Volume 7 - Issue 2

Hans Küng: architect of radical Catholicism

By Donald Dean Smeeton

Is it possible for a Roman Catholic theologian to believe in justification by faith alone, oppose papal infallibility, reject apostolic succession, and even question the deity of Jesus Christ? Yes, it is. Hans Küng, perhaps the best known living Catholic theologian, does exactly those things. How is it possible for Küng to do it?

One clue to achieving an understanding of Küng, the Swiss-born professor at the University of Tübingen, is recognizing his ability to make himself heard. His readability scores are so attractive that they provoke the ultimate curse among scientific theologians: ‘He is a popularizer.’ But Küng does have the ability to write so that he is understood by the theologians and the laymen—and he writes prolifically. Küng’s working and writing are not yet finished, however, so any evaluation of his contribution is difficult and tentative.

Ignoring the example of the prudence of angels, I will rush in with three keys which I believe will unlock the essence of Küng’s contribution to contemporary theology. These three keys are: a radical biblical dogmatic, a radical rejection of infallibility, and a radical ecumenism.

Radical biblical theology

Karl Barth’s work on Romans has often been likened to a bombshell and he would be pleased that his fellow-theologian, Küng, dropped a similar bomb upon the ‘playground’ of Catholic theologians. Küng’s ‘bomb’ was, ironically, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. The controversy created by this book centred on two things—Küng’s remarks about Barth and Barth’s remarks about Küng.

The two theologians have much in common. Küng shares Barth’s dual concerns for ‘the word of God’ and ‘christocentric concentration’. The two stress man’s wretched sinfulness and understand that God must act first in justification. Both deny man any claim to a subordinate or effective contribution in salvation and see a very personalistic atonement. Both reject human ‘merit’ or works. Both see redeemed man as simul justus et peccator, a state achieved by sola fide and soli deo gloria. To add to the amazement of the theological world, Küng’s Justification carried the nihil obstat and imprimatur!

As if these conclusions of Küng did not produce enough surprises, the book contained, as a foreword, a letter from Karl Barth. In that letter, Barth stated: (1) ‘Your readers may rest assured … that you have me say what I actually do say and that I mean it the way you have me say it’, (2) that if Küng really expresses Catholic thought, then he, Barth, agrees with Catholic theology, and (3) that he, Barth, doubts that the Canons of the Council of Trent express, in fact, what Küng finds in them.1

The theological world was stunned. William Visser t’Hooft, longtime General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, said that if these ideas are widely accepted in the Catholic Church, ‘protestantism will no longer have any important reason for its protest’.2

Like the observers at the day of Pentecost, modern man asked, ‘What meaneth this?’ Some theologians wondered if Küng’s views were really tenable with Catholic dogmatic. Bernard Ramm observed that Küng ‘has moved to protestant ground and doesn’t know it’. Barth had mused about the necessity of another pilgrimage to Trent, but Ramm continues that ‘the real traveller is Küng and the destination is Luther’s study in the Augustinian house of Wittenberg’.3 But Montgomery warned that ‘before evangelicals become too enthusiastic over Küng’s efforts’, they must realize that neo-orthodoxy does not represent orthodox reformation theology.4

Barth and Küng see Scripture as central, yet they view it critically. And in spite of a common starting-point, the two have very different motivations. Küng’s concern for the authority of the church (which must not be mistaken for the structures of hierarchy) and for renewal separate him from Barth. Hans Küng is best understood as an ecumenical Roman Catholic, not as a Catholic Barthian.5

Radical rejection of infallibility

In view of Küng’s soteriology, one must ask how Küng can sidestep the historical pronouncements of the popes and the creeds of the councils. This question introduces Küng’s second contribution: religious authority.

The controversy over Humanae Vitae which barred artificial birth control provided the occasion but not the provocation, for Küng to publish Infallible? An Inquiry.6 Councils, he wrote, are not infallible, but are imperfect and contradictory. The creeds, formed in the fire of controversy, are fragmentary, incomplete, and imperfect. They carry error with the truth. By the application of historical criticism to dogmatic formulation, Küng comes to the conclusion that creeds are not rigid or frozen formulations, but rather ‘living signposts’. Else he said:

Definitions and decrees are simply not intended to say everything there is to say about the truth. They are not intended as balanced, detached, learned treatises, but as correction to particular definite errors.7

If the traditional formulations and councils are fallible, where then does one look for authority? ‘To the papacy’ would be a natural suggestion as the ultimate appeal for authority, but Küng sees fallibility there also. Vatican I must be understood in terms of the controversy of that time, says Küng. Popes are not the citadel of truth for they have erred and the ‘Pope cannot by any means define arbitrarily or against the will of the Church as a whole; the Pope himself has to be on his guard against schism’.8 Küng has called on the pope to admit his fallibility in order to satisfy academic inquiry, silence Protestant criticism, and advance ecumenical life. For Küng, papal infallibility is a political tool—an instrument of power, rather than a theological reality—an instrument of truth.9

As a leading force for biblical dogmatics in the Catholic Church, Küng turns to Scripture for direction. He constantly calls for a return to Scripture, filling his books with scriptural citations. ‘For Küng, the normative language of faith must always be scripture.’10 But Küng’s view of inspiration is not what it may appear. He doubts many of the New Testament passages, but still finds value in them. The Scripture, he says, contains a mass of contradictory doctrines, some of which are false.

If Christians do not have an infallible tradition, nor an infallible pope, nor an infallible Bible, what assurance can they have? Küng answers that they have the church with the promise of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Hans Küng believes in the church’s ‘indeceivability’ (Untrüglichkeit). He has confidence that the Spirit will guide the corporate church along the path of truth, but it will not have the luxury of infallible signs along the way. This Untrüglichkeit guarantees stability and unshatterability; ‘in brief, a fundamental remaining in the truth in spite of all ever possible error’.11

The essence of the problem is linguistic, for Küng, because any claim to infallibility is dependent on propositions. Although Küng is not against definitive statements per se, for he recognizes them in Scripture, he does object to identifying those propositional definitions as truth. He reminds his readers that language is always fluid and subject to change. Additionally, language is not capable of explaining divine realities.

For Küng, God alone is infallible.12 The word ‘infallible’should not be used of anyone else (pope) nor anything else (Bible). Religious certainty comes from an encounter with Christ. Wells interprets Küng as ‘asking the Church to believe that every time Christ is preached from the defective biblical documents, a miracle occurs so that a genuine rather than a defective Christ emerges to confront the hearer’.13

Although Küng’s conclusions have a familiar overtone of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, the methodology fits nicely into the Roman system—the simplified Catholic position of tradition and Scripture interpreted by the church. The church, of course, is seen as an extension of Christ’s incarnation which is guided by Christ’s Spirit so that the church can unroll the scroll of truth.

If Küng had been a Protestant, his attack on papal infallibility would have passed without notice, yet the goal of the theologian from Tübingen was clearly to destroy this stubborn obstacle to reunion. And the Vatican was watching.

In 1975, after six years of inquiry, the Vatican’s high tribunal, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, admonished Küng. Their action was a surprise, because it was so mild. He was not even asked to renounce his ‘mistaken views’.14 But Küng’s reply to the Vatican was less mild, ‘I shall not let myself be prevented from further performing my theological service to mankind in an ecumenical spirit, nor from continuing to teach what can be defended from the New Testament and from the great Christian tradition as Catholic doctrine’.15

Radical ecumenism

The third key is Küng’s concept of ecumenism to which his study of justification and infallibility were preliminary. In Justification Küng showed that, if not identity, there is at least ‘a considerable proximation’ between Roman and Protestant theologies.16 Theology need not any longer be a barrier to re-union. Küng notes also a similarity in Catholic and Protestant spirituality.17 The one remaining barrier is organizational. The path to overcome this obstacle is ‘renewal’.18

For Küng, the ‘great stone of stumbling’ on the way to unity is the papacy or, using his preferred term, ‘the petrine office’. The modern reality in Rome simply does not reflect the New Testament image of the shepherd. The pope must not be the master, but the servant of all. ‘One thing is certain,’ he writes, ‘to overcome the church’s schism, sacrifices will be required from all participants, none of whom are without guilt, including the papal office.’19 And as apostolic succession is a central buttress of papal authority, Küng writes:

Ultimately we may come to see that the idea of apostolic succession expresses what is common to the various Churches rather than what divides them: the succession, not only of the apostles, but also of the prophets and the teachers, and finally, of all the charismatic functions as the full expression of the will of all the Churches to remain true to the Gospel and to let the apostolic message be expressed anew every day. Then orderly apostolic succession will express the will of all the Churches to live by the message of the apostles and their Lord, not as an anarchical, self-opinionated, autonomous and merely incidental agglomeration of different people, but as the orderly, obedient, faithful and serving community of Jesus Christ. The manner in which this is worked out will show how faithful every Church is to the Gospel. This is bound to have its effect on the brotherhood of the individual Churches. All the Churches have to face this eminently critical issue of how to be apostolic through succession.20

For Küng, there is a right way and a wrong way to reunion. It is wrong, he says, for one side to surrender, or for one side to gain by individual conversions. The only right way is for both sides to change through renewal.21

He says the Catholic Church is ‘too encrusted with the vestigial forms of earlier ages to allow her to be fully effective today. Her thought, organizational structure, discipline, liturgy, and piety need to be reformed and renewed according to the gospel’.22 Such renewal must not be simply bartering, but it must spring from the very life of the church, yet at the same time it will fulfil the demands of Protestants.23


With these three keys to unlock the treasure of Küng’s thought, it is possible to suggest an evaluation of his latest major literary contribution, On Being a Christian. If Justification landed on the ‘playground’ of theologians, On Being a Christian exploded in the centre of Christianopolis. It reopened the basic questions: ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ and ‘What does it mean to be a Christian in modern life?’ The first section of the book, ‘The Horizon’, silhouettes Christianity against the landscape of world religions and modern secular thought. Then, in ‘The Distinction’ Küng says that the uniqueness of Christianity is simply Christ. ‘The whole of Christianity,’ he writes, ‘is left hanging in mid-air if it is detached from the foundation on which it is built: this Christ’.24 The third part, ‘The Programme,’ considers God, man, faith, and community. It is possible for Küng to elaborate upon each of these, although Scripture narratives like the nativity story of virgin birth are merely ‘a collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary and ultimately theological motivated narratives, with a character of their own’.25 A final section of the book, ‘Practice’, finally arrives at the suggestion that because the supernaturalism of God can no longer be brought to modern man, the humanness of man must be brought to God. To be a Christian means to be radically human. The human is raised or transfigured into a better humanity.

Rejecting the infallibility of Chalcedon and the other creeds which define Christology ‘from above’, Küng prefers to formulate a ‘theology’ of Christ from below. Christ, so often mentioned in the past rather than the present tense, receives stress as the model for Christians to follow.26 The possibility that Christ is in the present and that he has fellowship with his followers never is offered as a possibility. This perhaps is the greatest weakness of Küng’s theological journey. The Christian pilgrim crossing the desert of modern values must have an oasis.

Regardless of how much one admires Küng’s erudition and productivity or how one identifies with his struggle for honesty about Scripture, infallibility, and ecumenics, he leaves much unanswered. If so much of Christianity can be stripped away, what does Küng really offer as the church’s Untrüglichkeirt? Then, considering not the believer, but the unbeliever, will such a secularized gospel have any appeal to secular man strangling on his secularity?

1 Hans Küng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (NY: Nelson, 1964) with Barth’s ‘A Letter to the Author,’ pp. xixff.

2 J. J. Carey, ‘Infallibility Revisited’, Theology Today XXVII (Jan. 1972), pp. 237–238.

3 Bernard Ramm, ‘Justification: Barth and Küng’, Eternity XVI (winter, 1971), p. 42.

4 John Warwick Montgomery, Ecumenicity, Evangelicals, and Rome (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1959), pp. 103–104.

5 J. J. Carey, ‘Hans Küng and Karl Barth: One Flesh and One Spirit’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies X (winter 1971), p. 6.

6 Hans Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (NY: Image Books, Doubleday, 1972).

7 Hans Küng, Council, Reform and Reunion (NY: Sheed & Ward, 1961), pp. 113–114.

8 Küng as quoted by David F. Wells, Revolution in Rome (Downer’s Grove, Ill. and London: IVP, 1972), p. 109.

9 C. Stevens, ‘Infallibility and History’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies X (Spring 1973), p. 387.

10 Carey, ‘Infallibility’, p. 434.

11 Küng, Infallible?, p. 167.

12 Ibid.

13 Wells, p. 113.

14 Trevor Beeson, ‘Hans Küng’, Christian Century XCII (14 May 1975), p. 498 and ‘Admonished’, Christianity Today XIX (14 Mar. 1975), p. 57.

15 Küng as cited by Beeson, p. 479.

16 Küng, Council, Reform and Reunion, p. 116.

17 Paul M. Minus, Jr. The Catholic Rediscovery of Protestantism (NY: Paulist Press, 1976), pp. 135f. Ehrich quotes, ‘es sind auch Christen, die an denselben Christus und sein Evangelium glauben wollen’ to illustrate that it is not the same faith which is credited to Protestants, but only the same will (endeavour, desire, wish) to believe. R. J. Ehrlich, ‘Protestant-Roman Catholic Encounter’, Scottish Journal of Theology XVI (Mar. 1963), pp. 23f.

18 Küng, Council, Reform and Reunion, p. 128ff.

19 Hans Küng (ed.), Apostolic Succession: Rethinking A Barrier to Unity (NY: Paulist Press, 1968), pp. 28–33. Note the significance of the subtitle. Although the quote comes from Küng’s own essay, the other contributions in the book show that Küng is not alone in his method of rethinking.

20 Küng, Apostolic Succession, p. 2.

21 Hans Küng, ‘What Christians expect of Vatican II’, Christianity and Crisis XXIII (16 Sep. 1963), pp. 156–57.

22 Küng as quoted by Minus, p. 186.

23 Ibid., p. 158.

24 Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (London: Collins, 1977) p. 124.

25 Ibid., p. 451.

26 Ibid., passim.

Donald Dean Smeeton

The Rev. Donald Smeeton comes from the USA and has spent some years studying and teaching in Belgium.