been published from the nuncio, Archbishop Dr Uhač, in which he invites certain professors, apparently loyal to him, to “name colleagues who are no longer faithful to the teaching of the Church”. One such replied that he could not in conscience denounce a fellow citizen since this went against the whole teaching of the gospel’ (DieZeit,3 March 1989).  

  This is the background to the Cologne Declaration of 27 January 1989, ‘Against Disenfranchism in the Church’ (published in Hans Küng, Reforming the Church Today, Edinburgh and New York 1990, 187-91). The first part is about the nomination of bishops, the second part about the granting of the Church’s licence to professors of theology, and the third part about the competence of the magisterium in matters of birth control. This Cologne Declaration, which was signed by 165 theologians from German-speaking countries and the Netherlands and had the support of numerous often highly prominent French, Italian, Spanish, American and recendy also Brazilian theologians, with its widespread press coverage, was a bombshell for the Vatican. It accused the Pope of having made illegitimate use of his magisterial competence in connection with Humanae vitae. For, it stated, according to the Second Vatican Council there was a ‘hierarchy of truths’; theological statements had varying degrees of certainty; the limitations of theological knowledge in medical and anthropological questions had to be noted; the papal magisterium had given theology the role of examining the arguments for theological statements and norms; the conscience was not an executive assistant to the papal magisterium. The criticism culminates in the statement: ‘The Pope claims to exercise the office of unity. In cases of conflict, therefore, it is part of his office to bring people together. In this, he went to excessive lengths with regard to Marcel Lefebvre and his followers, in spite of Lefebvre’s fundamental challenge to the teaching magisterium. It is not part of the papal office to sharpen conflicts of a secondary nature without any attempt at a dialogue, to resolve such conflicts unilaterally and by official decree, and to turn them into grounds for exclusion. If the Pope does what does not belong to his office, he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism. Then he must expect contradiction’ (191).

This declaration was desperately necessary. I subscribed to it, and I stand by it with utter conviction. And yet one must be allowed to ask a question which relates to this present book by Hans Küng. In connection with Humanae vitae, did the Pope really make ‘illegitimate’ use of his magisterial competence? In this instance did he do something ‘that does not belong to his office’? From the Roman perspective, certainly not. Experts on Roman theology already knew that the substance of the more recent statements of the Pope on Humanae vitae were nothing ‘new’, but reflected the teaching which had long been put forward in Rome. For it was still the case for Roman theology that while the encyclical Humanae vitae on birth control is not infallible, the doctrine which stands behind Humanae vitaeis. It is to be regarded as de facto infallible, even if it has not hitherto (or not yet) been defined ex cathedra. And it was this, precisely this, that Hans Küng had made the focal point of his argument in his 1970 book Infallible? An Enquiry: Paul VI had issued the encyclicalHumanae vitae as he did because he was fully convinced of the continuity, authority and infallibility of this doctrine (i.e. of its inerrancy guaranteed by the Holy Spirit) – and was so convinced because it had constantly been put forward as binding teaching by his predecessors and all the episcopate. For Paul VI it was clear that to revoke the teaching of the Church on matters of birth control would be to concede that on this important point of moral doctrine the magisterium had erred, and therefore had not been guided by the Holy Spirit. But that could not be. So in his address to the moral theologians, John Paul II was only repeating in substance what had always been Roman doctrine.

Rudolf Schermann, the pastor and editor of the Austrian journal Kirche intern (which within a few months reached a circulation of more than 20,000), grasped the central point better than some professors of theology, who in questioning not only the encyclical Humanae vitae but also papal infallibility were similarly threatened with the withdrawal of the Church’s licence to teach: ‘So why did Paul VI decide against the use of artificial means of contraception? Out of anxiety for women’s health? Certainly not. He was not just concerned about the pill, the medical risks of which both women and doctors soon recognized, with the result that the pill boom waned of its own accord, but with all artificial means. The Pope was not making a medical statement but a moral statement. Why did Paul VI go against the advice of the experts whom he himself had invited? The answer is as banal as it is significant: he decided as he did in order to be able to maintain the prestige of the papacy, in order to be able to say: “As our predecessors of blessed memory have repeatedly confirmed . . For what would people all over the world have thought – at least that was the notion haundng the curial minds which, it is said, put the Pope under pressure – if Paul VI had suddenly given the green light for artificial contraception against the clear statements by his predecessors? It was indeed well known that Pius XII (who was Pope from 1939 to 1958) regarded artificial birth control as fundamentally evil’ (Publik-forum, 22 July 1988).

Indeed, at the time Paul VI had already based his decision on matters of birth control on the infallibility of the everyday, ordinary‘ teaching office (themagisterium ordinarium) of the Pope and the bishops, a highly problematic neo-scholastic doctrine, which – unfortunately – also found acceptance in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, no. 25). This states unambiguously: ‘Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that among themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.’ And as the present book shows, precisely this happened in the case of what Schermann has called ‘this baneful encyclical’. In the debate on infallibility which centred on Hans Küng’s book, people would not perceive that on this point Hans Küng has reproduced the Roman teaching precisely. He was accused of a “distorted understanding of the Roman magisterium. It was believed that one could get round the fundamental problem of the question of infallibility by excluding this doctrine from the claim to infallibility.

And what about the present Pope? One has to concede that John Paul II has simply hammered home once again the Roman doctrine of infallibility endorsed by the Second Vatican Council. He did this in an address which he gave to the American bishops on 16 October 1988 and which with good reason preceded that to the moral theologians. Here the Pope spoke unmistakably, with reference to the moral teachings of the Church which were being scorned in America, of the ‘charism of infallibility’ that is not only present in the solemn definitions of the Roman Pontiff and of ecumenical councils, but similarly in the ‘universal ordinary magisterium, which can be regarded as the usual expression of the Church’s infallibility’ (cf. Osservatore Romano, 16 October 1988).

Nevertheless it must be asked: has not a new situation arisen over the question of infallibility as a result of the most recent statements by the Pope? Yes and no. No, because – as I have indicated – Pope Wojtyla in his statements has only endorsed the de facto infallibility of the doctrine of Humanae vitae, which had always been presupposed in Rome. Yes, because the Pope from Poland has put two new emphases in his most recent programmatic statements.

  1. He is now declaring specifically that the ordinary magisterium of the Church must be understood and accepted as ‘the usual expression of the Church’s infallibility’.
  2. In his address to the moral theologians on the basis for Humanae vitae he shifts the emphasis from natural law to revelation itself and makes the prohibition of birth control a ‘basic cornerstone of Christian doctrine’.

That, on sober consideration, is the ‘new’ situation with which one has to grapple in the sphere of Catholic theology. And only someone who has avoided a fundamental debate on the problem of infallibility all these years can be surprised at this development. In a brave Open Letter to the then President of the German Conference of Bishops (Bishop Karl Lehmann), the Catholic dogmatic theologian Peter Hunermann from Tübingen complained about the most recent development, and indeed with good reason expressed fears about the outbreak of a ‘third Modernist crisis’ in our Church. But instead of looking behind the Roman doctrine of infallibility, he stated in consternation: ‘If one reads the Pope’s address to the moral theologians as quoted, it is almost uncanny how far Rome has followed the understanding presupposed by Hans Küng.’ Hunermann evidently cannot understand that it is not Rome that has adopted the understanding attributed to it by Hans Küng, but that in his book Infallible? Hans Küng was merely reporting the understanding of infallibility which has always prevailed in Rome and which moreover Rome has never contradicted. No, Küng’s book does not contain any ‘distortion’ of the Roman doctrine of infallibility, but reproduces it exactly – as is now also expressly confirmed by this Pope. Also in his address to the moral theologians the Pope refers almost solemnly for the teaching against birth control given by himself and his predecessors to the ‘constant teaching of tradition and the magisterium of the Church . . . which may not be doubted by a Catholic theologian’. Indeed he does not hesitate to add: ‘Here we are touching upon a central point of the Christian doctrine of God and man.’

It should thus have become clear that if Catholic theology is to remain credible, it can no longer avoid the basic problem: what is the foundation of infallibility, particularly the infallibility of the ordinary, usual, everyday magisterium? How is it guaranteed by scripture and tradition? The question raised by Hans Küng twenty years ago in this book has still not been answered. It remains an unresolved enquiry

I hope that I may be allowed to recall here a proposal which Hans Küng already made at the end of his 1979 work The Church – Maintained in Truth? In connection with this issue—as formerly in the question of birth control – he wanted to see the appointment of an ecumenical commission which would consist of internationally recognized experts from the various disciplines (exegesis, history of dogma, systematic and practical theology and relevant non-theological disciplines). This would do both the Catholic Church and the worldwide ecumene a service. I might also recall what I and my colleague Norbert Greinacher wrote in the conclusion to our documentation Der Fall Küng (1980): ‘In view of this, as teachers of theology and priests of the Church we make ourselves the spokesmen of the protest articulated in this book and throughout the world, and address the Pope directly: Holy Father! Take up the case again without delay! Appoint an unprejudiced commission of bishops and theologians to examine properly and not under the pressure of time the theological questions which have been raised! We appeal to your responsibility and your conscience: make good a wrong that has been done! Do not leave the rehabilitation of Küng to history! Make your personal action a blessing for the Church’ (p. 546). The state secretariat acknowledged receipt of the letter, but no answer ever came.

In conclusion, I would like to quote a leading article dated 10 June 1989 from the distinguished old London journal The Tablet, which is distributed all over the British Commonwealth: 
‘Theologians dedicate their lives and laborious hours to bringing out the truths to which the Church is committed. They ask questions because that is the way to advance. They ask questions because they have been asked questions. They ask questions because the questions are there, hanging in the air, and will not go away because authority discourages and dismisses them. Repressed questions poison the inner life of the Church As Professor Ulrich Horst recently said at a conference of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria (in the context of the present crisis): ‘Questions do not disappear; the past never ceases, and it stands there unnoticed in our midst with its unresolved claim. All the crucial points in the history of theology bear witness that it is only rarely the lack of courage or the arrogance of theologians that brings back conflicts which had once been pushed aside. The subject matter finds its own hearing’ (Zur Debatte, March/ April 1989). Can the Pope understand this language?