Kung pins hope on Francis
[Is “Professor” Hans playing “pin the tail on the donkey”?]
FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK [for] 28 April 2016
Professor Hans Küng, long regarded as the enfant terrible among Catholic theologians though he is now an illustrious 88-year-old, has asked Pope Francis to open a theological dialogue on the subject of infallibility. He says the Pope’s response, which he has just received, has been positive. This is not hard to believe. Ever since his election to the papacy, Pope Francis has acted as if the dialogue Professor Küng wants has already occurred and the result is settled. Francis is as undogmatic a pope as it is possible to imagine. But if this amounts to a redefinition of the papal teaching office in practice, what need is there to revisit a theory that has, so to speak, been left behind?
The answer is to do with a phrase that Küng coined a long time ago, “creeping infallibility”. In nearly 150 years there has been only one clear example of the exercise of the power to teach infallibly ex cathedra as described by the First Vatican Council – the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in 1950. But according to Professor Küng the notion that papal teaching is protected from error by the Holy Spirit has spread, over the centuries, until it covers almost every papal utterance. He has asked the radical question – what is the basis for this assumption? And there are no easy answers. The mistake, if it is a mistake, goes to the heart of the modern papacy and the role it has played in the Catholic Church in recent years. Until recently it was still the predominant and “official” view. Many still hold it.
This is well illustrated in the discussion that followed the publication of Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Conservative critics were appalled that he appeared to have contradicted “the teaching of the Church”, particularly over the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion. Many of his defenders replied that he had not, though they have not explained how his position can be squared with the uncompromising words of Pope John Paul II in his 1981 document Familiaris Consortio. “They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist,” he declared, with no exceptions for hard cases. There is no doubt, furthermore, that this rule was long-standing and had only been called into question in recent years. By ignoring it, Francis conveyed that he thought it was a mistake. Indeed, the majority at two synods of bishops on the family, to which he was responding, seemed to think so too – or so their silence on the point implied.
There are a host of other controversial questions which over the years have been similarly settled by a papal fiat, ranging from birth control to women’s ordination. If Hans Küng is right, none of them can be regarded as definitive and binding, even when they have been labelled as such. But whether Pope Francis wants to open these floodgates just now must be uncertain. Having navigated the Church through one difficult debate, he may be looking for some peace and quiet. On the other hand, Professor Küng has been waiting a very long time and will not live for ever.