Western Europe is considered a religiously-barren place these days. The reality, however, is more complex. Books written by two Catholic theologians recently rocketed up Germany’s best-seller list. That testifies to Europe’s on-going interest in religious matters. But the books’ real importance lies in their authors’ rather different visions of Catholicism’s purposes and future – and not just in Europe, but beyond.
One of the theologians is Benedict XVI. The other is the well-known scholar Fr. Hans Kung. His text, Can the Church Still Be Saved? , was published the same week as volume two of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth .
Though usually viewed as polar-opposites, Benedict and Kung have led curiously parallel lives. Both are native German-speakers. They are almost the same age. For a time, both taught at the same university. During the Second Vatican Council, they served as theological advisors with reputations as reformers.
More-attuned participants at Vatican II, however, immediately noticed differences between Kung and the-then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. One such person was the Jesuit Henri de Lubac – a French theologian who no-one could dismiss as a reactionary.
In his Vatican II diaries, de Lubac entered pithy observations about those he encountered. Ratzinger is portrayed as one whose powerful intellect is matched by his “peacefulness” and “affability.” Kung, by contrast, is denoted as possessing a “juvenile audacity” and speaking in “incendiary, superficial, and polemical” terms.
Fr. de Lubac, incidentally, was a model of courtesy his entire life. Something about Kung clearly bothered him.
After Vatican II, Ratzinger and Kung took very divergent roads. Ratzinger emerged as a formidable defender of Catholic orthodoxy and was eventually elected pope. Kung became a theological celebrity and antagonist of the papacy.
Now both men are in the evening of their earthly days. What, many wonder, occupies their minds at this time of life? In this regard, Jesus of Nazareth and Can the Church still be saved? are quite revealing.
From Jesus of Nazareth’s first pages, it’s clear Benedict is focused upon knowing the truth about Christ as He is rather than who we might prefer Him to be.
Through a deep exposition of Scripture many Evangelicals will admire and a careful exploration of tradition the Eastern Orthodox will appreciate, Benedict shows Christ is who the ancient Church proclaims Him to be – not a political activist, but rather the Messiah who really lived, really died and who then proved his divinity by really rising from the dead.
So what is Kung’s book focused upon? In a word, power. For Kung, it’s all about power – especially papal power – and the need for lay Catholics to seize power if the Church is to be “saved” from sinister Roman reactionaries who have perverted Christianity for centuries.
Leaving aside its cartoon-like presentation of Church history, the Christ of Kung’s book is one who would apparently disavow his own teachings on subjects such as marriage because they don’t conform to twenty-first century secularist morality. Instead, Kung’s Christ faithfully follows the views of, well, progressive post-Vatican II German theologians.
For long-term Kung-watchers, this is nothing new. He’s been playing the same broken record since 1965. And the worn-out tune is that of accommodation: more precisely, accommodation to secularist-progressivism.
Unfortunately for Kung, he has two problems. One is theological. No matter how much scandal has been caused by Borgia popes, inept bishops, heretical theologians, sexually-predatory clergy or sinful laity, the Catholic Church teaches “the gates of hell will never prevail against it.”
In short, the cosmological battle has already been won. Hence the Church isn’t anyone’s to be “saved.” Yes, all Catholics and other Christians continue to sin, but the Church’s survival has been guaranteed by Christ. In that light, the notion the Church needs to be “saved” by late middle-aged dissenting baby-boomers is more than absurd: it’s also arrogant.
Kung’s agenda also has a practical problem. Put simply, it’s failed. Whether it is interpreting Vatican II as a rupture with the past or banalizing the liturgy with clown masses and 1970s music, no-one can plausibly claim the accommodationist project infused life into Catholicism.
Instead, it produced ashes. In much of the West, it facilitated moral relativism, a bureaucratization of church organizations, and the collapse of once-great religious orders into not-especially coherent apologists for name-your-latest-lefty-cause.
In what’s left of accommodationist circles, woe betide anyone who highlights the dark side of the Greens’ agenda, who suggests the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change doesn’t share in the charisma of infallibility, or who observes that the small number of non-negotiables for Catholics in political life actually are non-negotiable. To do so is anathema.
Benedict’s vision of the Church is utterly different. It does not indulge the fantasy that a “new church” somehow materialized in 1965. Nor does it hanker after an imaginary 1950s golden age.
Instead it’s a Church focused upon deepening its knowledge of, faithfulness to, and love for Christ. It’s also a Church that engages the world, but is not subservient to passing intellectual-fashion. Finally, it’s a Church which is evangelical in the best sense of the word: proposing – rather than hedging or imposing – the Truth revealed by Christ.
But perhaps the most revealing difference between Benedict and Fr. Kung’s books is the tone. Can the Church still be saved? is characterized by anger – the fury of an enfant terrible who’s not-so-enfant anymore and who knows the game is up: that his vision of Catholicism can’t be saved from the irredeemable irrelevance into which it has sunk.
Jesus of Nazareth, however, is pervaded by humility: the humility of one who approaches human history’s greatest mystery, applies to it his full intellect, and then presents his contribution for others’ assessment.
Yes, there are many things going on in Benedict’s book, but in the end there’s only one agenda really in play and it has nothing to do with power. It’s about helping readers to encounter the fullness of Christ in the most important days of His earthly life – to know what God was willing to do to save us from ourselves.
Besides such things, Hans Kung’s agenda seems very trivial indeed.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty , his prize-winning The Commercial Society , and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy .