Does Hans Küng remain relevant?

Gerald O’Collins SJ offers a personal reflection on the work of Swiss priest and theologian, Hans Küng, who died on 6 April 2021.

Major obituaries of Hans Küng have highlighted his astonishing gifts as a communicator – he spoke five European languages – along with his prodigious capacity for research and writing that produced around fifty books. The obituaries have evoked the flexibility that let him move from issues concerned with Church reform and interchurch relations, to questions about Jesus Christ, the existence of God, eternal life, and, finally, the need for peace between religions and the practice of a world ethic.

When Pope John XXIII announced in January 1959 his intention to convoke a general council, Küng responded with a best-selling work The Council: Reform and Reunion (1960). He spelled out in a popular style the cry for reforms to purify the Catholic Church in the light of the gospel that had already come from such theological giants as Yves Congar OP.

During the four years of Vatican II (1962–5), Küng did much personally to publicise (and evaluate) the Council’s proceedings. He also joined an American Jesuit, Daniel O’Hanlon, and Congar in preparing a volume of important speeches delivered at Vatican II. A tireless networker, he was – so Robert Kaiser, the Time magazine journalist at the Council, told me – ‘always the last to leave the Sunday evening receptions given by my wife and myself in our Roman apartment’.
At a time when the majority of Christians made the theory and practice of Church life their favoured topic, Küng published two widely read studies: Structures of the Church (1962) and The Church (1967). He developed an historical approach, but without ever thinking through what that involved. Did it simply require taking an ‘honest look’ at the data, a view that he proposed on occasions and that the great Bernard Lonergan dismissed as insufficient?

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