Inside the Vatican: how the Catholic Church got into such a mess (Contribution)
SILENCED IRISH PRIEST TONY FLANNERY ON THE NEW BOOK FROM THE CENSURED SWISS CLERIC AND REBEL THEOLOGIAN HANS KUNG
Hans Kung is a remarkable man.
Now in his mid-eighties, the famous Swiss theologian continues to write and publish books, and to play a significant part in Catholic Church debate.
He has long ago come under censure from the Vatican, and hasn’t been allowed to teach in a Catholic college or seminary for many years.
But that has in no way restricted his work or his influence. If anything, it has given more weight to his voice during the long years of the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict.
His new book is very readable, accessible to people who have no theological training. It is also extraordinarily timely. Pope Francis is only six months in office, and already he has changed the atmosphere in the church, talking openly about the urgent need for change.
Even before he was elected, during the six-week interregnum after the resignation of Benedict, most of us were amazed at the open way in which the assembled cardinals spoke about the need for reform, especially reform of the Vatican Curia.
If people want to know why the Pope is talking like this, and why the call for change is so urgent, I cannot recommend anything more appropriate than this opportune book.
In it, Kung traces the historical development of what most people now recognise to be the problematic and even damaging aspects of church life. He goes back to the beginning, to the preaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God, and what this constituted, how there was no sense that Jesus wanted a large, hierarchical structure.
“I have come to serve, not to be served”, Jesus said, and his followers were not to “lord it over each other”.
But by the 3rd Century, under the influence of the Roman Empire, this was exactly what had begun to develop. Popes and bishops began to lord it over the people, in imitation of the Roman emperors, wearing the trappings of wealth and power.
Kung then outlines how the Gregorian reform of the 11th Century greatly increased the power of the papacy. But for those of us who grew up and were educated as Catholics, he is at his best in writing about the period of the Protestant Reformation.
In Catholic schools, we were presented with a version of the reformation which placed all the blame on Martin Luther and the other reformers.
But Kung shows that most of what the reformers initially called for were badly needed reforms in the church, and that if the church authorities had had the wisdom and humility to enter into real discussion with them we could have a dramatically different and better church and avoided the slaughter that took place during the long years of the wars of religion.
Furthermore, in reaction to the reformers, the church turned in on itself and became reactionary and dogmatic, with disastrous consequences for the next four centuries.
As a consequence, it developed an attitude of hostility towards the enlightenment and scientific thought.
Kung shows that the declaration of Papal Infallibility in the 19th Century was what we might call today a ‘power-grab’ by the Vatican and resulted in a church that was totally centralised and authoritarian.
Kung played an active part in the Second Vatican Council in the middle of the last century, and he spells out the dramatic new impetus for reform this proved to be.
But in the following years, the powers-that-be in the Vatican, with the active assistance of John Paul and Benedict, gradually blocked and dismantled most of the reforms and returned the church to the centralised power structures of the past.
For people who want to understand how the church got itself into its current difficulties, this is a marvellous book. Kung finishes with a list of what he considers necessary reforms.
The one that stands out for me is his suggestion that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith be abolished, and that an end be put to all repression in the church.
The book is a wonderful service to the church at this time, and yet again we owe a debt of gratitude to Kung.
Despite being effectively shut out for most of his life, he still clearly has a deep love for the church, and is possessed by a passion to see it become a more effective vehicle of the message of Christ.
I recommend this book to all those who share his passion and his faith.
* A Question of Conscience by Fr Tony Flannery is published by Londubh Books