Theologian Hans Küng on Pope Benedict 'A Putinization of the Catholic Church'

On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Germany for a long-awaited visit. Prominent Swiss theologian Hans Küng explains to SPIEGEL why the papal visit will do little to help the crisis in the Church and compares Benedict to Vladimir Putin in the way he has centralized power.
Pope Benedict XVI. "The Church is sick, and it's the sickness of the Roman system," says theologian Hans Küng.

Pope Benedict XVI. "The Church is sick, and it's the sickness of the Roman system," says theologian Hans Küng.

Foto: VINCENZO PINTO/ AFP

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.

'The Catholic Church Will Undoubtedly Become More Protestant'

SPIEGEL: But he doesn't want to?

Küng: He doesn't. I'm absolutely convinced of that, because he does have the necessary authority. He would merely have to make use of it, in the spirit of the Gospel.

SPIEGEL: You don't just want to reduce the power of the pope. You are also calling for an end to celibacy, you want women to be ordained as priests and you want the Church to lift its ban on birth control. Catholics loyal to the pope say that these elements are part of the core values of the Catholic Church. If you peel all of this away, how much of the Church is left?

Küng: What remains is the same Catholic Church that used to exist -- and which was better. I'm not saying that the papacy should be abolished. But we need offices that serve the congregations, and we need the kind of papacy that was practiced by John XXIII. He didn't seek to dominate. Instead, he simply demonstrated that he was there for everyone, including other churches. He laid the groundwork for the Council and a new dawning of ecumenical Christianity. He allowed a new church to come alive.

SPIEGEL: Many in the Catholic Church says that if all the reforms you call for were implemented, you would be making the church more Protestant and abandoning its Catholic nature.

Küng: The Church will undoubtedly become somewhat more Protestant. But we will always preserve our unique nature. Our global way of thinking, our universality, differentiates us from a certain narrowness in the Protestant regional churches. It should remain that way, just as the office (of the pope) should be retained. But if everything is concentrated in the office, we'll end up with a medieval vicar, a prince-bishop and the pope as absolute monarch, who simultaneously embodies the executive, the legislative and the judiciary -- in contradiction to modern democracy and the Gospel.

SPIEGEL: You and Benedict are traveling along two different paths. You want to reform the Church to keep it alive. The pope is trying to seal off the Church from the outside world and increasingly restrict it to a conservative core, which may possibly survive.

Küng: Indeed. In the past, the Roman system was compared with the communist system, one in which one person had all the say. Today I wonder if we are not perhaps in a phase of "Putinization" of the Catholic Church. Of course I don't want to compare the Holy Father, as a person, with the unholy Russian statesman. But there are many structural and political similarities. Putin also inherited a legacy of democratic reforms. But he did everything he could to reverse them. In the Church, we had the Council, which initiated renewal and ecumenical understanding. Even pessimists couldn't have imagined that such setbacks were possible after that. The Polish pope's restoration policy, beginning in the 1980s, made it possible for the like-minded head of the highly secretive Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), once known as the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition -- and it's still an inquisition, despite its new name -- to be elected pope.

SPIEGEL: That's an audacious comparison.

Küng: It shouldn't, of course, be overstretched. But unfortunately, even as we acknowledge the positive things, the negative developments that are taking place cannot be overlooked. Practically speaking, both Ratzinger and Putin placed their former associates in key positions and sidelined those they didn't like. One could also draw other parallels: the disempowerment of the Russian parliament and the Vatican Synod of Bishops; the degradation of Russian provincial governors and of Catholic bishops to make them nothing but recipients of orders; a conformist "nomenclature"; and a resistance to real reforms. Ratzinger promoted his assistant from his days as head of the CDF to cardinal secretary of state, which makes him the pope's deputy.

SPIEGEL: What's wrong with that?

Küng: The fact that, under the German pope, a small, primarily Italian clique of yes-men, people with no sympathy for the calls for reform, were able to come into power. They are partly responsible for the stagnation that stifles every attempt at modernization of the church system.

SPIEGEL: What do conditions at the Vatican have to do with the state of the Church in Germany?

Küng: A massive system of power politics is behind all the Roman amiability, liturgical displays of splendor and pseudo-statehood. The Vatican controls the appointment of bishops and theology professorships, only allowing those who conform to its policies to attain these positions. Its nuncios monitor the bishops' conferences and constantly report back to headquarters. Denunciators are back in business in this system. Every reform-oriented pastor in Germany, and every bishop, must fear the possibility of being denounced in Rome.

SPIEGEL: What role does Cologne's Cardinal Joachim Meisner, a known hardliner, play in this power struggle within the Church?

Küng: It's an open secret that the German Bishops' Conference has come increasingly under Meisner's influence, which some wouldn't have thought possible. As it happens, Meisner has a direct line to the Roman center of power. His entourage includes younger bishops like Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg. The new archbishop in Berlin, Rainer Woelki, is also a Meisner protégé. An attempt is underway to gain control of the most strategically important positions. They are doing everything in their power to strengthen the system of dominance.

SPIEGEL: Your prognosis sounds grim.

Küng: I think it's very important that we do not sink into pessimism. But my diagnosis has shown that the Church is sick, and it's the sickness of the Roman system. Under these circumstances, I can't just behave like an ineffective doctor and say that everything will be fine.

SPIEGEL: What would be the treatment?

Küng: The base must gather its strength and make itself heard, so that the system can no longer circumvent it. I presented a comprehensive list of measures in my book.

SPIEGEL: More than a year ago, you wrote an open letter to all bishops in the world, in which you offered a detailed explanation of your criticism of the pope and the Roman system. What was the response?

Küng: There are about 5,000 bishops in the world, but none of them dared to comment publicly. This clearly shows that something isn't right. But if you talk to individual bishops, you often hear: "What you describe is fundamentally true, but nothing can be done about it." It would be wonderful if a prominent bishop would just say: "This cannot go on. We cannot sacrifice the entire Church to please the Roman bureaucrats." But so far no one has had the courage to do so. The ideal situation, in my view, would be a coalition of reformist theologians, lay people and pastors open to reform, and bishops prepared to support reform. Of course they would come into conflict with Rome, but they would have to endure that, in a spirit of critical loyalty.

SPIEGEL: That's what led to the Reformation 500 years ago. But at the time, the Roman system was incapable of understanding the criticism from within the ranks.

Küng: After 500 years, we are surprised that the popes and bishops of the day did not realize that a reform was necessary. Luther didn't want to divide the Church, but the pope and the bishops were blind. It seems that a similar situation applies today.

SPIEGEL: Would another council like Vatican II help the Church?

Küng: I hope that there will be a council, or at least a representative convention of the Catholic Church.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that you will experience such a council in your lifetime?

Küng: One shouldn't set limits on the grace of God. It would certainly be a sign of hope if the pope were to announce, during his visit to Germany: "Although I do not agree with all of these calls for reform, as a German pope, I do wish to bring something along as a gift: In the future, those who have been divorced and those who have remarried will be allowed to receive the Catholic sacraments."

SPIEGEL: Professor Küng, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry, Ulrich Schwarz and Peter Wensierski
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