Twenty-two years ago in New York, I interviewed Küng on videotape for a fledging Catholic media company. Alas, the firm's swift demise meant that the tape never saw the light of day. That was just as well. My performance was shaky: it was plain on the screening that the guy gave me the creeps. I had never seen such worldiness and naked lust for power in a theologian before; barely more than a kid, I was sweaty and hesitant; at the top of his form, he was toying with me. A few years later, he gave a speech to a convocation of clergy and theologians in New York for which I could have written the script. I wasn't there, but Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, was. In 2003, Neuhaus recounted the occasion in passing as part of one my favorite articles of his:
At the time, I accepted Küng's sociological analysis of Catholic intellectual and ecclesiastical life. Demoralized and fearful, I hoped to make a career in secular academia instead, where I could get away with being an orthodox Catholic so long as I didn't dwell on distinctively Catholic themes. As it turned out, though, I landed in quarters of Catholic academia where loyalty to the Magisterium was not only tolerated but expected. And as Neuhaus says next in the above-quoted article, referencing Küng's speech: "Almost nobody on the left is talking that way today. They are still largely in control of major institutions, notably the academy and some religious orders, but the more astute among them know that they are increasingly on the defensive." Indeed they are, and I'm increasingly optimistic that Catholicism will someday reign again in Catholic academia.
It was at a conference in the mid–eighties that I listened to Hans Küng hold forth in triumphalist tones on the victory of the progressives. “We” control, he announced, the seminaries, the academic departments of theology, the catechetical and liturgical institutions, the publishing houses, the magazines that matter, and the chanceries. Most of the bishops, he said, are now on “our” side, and those who aren’t have been neutralized. Anyone who wants a future in the hierarchy or the Catholic academy has no choice but to cooperate, he observed. It was a clean sweep; all that was left were a few details; the disgruntled band of risibly reactionary dissidents from the new order didn’t understand what had happened and couldn’t do much about it. It was an impressive speech.
That's not to deny that theologians of Küng's stripe and generation have performed a signal service to the Church. A peritus at Vatican II along with Ratzinger, whom he had headhunted from the University of Münster's theological faculty for that of Tübingen a few years earlier, Küng is probably the best-known of the "progressive" theologians who dominated, if not the Council's deliberations themselves, at least its interpretation in the two or three decades that followed. Books of Küng's such as The Doctrine of Justification; Infallible? An Inquiry; and On Being a Christian, though not of the very first rank, were trenchant enough to force the orthodox to rethink their approaches and get creative. I rather doubt that authentically Catholic theology today would be anything more than a relic if it hadn't been for troublemakers like Küng and others. Though Ratzinger was right back in 1979 to help engineer Küng's de-certification as a Catholic theologian, he and John Paul the Great were also right not to excommunicate him.
Not all of Küng's stuff matters, of course. His Does God Exist? does not advance the discipline of natural theology; his book Eternal Life? deserved the treatment I gave it years ago in the pages of National Review. At this juncture, in fact, the 77-year-old Küng's ideas matter less than his persona. As a living symbol of what many Catholics think and feel, he remains a force for his old colleague, now Pope Benedict XVI, to reckon with. That Ratzinger has chosen to reckon with him by a sincere gesture of reconciliation isn't going to make the doctrinal issues go away, but it will help light prevail over heat.
I suppose I shouldn't be disappointed that, to that end, Küng been brought in from the cold. I just wonder whether he, along with his many admirers, will get the right message.