Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Immortal Kung

Before we begin, a regret: I never got around to doing my Hans Kung story. Here's an abbreviated version.

Fr Kung -- never excommunicated nor suspended from priestly ministry, just without a teaching license -- came to Philadelphia back in November on an American tour.

On the afternoon of his lecture, a call from a strange number popped up on my phone.

The voice on the other end was none other than that of Robert Blair Kaiser, the pioneering American Vaticanista who, alongside Xavier Rynne, broke open the treasures of the Vatican on these shores in the days of the Council. Kaiser, now based in Phoenix and writing books (one of which will be plugged here as its release nears), had come to town to cover Kung, his longtime friend, and had gotten word from Rome of the young buck who was mystically getting the big scoops on things Vatican -- and this was a week before the first English translation of the Homosems Instruction was broken on said upstart's pages.

Kaiser asked if I was around to meet up for coffee. When I told him I was attending the lecture, he said, "Then let's do dinner!"

And so, the (horribly cluttered and unwashed) Rockmobile got to host a legend of the field. War stories were swapped, good food and drink were consumed, and by the time we concluded, ears should've been ringing on no less than five -- count em, FIVE -- continents.

That alone is a month's worth of accomplishments. But, of course, there was more.

Without skipping a beat -- nor even a scrap of speaking notes before him -- Kung lectured for two solid hours. This being Philadelphia (The Most Orthodox Diocese in The Whole Wide World), but one of the secular clergy was present (in clerics, of course). The first half of the address dealt with the internals of the life of the church and the reform of it, the second with Kung's Project for a Global Ethic, which was the core topic of his lengthy September encounter with Benedict XVI. (At which evening, of course, all doctrinal questions were kept off the table by mutual agreement.)

Of course, I take issue with Fr Kung's views both on the ordination of women and the election of bishops, both of which garnered applause from the 500-strong crowd which gathered that evening. (Supporting the latter is particularly, well, stupid: Given what a hypothetical electorate would look like (i.e. the most frightening thing you've ever seen. Ever.), ecclesiastical progressives would probably find themselves excommunicated by the vox populi-elected bishop within two years.) But as not even The Pope Himself (Bow Down) has seen fit to bash Hans over the head about either, then who am I? (And, for that matter, who is anyone else?)

On Kaiser's very kind introduction, I did get to spend about 10 minutes speaking with Fr Hans one-on-one afterward. God love him: at 77, the man is immeasurably gracious even after a long day of public engagements and the fawning of the faithful who seek a church which listens as much as it speaks, which affirms as quickly as it judges, a church which is renewed to its core by the principles of the Gospel it ceaselessly proclaims, a church which doesn't have to be pressed by external forces to actually live what it believes.

Given the opportunity, I did make it a point to ask about the meeting with the Pope.

Immediately after Benedict's election, Kung -- who shocked progressives by declaring after the election of his former protege that they "must wait and see, for experience shows that the role of the Papacy in the Catholic Church today is so challenging that it can change anyone" -- quietly wrote the new Pope and asked for a meeting. (Kung had written John Paul II in a similar fashion several times after the 1979 suspension of his faculty to teach theology. He never received any reply.)

By contrast, according to Kung, Benedict immediately said, "Yes, come." The encounter -- four hours and dinner -- took place on 29 September at Castel Gandolfo, and the priest's ruddy face still glows when speaking of it. Ganswein was present for the dining portion of the event.

But the most interesting element of it remains the notification of the meeting, which was released by the Holy See Press Office on the following Monday morning under the name of Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

To remind everyone of what was reported in late September, the statement was written by The Pope Himself (Bow Down). Kung was asked for his input and with what he termed as one minor exception, he was pleased. The most salient portion, of course, announced that "Both parties were of accord that it would make no sense entering, within the space of the encounter, in an exchange about the doctrinal questions which persist between Hans Kung and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church."

Just thought everyone could use some reminding that the phrase wasn't written by some AmChurch pinky lefty. Well, unless Benedict is being seen as one by his former fan-base right now which, given their record for consistency, could well be the case.

This is all a long way of introducing Kaiser's piece on Kung in the pages of the impending edition of the National Catholic Reporter:
Hans has been a friend of mine since the heady days we shared at Vatican II. I had no trouble, then, persuading him to visit Phoenix in November as part of a campaign by the Jesuit Alumni in Arizona to promote a thinking church. I was pleased to see that, at age 77, he has the same trim, athletic figure he had 40 years ago, and the same fun-filled personality and boyish smile that he shone on the reformist bishops and theologians at the council. He swims every day near his home in Tübingen, and he’s planning a two-week ski vacation this month in Austria. He did 40 laps in his pool at the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs before he went off to a dinner and 80 laps the next day to prepare for his Saturday night lecture....

M.J. Benton, owner of Essentially Books in Scottsdale, testified to Fr. Küng’s ongoing popularity. “I can’t keep his books in the store,” she said. “I’ve sold almost a hundred copies of his memoir [My Search for Freedom] in the past month, and I keep selling two of his works in paperback, Global Ethics and Women in Christianity.” Fr. Küng’s publisher, Eerdmans, reports it has “almost sold out the memoir” and is waiting with some eagerness for the second volume. Ms. Benton says Fr. Küng appeals to contemporary Americans because “he has found a peaceful way of settling differences between religions.”

By Friday night, Jesuit Alumni of Arizona had sold 550 advance tickets to Hans’ Saturday night lecture. On Saturday morning, The Arizona Republic carried a Page One story reporting the bishop’s efforts to squelch it. On Saturday night, a crowd of more than 1,100 laughing, exuberant Catholics, a good many friendly Protestants, and a scattering of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus showed up to applaud Fr. Küng’s message, that there is great good in every religion, and that people of all religions can make the world a more peaceful place. Dangerous stuff for loyal Catholics, right?

Depends on what you mean by "loyal," Kaiser....

Those who define "loyal" as wanting to return the church to a cultural and ideological ghetto, in the process reversing the societal advances Catholics have made over the last 150 years in this country? Yeah, Hans is absolutely downright lethal for them.

But he's nowhere near a threat for those who, like The Pope Himself (Bow Down), are well-formed and savvy enough to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

For those intrepid souls, in fact, getting to experience him is a rather fruitful and thought-provoking gift.