The names of Catholic theologian Hans KÃ¼ng and Pope Francis are both in the news because KÃ¼ng was sighted saying friendly things about the Pope and the Pope was apparently saying friendly things about God-and-atheists. Such stories demand or evoke in this â€œsighterâ€™sâ€ mind some historical recall which helps set the news in context.
Background: in June, 1966, one year after the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, when there were still many Catholic priests in Canada, hundreds of them gathered in Montreal for four days at then-Loyola, now part-of-Concordia University. On stage were Catholic KÃ¼ng, Baptist Harvey Cox, Lutheran M.E.M., and host Father Elmer Oâ€™Brien, S.J. We guests were evidently competing for the Chutzpah-in-Theology Guinness record by agreeing to appear on stage for four hours with no texts, scripts, or notes. Oâ€™Brien and members of the audience made up of priests were free to ask questions or bring up topics of any kind. I ran through all the theology I knew, but learned much by listening. (Chutzpah? We were 38 years old!).
While we two Protestants did not have anything personal at stake with respect to the papacy, KÃ¼ng did. A star peritus (adviser) at the Council, he had dreamed dreams inspired by John XXIII and was seeing them dimmed by Paul VI, about whom he was ambivalent. Those dreams turned into nightmares for KÃ¼ng as John Paul II and Benedict XVIâ€”the latter, had earlier been a friend of KÃ¼ngâ€™s from TÅ±bingen, Germanyâ€”countered much that the Council had achieved. Or so, at least, it appeared to KÃ¼ng.
Which brings us to this month, when surprises greeted those who pay attention to Catholic factions and the papacy. Last Tuesday (May 21, 2013), The National Catholic Reporter front-paged a KÃ¼ng article, â€œThe Paradox of Pope Francis.â€ In it, the recently self-retired KÃ¼ng told of celebrating his 85th birthday by leading off with three â€œastonishmentsâ€ he expressed about the new Popeâ€™s style, approach and agenda.
The Catholic far-far rightâ€”for example, the Novus Ordo Watch website dedicated to â€œExposing the Pseudo-Catholic Church of Vatican IIâ€â€”issued a judgment headlined: â€œFrancis Gets a Thumbs-Up from Hellâ€™s Apostle: Apostate Hans KÃ¼ng â€˜Extremely Delightedâ€™ with Election of Bergoglio as â€˜Pope Francisâ€™.â€ Most conservative Catholics distrust or despise KÃ¼ng, but are more moderate when referring to him.
Weâ€™ll stand by (in the Cox and Marty Protestant worlds) and watch this drama unfold. We could see that KÃ¼ngâ€™s salute came with his fingers crossed, as he spelled out what it will take for Pope Francis to reform the Curia and the Episcopate.
Itâ€™s time to turn briefly to the Pope. Last Wednesday in a homily at mass, on the basis of a text from the Gospels, he preached something generous or generous-sounding or usable or misusable by universalists, humanists, and atheists. The headlines on our â€œSearchâ€ page illustrated the confusion: â€œPope Francis Says Atheists Can be Saved,â€ â€œPope Francis Suggests Atheistsâ€™ Good Deeds Get them to Heaven,â€ â€œHeaven for Atheists?â€, â€œPope Francis did NOT Say that Atheists Will Be Saved,â€ and many, many more.
The Popeâ€™s homily will be exegeted, refined, nuanced, and debated for some time to come. Reaction to it and publicity about it only illustrate how eager Catholics and non- and anti-Catholics are to discuss issues about eternal destiny and the temporal life of the Church.
KÃ¼ng should be happy about this turn. And so will be many others who will find the media featuring other things about the Christian world than battles over sexuality in specific and biology in general.
Kung, Hans. â€œThe Paradox of Pope Francis.â€ National Catholic Reporter. May 21, 2013. http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/paradox-pope-francis.
Mintz, Zoe. â€œPope Francis Says Atheists Can Be Saved, Performing â€˜Good Worksâ€™ Is Not Just For Believers.â€ International Business Times. May 24, 2013. http://www.ibtimes.com/pope-francis-says-atheists-can-be-saved-performing-good-works-not-just-believers-1278161#.
Chumley, Cheryl. â€œPope Francis suggests atheistsâ€™ good deeds gets them to heaven.â€ The Washington Times. May 24, 2013. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/may/24/pope-francis-suggests-atheists-good-deeds-gets-the/.
â€œPope Francis says atheists can be good.â€ The Guardian. May 22, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/22/pope-francis-atheists-can-be-good.
Greenwell, Andrew. â€œWhat Did Pope Francis REALLY Say About Atheists?â€ Catholic Online. May 26, 2013. http://www.catholic.org/hf/faith/story.php?id=51106.
NOTE: Sightings includes the following references so readers can sample the Catholic far-far right attacks on Hans KÃ¼ng and on Pope Francis:
â€œThe Facts About Pope â€˜Francis,â€™ What You Need To Know About the Man Who Claims to be the Pope.â€ Novus Ordus Watch: Exposing the Pseudo-Catholic Church of Vatican II. Accessed March 25, 2013. http://www.novusordowatch.org/pope-francis.htm.
â€œFrancis Gets a Thumbs Up From Hellâ€™s Apostle: Apostate Hans Kung â€˜Extremely Delightedâ€™ with Election of Bergoglio as â€˜Pope Francisâ€™.â€ Novus Ordus Watch: Exposing the Pseudo-Catholic Church of Vatican II. Accessed March 25, 2013. http://www.novusordowatch.org/wire/hans-kung-endorses-francis.htm.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.