SPIEGEL: Professor Küng, your former faculty colleague Joseph Ratzinger is coming to Germany this week for a state visit. Do you have an audience scheduled with him?
Küng: I didn't request an audience. I am fundamentally more interested in conversations than audiences.
SPIEGEL: Does Benedict XVI even talk to you anymore?
Küng: After his election to be pope, he invited me to his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, where we had a four-hour friendly conversation. At the time, I hoped it would mark the beginning of a new era of openness. But that hope has not been fulfilled. We correspond with each other once in a while. The sanctions against me -- the withdrawal of my permission to teach -- still exist. (Ed's note: The Vatican revoked Küng's permission to teach Catholic theology in 1979 after he publicly rejected the dogma of papal infallibility.)
SPIEGEL: When was the last time Benedict wrote to you?
Küng: Through his private secretary (Georg) Gänswein, he thanked me for sending him my latest book and sent me his best wishes.
SPIEGEL: In your polemic book "Ist die Kirche noch zu retten?" ("Can the Church Still Be Saved?"), which was published earlier this year, you harshly criticized the pope for his anti-reformist policy.
Küng: I find it very gratifying that he hasn't ended the personal relationship despite my criticism.
SPIEGEL: Many Catholics feel that the Church is in a rather desolate state. The cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by priests has driven believers away from the Church in droves. What's going wrong?
Küng: If you put it that simply, I'll give you a simple answer. Ratzinger's predecessor, John Paul II, launched a program of ecclesiastical and political restoration, which went against the intentions of the Second Vatican Council. He wanted a re-Christianization of Europe. And Ratzinger was his most loyal assistant, even at an early juncture. One could call it a period of restoration of the pre-council Roman regime.
SPIEGEL: Why are these problems suddenly emerging, 50 years after Vatican II, which took place between 1962 and 1965?
Küng: The problems have been bubbling up in the Church for some time, as the decades-long cover-up of the sexual abuse scandals reveals. At some point, the global abuse problem could no longer be denied. But that isn't the only cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy. The cover-up of the dire condition of the Church is just as bad.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Küng: Namely that church life at the parish level has largely disintegrated in many countries. In 2010, for the first time, there were more people leaving the Church than being baptized in Germany. Since the Council, we have lost tens of thousands of priests. Hundreds of rectories are without pastors, and male and female orders are dying out because they can no longer recruit new blood. The number of people attending church services is steadily declining. But the Church hierarchy has not had the courage to admit, honestly and frankly, what the situation is really like. I wonder how this is supposed to continue.
SPIEGEL: When the pope comes to Germany, tens of thousands of people will cheer him at major events. Church leaders will not exactly interpret this as a symptom of crisis.
Küng: I wouldn't have anything against such events if they truly helped the Church locally. But there is a huge discrepancy between the façade, which is now being erected once again for the papal visit to Germany, and the reality. It creates the impression that this is a powerful and healthy church. It is certainly powerful, but is it healthy? We now know that these events do almost nothing for local parishes. They don't lead to more people attending services, more people wanting to become priests or fewer people leaving the Church.
SPIEGEL: Still, some 70,000 people are expected to attend the service in Berlin's Olympic Stadium.
Küng: They're not all believers; the crowd will include many curious onlookers. The believers who will attend are mainly conservative Catholics with no interest in reforms. There are also notorious young, hysterical Benedict fans who are also always present at the major papal events. Most of them are recruited from strictly conservative groups. For many people, the pope is still, to a certain extent, a positive role model and a moral force, although others feel that this aspect has suffered greatly.
SPIEGEL: Are you similarly critical of the pope's visit to the German parliament, the Bundestag? A number of opposition politicians have said they will boycott his address.
Küng: I have no objection to the visit. But I do hope that the politicians that will receive him make it clear that there are Catholics in Germany who disagree with the pope's current positions. According to polls conducted this spring, 80 percent of Germans want reforms.
SPIEGEL: Hasn't the process of other groups -- including political groups -- becoming distanced from the Church come so far that most people couldn't care less about conditions in the Catholic Church?
Küng: Only when they're not thinking about voters. Voters have become very sensitive in this regard. People will be paying very close attention to whether Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, a courageous and upstanding Catholic, will say anything critical to the pope.
SPIEGEL: What you are saying sounds very pessimistic. Is it, as the title of your book asks, too late to save the Church?
Küng: In my view, the Catholic Church as a community of faith will be preserved, but only if it abandons the Roman system of rule. We managed to get by without this absolutist system for 1,000 years. The problems began in the 11th century, when the popes asserted their claim to absolute control over the Church, by applying a form of clericalism that deprived the laity of all power. The celibacy rule also stems from that era.
SPIEGEL: In an interview with the respected weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, you were sharply critical of Pope Benedict, saying that not even King Louis XIV was as autocratic as the leader of the Catholic Church, with his absolutist style of government. Could Benedict truly change the Roman system if he wanted to?
Küng: It's true that this absolutism is an essential element of the Roman system. But it was never an essential element of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council did everything to move away from it, but unfortunately it wasn't thorough enough. No one dared to criticize the pope directly, but there was an emphasis on the pope's collegial relationship with the bishops, which was designed to integrate him into the community again.
SPIEGEL: Was it successful?
Küng: I wouldn't say that it was. The shamelessness with which the Vatican's policy has simply hushed up and neglected the concept of collegiality since then is beyond compare. An unparalleled personality cult prevails once again today, which contradicts everything written in the New Testament. In this sense, one can state this very clearly. Benedict has even accepted the gift of a tiara, a papal crown, the medieval symbol of absolute papal power, which an earlier pope, Paul VI, chose to surrender. I think this is outrageous. He could change all of this overnight, if he wanted to.