The Vatican reports only that the meeting took place in a “friendly climate” and that the pope offered his support for Kung’s efforts to build a Weltethos, a moral framework based on values shared by many different religions, recognizable by secular reason.
Kung has been a little more forthcoming. But not much more. From his home in Tübingen, Germany he told reporters, “We have different positions, but the things we have in common are more fundamental. We are both Christians, both priests in service of the Church, and we have great personal respect for one another.” Kung added that he regarded the meeting as a “sign of hope for many in the Church with the same vision as mine.” Kung did not ask the pope to restore his license to teach Catholic theology, which was taken from him in 1979 because of his open challenge to papal authority. (Kung denies the Church’s teaching on infallibility and argues that papal authority is man-made, rather than God’s will.)
So if that is all we know about the meeting between Kung and the pope, what can I add? Nothing. My interest is in something else: the reaction to the meeting in certain Catholic circles. For shorthand, let’s call them “progressive Catholic circles,” that is, those who are pushing for changes in the Church’s teachings on issues such as women priests, homosexuality, birth control, and the authority of the Magisterium itself. They are using the favorite tactic of young children pressuring their parents to give in to a request: “Mommy, you let Billy have some candy! Why can’t I have some too?”
The National Catholic Reporter, for example, in an October 14th editorial, called the meeting a sign that we might be on the verge of “strudel time” between the US bishops and Catholic “dissidents.” The Reporter complained, “In more than a few dioceses in the United States, Hans Kung would not be able to speak on church property. Bishops in some places are making lists of questions that guest speakers must respond to, and they are demanding that any invitation to speakers outside the small circle of diocesan officials be vetted by the bishop.”
That was the left jab. Now comes right cross, the haymaker: “Pope Benedict XVI himself apparently wouldn’t pass the orthodox purity test anymore, having had a long and apparently cordial meeting with his long-time friend, arch-foe and one-time colleague Hans Kung.” Cute. If the pope can talk to Hans Kung, why should not the US Bishops “dialogue” with “Call to Action and the Women’s Ordination Conference,” groups which, says the Reporter, “know their stuff” and “know from long association with theologians and priests and bishops that even church officials talk about things that we’re all told are not supposed to be spoken about.” Billy got some candy… what about me?
The Reporter ends its editorial with the observation that there is “no need to spend four hours together including dinner, but an hour now and then over coffee and, in honor of the pope, some good strudel, would show the world we can disagree yet get along. A little conversation might go a long way toward defusing tensions and narrowing the divides.”
It is the old debater’s trick: creating the appearance of a moral equivalence where there is none.
First, meeting with someone, even for four hours, does not mean that we are giving credibility to his or her point of view or softening our position in relationship to it. We do not know what the pope said to Kung. But there is no reason to assume that he gave any indication that he was open to a “dialogue” on matters that the Church considers settled. Why not accept the wording of the Vatican’s statement as it stands: that many of Kung’s views are not in line with the Church’s teachings, even if he is doing commendable work in other areas. Why assume instead that the pope was seeking to, as the Reporter states, keep “lines of communication open” on these issues?
Indeed, it very well may be that the meeting with Kung at Castel Gandolfo lasted four hours because it took that long for the pope to make his case in a polite and gracious manner that that Kung was in error on important doctrinal questions. It is patronizing to instead picture the pope sitting back and stroking his chin while he listened to Kung, and saying to himself, “Gee… I never thought of things that way before. Maybe Fr. Hans is right after all.”
OK, perhaps those last two sentences fit more in the category of a wisecrack than a fair characterization of the National Catholic Reporter’s editors’ position. The Reporter’s editorial does state elsewhere, “Caution is advised. It would be easy to overstate the importance [of this meeting]. Just as Benedict XVI’s Aug. 29 encounter with the head of the Lefebvrite movement did not mean a return to Mass in Latin or abandoning the church’s teaching on religious freedom, his Sept. 24 reunion with Hans Kung doesn’t mean that the pope is giving up on infallibility or birth control.”
Precisely. But if the Reporter can see that the meeting of the pope with the Lefebvrites does not imply that the Church is seeking to soften its position on Lefebvre’s teachings (let us leave aside for the moment whether that would be a good thing to do), why use the meeting between the pope and Kung to make the case that the US bishops should provide forums for those who are pushing for the changes advocated by Kung?
Progressive Catholics would not want the Church to promote campus or parish discussion groups that include members of the Lefebvrite movement or those who justify violence against abortion clinics. They recognize an orthodoxy when it suits their agenda. They don’t want to keep the dialogue open on these questions. Their call for dialogue applies only for those dissenters on their side of the theological divide. They seized upon the meeting between the pope and Kung to implement that strategy.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)