07 April 2021

Three theologians walk
into a bar: Karl Rahner,
Hans Küng, Joseph Ratzinger

The celebrated Swiss theologian and priest Hans Küng … died yesterday at the age of 93

Patrick Comerford

Soon after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope, Michael McGough recalled a joke in the Los Angeles Times about three German-speaking theologians who all died on the same day.

Karl Rahner, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger all arrived at the pearly gates at the same time and are sent together to Saint Peter’s office to find out their fates.

Saint Peter points at Rahner and says ‘Karl! In my office.’

Four hours later, the office door opens, and Karl Rahner comes out. He is distraught, mumbling, ‘Oh my, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done! How could I have been so wrong! So sorry.’ He stumbles off into heaven, a testament to the mercy of God.

Hans Küng goes in next. After eight hours, the door opens, and Küng is near collapse. He too is mumbling, ‘How could I have been so wrong!’ as he lurches into heaven, another testament to God’s mercy.

Saint Peter finally calls in Joseph Ratzinger. Twelve hours later, the door opens and Saint Peter stumbles out, mumbling, ‘How could I have been so wrong?’

The celebrated but controversial Swiss theologian and priest Hans Küng died yesterday (6 April 2021) at his home in Tübingen at the age of 93. He has lived with Parkinson’s disease for the past eight years and who lived, taught and lectured for more than 40 years in Germany.

He engaged in dialogue with Buddhism, Chinese religions, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, became the most prominent Catholic theologian to speak in China and the first theologian to address a group of astrophysicists. His popularity was directly related to his readability, clarity, erudition, honesty, fearlessness. He was profound yet popular, intellectual yet understandable, said and wrote what he thought needed to be expressed and was passionate in his search for truth.

After seven years studying philosophy and theology in Latin at the Gregorian University in Rome, Küng was ordained a priest in Rome in 1954 and celebrated his first Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He completed a further three years of study in French for his doctorate at the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he wrote his thesis on Justification.

In his doctoral dissertation on Justification, Küng concluded an agreement in principle was possible between Catholic theology as set down at the Council of Trent in the 16th century and 20th century Reformation theology found in the work of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics was possible.

At 34, he was the youngest expert at Vatican II, soon joined by the Dominicans Edward Schillebeeckx of Belgium and Yves Congar of France; the German priests Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner, and John Courtney Murray, George Higgins, John Quinn, Gustave Weigel and Vincent Yzermans from the US.

His Infallible?: An Inquiry caused an uproar across the Catholic world in 1971, and made him l’enfant terrible of the Catholic Church. He questioned his Church’s teachings on infallibility, celibacy, contraception and the ordination of women as well as men.

His most popular book, On Being a Christian (Christ sein) was a best-seller when it was published in 1974, an unusual achievement for a work of scholarly theology. I bought – and I still have – the first edition in English that year.

At the end of 1979, the Vatican revoked his missio canonical or license to teach as a Catholic theologian at the University of Tübingen, where he had been Professor of Dogmatic Theology from 1963. In the end, he retained his professorship in the university's secular Institute for Ecumenical Research, which he had founded and directed since the early 1960s.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was involved in removing his teaching license. As dean of theology at Tübingen in the early 1960s, Küng had offered – and Ratzinger accepted – a professorship at Tübingen. But Ratzinger left academia, and later headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor to the Inquisition, for 25 years under Pope John Paul II.

By the time I became a post-graduate student at the Irish School of Ecumenics (1982-1984), Hans Küng was seen as one the most influential theologians in the world. I was doubly blessed, because one of my lecturers, the late Revd Dr Robin Boyd, had been a doctoral student under yet another great German-speaking Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.

Many of my colleagues remember Hans Küng’s visit to Dublin in 1985, and still regard his lecture in Trinity College Dublin during that visit as one of the seminal moments in their theological lives.

In the 1990s, Küng took on the task of preparing a Declaration Toward a Global Ethic for the Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago in 1993. The most referenced part of the declaration was no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

Little did I realise when I met Küng at that lecture in TCD almost 30 years ago that I would later share the distinction of contributing to a book with him.

In 2000, to mark the millennium in a particularly Christian way, The Irish Times ran a monthly series of features, commissioned by Patsy McGarry. The series opened with a contribution from Hans Küng, and continued each month with distinguished contributors who followed in his wake, including Jerome Murphy O’Connor, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Sean Freyne and Andrew Greely. Each month, I completed the features with a series that built up into ‘A brief history of Christianity.’

The features were collected and edited by Patsy McGarry in a book, Christianity, published by Veritas in 2001. The opening chapter was Hans Küng’s opening feature, and the second half of the book was my ‘Brief History of Christianity.’ The cover illustration was an icon I had bought in Rethymnon in Crete in 1989.

To the surprise of many, Küng requested a meeting with Ratzinger shortly after his election as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. The two had retained a distant respect for one another and maintained a limited correspondence over 45 years.

In On Being a Christian, Küng quoted the German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who said: ‘There is one thing I would like to tell the theologians: something which they know and others should know. They hold the sole truth which goes deeper than the truth of science, on which the atomic age rests. They hold a knowledge of the nature of man that is more deeply rooted than the rationality of modern times. The moment always comes inevitably when our planning breaks down and we ask and will ask about the truth.’

‘Christianity’ (2001), edited by Patsy McGarry … the contributors included Hans Küng, and the cover illustration was an icon from Crete in my private collection

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
50, Resurrection window, Saint Michael’s, Lichfield

The Resurrection … a stained glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society, Partners in the Gospel).

Easter began on Sunday with Easter Day. This week, I am offering photographs of images of the Resurrection from seven churches, some of which I have already visited during the season of Lent.

My photographs this morning (7 April 2021) are from Saint Michael’s Church on Greenhills, Lichfield, including the Resurrection window. This is one of the oldest and one of the largest burial grounds in England. Although much of the present church on a sandstone ridge on the east side of Lichfield dates from rebuilding projects in the 1840s, there has been a church on this high ground since at least 1190.

There is a legend that this was the burial place of 999 early Christian martyrs who were the followers of the legendry Saint Amphibalus, who had converted Saint Alban to Christianity in the third or fourth century. There is no evidence to support the legend of those martyrs in the year 300 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. But the legend became so popular that it was often said that the name Lichfield actually means ‘field of the dead.’

Saint Michael’s is also associated with the family of Lichfield’s most famous writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): a floor slab n the centre of the nave commemorates his father Michael, his mother Sarah and his brother Nathaniel, all buried in the church. The church also has associations with the family of the poet Philip Larkin.

‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ … Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill, Lichfield … the poet Philip Larkin said, ‘A serious house on serious earth it is’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 24: 13-35 (NRSVA):

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19 He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25 Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Faith, Hope and Love … a window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (7 April 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for women and men who accept the good news of Jesus’ resurrection but find it difficult to live out this reality in their daily lives.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

I ‘run my hand around the font’ (Philip Larkin) … the font in Saint Michael's Church, where generations of the Larkin family were baptised (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org