Apologia pro Marcel Lefebvre
Volume 3, Chapter X

The Condemnation of Küng

The Pope Silences Dr. Küng
The Universe – 21 December 1979

In the years following the condemnation of Archbishop Lefebvre in 1975, many Catholics had commented upon the injustice of the severe action taken against a totally orthodox prelate when contrasted with the Vatican toleration of the flagrant heresies of Hans Küng. Mgr. Lefebvre commented upon this himself in his first letter to Pope Paul VI, remarking: "When I think of the toleration Your Holiness shows with regard to the Dutch bishops and theologians like Hans Küng and Cardonnel, I cannot believe that the cruel decisions taken against myself come from the same heart” (Apologia I, p. 104).

In Bulletin No.17 of the International Federation Una Voce, Dr. Eric de Saventhem commented:

More profoundly though: what are the criteria for “authentic fidelity?” Surely the chief criterion is that of total acceptance and public profession of the Church’s own doctrine concerning and particularly her supreme hierarchical authority, i.e., the Pope and any legitimate council whose decisions the Pope has endorsed? In that case the accusation of "lack of authentic fidelity" would have to be made in the first place against those who, like Professor Küng have openly attacked this doctrine. And if the cardinals have found it necessary, in the case of Mgr. Lefebvre, to withdraw the ecclesiastical approbation which makes Ecône a proper "seminary," then Professor Küng should long ago have been deprived of his missio canonica, i.e., the authority by virtue of which he instructs future priests in fundamental theology.1

On 18 December 1979 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did precisely this, and withdrew Küng’s missio canonica, stating that he could “no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role. The Universe reported the news in its 21 December issue in the following terms:

“The Pope Silences Dr. Küng”
By Ronald Singleton: Rome

Professor Hans Küng, the Church’s most controversial theologian, was on Tuesday forbidden to teach theology.

The Pope on Tuesday approved a censure by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the 51-year-old, Swiss-born Fr. Küng. Theology professor at Tübingen, West Germany.

The Vatican announced: “Professor Küng may no longer teach theology and may no longer be considered to be a Catholic theologian.

“We are obliged to declare that in his writings he fell short of integrity and the truth of Catholic Faith.”

Fr. Küng has continually declined to be questioned by the Congregation “until I am assured of receiving a fair trial.” The announcement was simultaneously confirmed by the president of the West German Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Höffner, leader of West German “conservatives.”

The professor was shocked. Neither he nor his advocates expected such a move, made swiftly and with no warning.

The warning has reinforced arguments that the Holy Father has decided to hit dissidents harshly. On

Sunday he told a Jesuit gathering: “Beware of perilous allies, dangerous deviations.”

Fr. Küng was born on March 19, 1928. He was ordained at Rome’s Pontifical German College on October 10, 1954, and the following day celebrated his first Mass in St. Peter’s. He is a priest of the Basle diocese in Switzerland.

In 1970, he published a powerful, theological argument against the doctrine of papal infallibility.

The investigation of his writing has been conducted for years.

More then 20,000 Swiss Catholics signed a petition asking the Congregation to treat him with “justice and impartiality.”

He has criticized persistently dogmas and traditions such as the apostolic succession of the bishops, the sinlessness of Mary and rules on priestly celibacy.

His 720-page book, On Being a Christian, was a first edition best-seller of 150,000 copies.

Fr. Küng is under no obligation to resign from Tübigen University. It is a state institution.

* * * *

There are several interesting aspects of this report. Firstly, unlike Universe reports concerning Mgr. Lefebvre, the tone here is decidedly mild, if not actually sympathetic towards Küng.2 Ronald Singleton, who is consistently virulent in his references to the Archbishop, writes of Küng in almost reverential terms.

As subsequent events made only too clear, the Pope had no means silenced Hans Küng, in fact it prompted this far from taciturn Swiss cleric to a degree of unprecedented loquacity. The removal of Küng’s mandate to teach as a Catholic theologian also prompted Liberal theologians in a number of countries to considerable loquacity in defense of a colleague they clearly regarded as a martyr for truth. Similar support came from his many Protestant admirers who had come to imagine that the Catholic Church no longer objected to Protestantism, as Küng had been allowed to preach Protestant theology for so many years in his official capacity as a Catholic theologian. Küng was soon to embark on what appeared to be a triumphal international tour to receive in person the fulsome tributes of his admirers and to express his contempt for the Vatican and for the teaching of the Church, sometimes even within Catholic institutions. The 14 January 1982 issue of The Wanderer reported that on 7 December 1981 Küng gave a lecture to a standing-room only audience at the University of Notre Dame, the foremost Catholic university in the United States. He was introduced by Father Richard McBrien, Chairman of the Theology Department at the University, as “a fellow Catholic theologian,” a statement which can only be described as an insolent and cynical rejection of the judgment of the Sacred Congregation. Needless to say, the audience considered Father McBrien’s statement highly amusing and he received loud applause. McBrien himself is the author of a two volume work, Catholicism, which should, in fact, entitled Modernism. It is a menace to the faith of any Catholic who reads it, but is now a standard textbook in many English-speaking seminaries, and receives praise from bishops. It is hardly necessary to remark that under no circumstances whatsoever would Archbishop Lefebvre have been permitted to speak at Notre Dame University, or on any other Catholic campus in the English-speaking world. Liberal-Catholic belief in academic freedom is restricted to those propagating views acceptable to Liberal Catholics.

The decision to act against Hans Küng was a courageous one of the part of Cardinal Seper and Pope John Paul II. They knew it would incite the fury of Liberal Catholics and Protestants. It would be churlish for traditional Catholics to withhold their gratitude for this decision, but at the same time they could observe quite reasonably that it was a long overdue and that the only sanction imposed upon Dr. Küng, the withdrawal of his missio canonica, was far too mild, even ludicrously mild. Archbishop Lefebvre, who has never questioned a single defined teaching of the Church, has been suspended a divinis, and is forbidden to offer Mass in public, while Kung, who has questioned such fundamental dogmas as papal infallibility and the nature of the priesthood, has incurred no such sanction.


Some Interesting Reactions

The complete text of the condemnation of Hans Küng by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is included in Appendix I to this book. This appendix also includes Küng’s contemptuous and pompous rejection of his condemnation, and a reaction to this rejection by Josef Cardinal Höffner on behalf of the German Bishops' Conference. It should be noted that Kung's contempt for the authority of the Holy See was such that, unlike Mgr. Lefebvre, he refused to appear before the Sacred Congregation to explain his case in person.

Reference has already been made to the fact that Küng received considerable support from Protestants and Liberal Catholics. The World Council of Churches stated that: "The Pope's decision could not be regarded as an internal affair of the Catholic Church since it had immediate ecumenical repercussions." This is a most interesting point of view! The supreme authority in the Catholic Church is no longer entitled to say  who shall or shall not represent the Church as an official teacher without first consulting the World Council of Churches! Dr. Stuart Blanch, the Anglican Archbishop of York, claimed that Kung was a great theologian who had put the whole world in his debt in a courageous if sometimes provocative attempt "to explain the Gospel in intellectual categories more appropriate to our time..." In an act of charming ecumenical courtesy, the Anglican Church Times asked whether Pope John Paul II “is going to turn out to be the Ayotollah of the West" (11 January 1980).

The Liberal Catholic establishment was equally indignant. The Tablet fulminated against the removal of Küng’s missio canonica in an editorial which compared this action to the pattern of "life under a Communist regime." It praised Küng as a "noble thinker," and actually demanded the abolition of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I showed this editorial to Cardinal Seper during a meeting  which I had with him (see page 151). The Cardinal was highly amused, and remarked that The Tablet was a journal that "used to be Catholic." Fifty Swiss theologians announced that they were "profoundly disturbed…our faith in the Vatican is shaken." Seventy American and Canadian theologians informed the world that: "We publicly affirm our recognition that Professor Kung is indeed a Catholic theologian." The directors of Concilium, mouthpiece of the parallel magisterium of Liberal theologians, insisted that they did not see " any well-founded reason not to consider our colleague 'Hans Küng as a Catholic theologian."

The question of "human rights" was raised by many of Küng’s defenders, but not one of them explained why an individual has the right to represent any organization, religious or secular, and publicly repudiate its most fundamental principles. Some of Küng’s defenders stated that while they did not necessarily agree with his theology they defended his right to teach it. Nothing was heard from these zealous defenders of human rights and free speech when Archbishop Lefebvre was condemned and persecuted, indicating that their concern for these issues is, to put it mildly, somewhat selective.

Opinion in the secular media was typified by a comment in U.S. News and World Report, dated 31 December 1979, under the headline: "Vatican's Hard Line on Dissent":

Religious conservatism runs high at Roman Catholicism's world center – and so does controversy over the Vatican 's December 18 verdict of heresy against Liberal theologian Hans Küng.

The Vatican's boldness in barring the popular Swiss-born theologian from teaching is seen by some Liberals as the sign for a papal drive against Church dissenters.

They argue that the ruling mirrors Pope John Paul II's determination to strengthen Catholic traditions as an anchor in a tumultuous world. This, they say, was already evident in his pronouncements on birth control, abortion and the role of women during his visit to the U.S.

Not all the reaction to the condemnation of Küng was hostile. A very interesting article by Thomas P. McDonnell appeared in the 4 January 1980 issue of The Pilot, (Boston). Mr McDonnell had some particularly pertinent comments to make concerning the manner in which the Küng case had been reported in the so-called Catholic press:

It was inevitable that the Hans Küng affair should have turned into an overblown media event for those who somehow presume that the private interpretation of public (or Church) doctrine has not become the primary act and privilege of the theological mind. The private interpretation of Catholic doctrine, however, makes no more sense to the essential integrity of the teaching Church than does the private interpretation of Holy Scripture itself. Küng, indeed, offends on both counts. In extension of this premise, the case of Hans Kung exemplifies nothing so much as that chief heresy of our age which demands that everything must be tolerated in name of individual rights. I call this the libertarian heresy: If anything goes, then so will everything else in due time…

I happen to have a concern for the Hans Küng case, moreover, that comes somewhat closer to the nature of my job and the geography of the vineyard in which I strive to do my work. At this point, I see the Küng story as yet another brilliant example of the almost exclusively liberal bias of the NC (National Catholic) wire service. This wire service, which is no less than a branch of the USCC (United States Catholic Conference), provides practically all the news and information that is disseminated to well more than 150 Catholic newspapers in this country…

In the Hans Küng story at hand, and others like it, NC invariably rushes forth to garner the reaction angle to any given controversy itself, but seldom provides the reader with any real understanding of the issues clearly involved. What’s more, the initial reaction NC invariably seeks out is that which is lodged in the fixations of the Liberal left. First quotes and reactions usually derive from the same old crowd: Charles Curran, Richard McBrien, Gerard Sloyan, Rosemany Reuther, Gregory Baum, Leonard Swidler, et al. Shall we ever see, I wonder, a highly controversial church press story in which NC first seeks out and reports the commentaries of James Hitchcock, Michael Novak, Bishop Gaughan, Thomas Molnar, Christopher Derrick and others? I hardly think so. You will not see it in the NC wire service, and you have not seen it in regard to the Hans Kung story.

Church press papers in service to the Church (quaint notion, isn't it?) should provide readers with the fullest possible information on the very solid case that in fact exists against Hans Kung. We have had very little of that story, but have been stuffed instead with more than we have to know about some benighted theologians of the fifth rank running around North America with frantic petitions in their hot little hands. To Hans Kung's "I am deeply ashamed of my Church," Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco has replied that he, on the contrary, is proud of his Church – and so am I.

The bias to which Mr. McDonnell refers was well illustrated by the Universe report which was quoted earlier, even to the seeking out of spokesmen from the Liberal left. It would have been encouraging if Mr. McDonnell had shown similar concern for the distorted version of Mgr. Lefebvre's case presented in the so-called Catholic media, but, perhaps, that is asking too much, and to the best of my knowledge he has never done so.

I have quoted Protestant opinion supporting Hans Kung, support which is hardly surprising as he is, to all intents and purposes, himself a Liberal Protestant. It was thus pleasant to find two letters from Protestants defending the Vatican in the 5 January 1980 issue of The Times:


From the Reverend N. M. de S. Cameron

Sir, While remaining as distant from Rome in theology as in miles, may I voice the secret envy that many Protestants must feel for the present vigorous discipline at work in the Roman Catholic Church? It is a thousand pities that the churches of the Reformation have discarded their historic concern for truth and are pusillanimous in their refusal to deal with even the rankest heretics in their midst.

But we cannot escape the logic of revelation. Revelation implies truth, truth implies orthodoxy, orthodoxy implies heresy. If we balk at the idea of discipline, then we implicitly abandon our birthright that the Christian faith is a revealed faith, and that Christian truth is something other than simply the accumulated wisdom of Christian thinkers. If God has revealed Himself, in Scripture and in history, then that deposit of revelation must be safeguard and preserved.

And it is this that shows up talk of "human rights" (whatever that phrase may mean) as the red herring that it is. If men do have fundamental rights, their only ground is in their bestowal at the hand of God. It was Adam who first considered that he had the right to believe what he chose; and, as we all know, he was unfortunately mistaken. Learned theologians who deny truths that are integral to the Christian revelation have no God-given “right” to do so. On the contrary, it is the Church which has not only the right, but the duty, to discipline them and prevent them from influencing others. For a century Protestantism has refused that duty. Shame on us that the Church of Rome has not!


From Mr. J. W. P. Hubbard

The Subdeacon of Lincoln (December 21) may chose to characterize the Roman Catholic Church as sectarian, but there must be many Anglicans like myself who are profoundly grateful for the firm and vigorous manner in which Pope John Paul both upholds fundamental moral principles and defends the deposit of truth passed down by the Church through the centuries.

* * * *

The condemnation of Hans Küng, and the reactions to it which have been cited in this chapter, should prove a useful correctives to those traditional Catholics who see Pope John Paul II solely as a Liberal. The present Holy Father is an enigma, and to regard him either as an arch-Liberal, as many traditionalists do, or an arch-Conservative in the mold of St. Pius X, as many Liberals do, is far too simplistic an attitude. Many of his actions and attitudes are clearly harmful to the Church, and they will be criticized in this book, but this should not blind traditional Catholics to the fact that many of his actions and attitudes are totally orthodox. The condemnation of Kung also provides a useful reminder for traditional Catholics to bear in mind the fact that since the Second Vatican Council the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has published a series of documents upholding orthodox teachings on faith and morals which have been questioned by Liberals. A careful study of these documents can help to balance an exaggerated view of the extent to which Modernism has penetrated the Vatican. While its influence is clearly discernible in some Sacred Congregations, this is most certainly not the case with the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.3


1. Apologia I, pp. 105-6.

2. See Apologia I, pp. 46 and 259; Apologia II, pp. 251-254.

3. A comprehensive selection of documents published by this Congregation is provided in the second volume of the collection of conciliar and post-conciliar documents compiled by A. Flannery (see bibliography).


Chapter 9

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