Nearly 50 years ago in this medieval city with its steep hills and the sprawling campus of one of Germany's great universities, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger were priests and theology department colleagues.
Küng and Ratzinger were the youngest and most influential
progressives to advise bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
When Vatican II concluded, it unleashed a historic movement in the
church toward greater engagement in the daily lives of the people of
God, the rank-and-file believers.
A new sensibility for justice and
individual rights arose in the church that would grow to 1 billion
Catholics worldwide, with missions of activism in many of the poorest
countries on Earth.
Back at the University of Tübingen, Küng, a native of Switzerland,
and Ratzinger, who had grown up in the Nazi darkness of his native
Germany, soon found themselves at odds over the sweeping changes in the
church, in a theological debate that would echo across Europe and the
Now, during the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Küng, an
internationally renowned scholar, and Ratzinger, known as Pope Benedict
XVI, are even more at odds.
Of the many issues that divide them, Küng
sees the attempt to rein in the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women
Religious as a sign of myopia, a failure of vision.
"You cannot deny that Joseph Ratzinger has faith," said Küng, in a
coat and tie, seated in his office, speaking in calm tones in the blue
twilight. "But he is absolutely against freedom. He wants obedience."
"He is against the paradigm of Vatican II." Küng paused. "He has a medieval idea of the papacy."
"Many sisters are better educated and more courageous than a lot of
the male clergy," he said matter-of-factly. The Roman Curia "will try to
The legendary intellectual battle between Küng and Ratzinger holds a
mirror to divisions in the larger church. Their split began shortly
after Vatican II. During the student revolts of 1968, Ratzinger was
appalled when protesters disrupted his classroom.
That same year, Pope
Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned the use of
artificial contraception, met with enormous protest from laypeople,
theologians like Küng, and even scattered bishops.
Ratzinger shifted to the right, embracing institutional continuity.
Küng attacked papal infallibility as an accident of history, devoid of
genuine theological meaning.
Küng sees the clergy abuse crisis and the crackdown on the leadership
organization of American nuns as symptoms of a pathological power
structure. By his lights, the impact on church moral authority, and
finances, is a crisis rivaling the Protestant Reformation.
In his years at the university here, Ratzinger, polite and bookish,
was a familiar sight on his bicycle. "He did not have a driver's
license," recalled Hermann Häring, a retired faculty theologian who knew
Ratzinger saw the church's future in rebuilding its orthodox roots.
From academia Ratzinger rose to archbishop of Munich and Freising,
then a cardinal appointed in 1981 by Pope John Paul II as the prefect of
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the old office of the
Roman Inquisition. As he prosecuted theologians for straying from
official teaching, he became known as an enforcer of truth.
Küng became a highly influential popular theologian with a stream of
writings, including a book critical of papal infallibility. The Vatican
reacted with a doctrinal investigation and suspension of Küng's license
to teach theology in 1979.
But at University of Tübingen, a public
facility that dates to 1477, Küng had job safety. Still a priest, he
became a pariah to orthodox Catholics and an intellectual hero to
mainstream believers as he kept publishing and speaking.
As doctrinal congregation proceedings targeted more church scholars,
such as U.S. Fr. Charles Curran and Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian scholar
of liberation theology, Küng likened Ratzinger to the Grand Inquisitor
of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov -- the sinister monk who tells
Jesus the masses must be subdued by superstition for religion to
maintain its power.
"You cannot be for human rights in society and not be for it in the
church," Küng told NCR. "In Ireland, the prime minister is more
outspoken than anyone" -- referring to Enda Kenny's blistering 2011
speech in the parliament attacking the Vatican for the rooted
concealment of pedophiles. Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See.
In the French edition of his new book (forthcoming in English as Can
the Catholic Church Be Saved?), Küng expands on the analogy between a
church that once put heretics on trial and the injustice at the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger, as cardinal
and now as pope.
"The Roman Inquisition continues to exist," he writes, "with methods
of psychological torture and the use in our day of many enforcement
Küng, 84, expanded on the Inquisition theme in a Nov. 15 interview at
his split-level residence, which also has offices for Global Ethic
Foundation, which he founded.
"The [Roman] Curia realized that the practical life of nuns was
different," he said, "and that was enough to persecute them. You go to
Rome for a hearing and it's a dictate -- take it or leave it."
Küng and Benedict personify the polarized camps as the church has
evolved since Vatican II. One side sees a church of rising aspirations
in laypeople, particularly women; the papal side seeks a return to
deeper piety, a rules-based tradition that honors the hierarchy.
The monarchical notion of papal absolutism has Benedict XVI and John
Paul II standing out in high relief from the clamor of Vatican
II-inspired theologians and activists. Küng sees the Vatican
investigation of the nuns' leadership group as symptomatic of papal
retrenchment from Vatican II.
"Dissent is important in the history of the United States," he
explained. "The Catholic church is different. They are persecuting
people who are dissenting. ... Is the church one boss who has the truth,
and not much justice?"
Küng said he is not surprised that the climate of fear generated by
the doctrinal congregation has been met with silence by American
"I have already written," he said, as if the lesson should be
memorized, "that one priest, acting alone, is nobody. Ten priests are a
threat taken seriously. Fifty priests acting together are invincible."
Küng has announced his retirement in 2013 on turning 85. The
handsome, book-lined home here in Tübingen will continue housing the
foundation he launched. For a man of such fierce idealism, he seems a
portrait in serenity.
"Most people do not remain in the church because they identify with
the local bishop -- or the church," he said, as the lights of the town
twinkled across the hills of Tübingen. "They are loyal to their
community and not the Roman Curia."