31May Hans Küng’s letter to bishops is worth re-reading — Chris McDonnell

At the risk of going over old ground I would suggest that we remind ourselves of Hans Kung’s Open Letter to the Bishops, published April 19th 2010. That is the clearest statement yet of the need to listen in charity to each other as we seek renewal in the Christian Church. From Chris McDonnell UK


Venerable Bishops,

Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and I were the youngest theologians at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965. Now we are the oldest and the only ones still fully active. I have always understood my theological work as a service to the Roman Catholic Church. For this reason, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I am making this appeal to you in an open letter. In doing so, I am motivated by my profound concern for our church, which now finds itself in the worst credibility crisis since the Reformation. Please excuse the form of an open letter; unfortunately, I have no other way of reaching you.

I deeply appreciated that the pope invited me, his outspoken critic, to meet for a friendly, four-hour-long conversation shortly after he took office. This awakened in me the hope that my former colleague at Tubingen University might find his way to promote an ongoing renewal of the church and an ecumenical rapprochement in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Unfortunately, my hopes and those of so many engaged Catholic men and women have not been fulfilled. And in my subsequent correspondence with the pope, I have pointed this out to him many times. Without a doubt, he conscientiously performs his everyday duties as pope, and he has given us three helpful encyclicals on faith, hope and charity. But when it comes to facing the major challenges of our times, his pontificate has increasingly passed up more opportunities than it has taken:

Missed is the opportunity for rapprochement with the Protestant churches: Instead, they have been denied the status of churches in the proper sense of the term and, for that reason, their ministries are not recognized and intercommunion is not possible.

Missed is the opportunity for the long-term reconciliation with the Jews: Instead the pope has reintroduced into the liturgy a preconciliar prayer for the enlightenment of the Jews, he has taken notoriously anti-Semitic and schismatic bishops back into communion with the church, and he is actively promoting the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of not offering sufficient protections to Jews in Nazi Germany.

The fact is, Benedict sees in Judaism only the historic root of Christianity; he does not take it seriously as an ongoing religious community offering its own path to salvation. The recent comparison of the current criticism faced by the pope with anti-Semitic hate campaigns – made by Rev Raniero Cantalamessa during an official Good Friday service at the Vatican – has stirred up a storm of indignation among Jews around the world.

Missed is the opportunity for a dialogue with Muslims in an atmosphere of mutual trust: Instead, in his ill-advised but symptomatic 2006 Regensburg lecture, Benedict caricatured Islam as a religion of violence and inhumanity and thus evoked enduring Muslim mistrust.

Missed is the opportunity for reconciliation with the colonised indigenous peoples of Latin America: Instead, the pope asserted in all seriousness that they had been “longing” for the religion of their European conquerors.

Missed is the opportunity to help the people of Africa by allowing the use of birth control to fight overpopulation and condoms to fight the spread of HIV.

Missed is the opportunity to make peace with modern science by clearly affirming the theory of evolution and accepting stem-cell research.

Missed is the opportunity to make the spirit of the Second Vatican Council the compass for the whole Catholic Church, including the Vatican itself, and thus to promote the needed reforms in the church.

This last point, respected bishops, is the most serious of all. Time and again, this pope has added qualifications to the conciliar texts and interpreted them against the spirit of the council fathers. Time and again, he has taken an express stand against the Ecumenical Council, which according to canon law represents the highest authority in the Catholic Church:

He has taken the bishops of the traditionalist Pius X Society back into the church without any preconditions – bishops who were illegally consecrated outside the Catholic Church and who reject central points of the Second Vatican Council (including liturgical reform, freedom of religion and the rapprochement with Judaism).

He promotes the medieval Tridentine Mass by all possible means and occasionally celebrates the Eucharist in Latin with his back to the congregation.

He refuses to put into effect the rapprochement with the Anglican Church, which was laid out in official ecumenical documents by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, and has attempted instead to lure married Anglican clergy into the Roman Catholic Church by freeing them from the very rule of celibacy that has forced tens of thousands of Roman Catholic priests out of office.

He has actively reinforced the anti-conciliar forces in the church by appointing reactionary officials to key offices in the Curia (including the secretariat of state, and positions in the liturgical commission) while appointing reactionary bishops around the world.

Pope Benedict XVI seems to be increasingly cut off from the vast majority of church members who pay less and less heed to Rome and, at best, identify themselves only with their local parish and bishop.

I know that many of you are pained by this situation. In his anti-conciliar policy, the pope receives the full support of the Roman Curia. The Curia does its best to stifle criticism in the episcopate and in the church as a whole and to discredit critics with all the means at its disposal. With a return to pomp and spectacle catching the attention of the media, the reactionary forces in Rome have attempted to present us with a strong church fronted by an absolutistic “Vicar of Christ” who combines the church’s legislative, executive and judicial powers in his hands alone. But Benedict’s policy of restoration has failed. All of his spectacular appearances, demonstrative journeys and public statements have failed to influence the opinions of most Catholics on controversial issues. This is especially true regarding matters of sexual morality. Even the papal youth meetings, attended above all by conservative-charismatic groups, have failed to hold back the steady drain of those leaving the church or to attract more vocations to the priesthood.

You in particular, as bishops, have reason for deep sorrow: Tens of thousands of priests have resigned their office since the Second Vatican Council, for the most part because of the celibacy rule. Vocations to the priesthood, but also to religious orders, sisterhoods and lay brotherhoods are down – not just quantitatively but qualitatively. Resignation and frustration are spreading rapidly among both the clergy and the active laity. Many feel that they have been left in the lurch with their personal needs, and many are in deep distress over the state of the church. In many of your dioceses, it is the same story: increasingly empty churches, empty seminaries and empty rectories. In many countries, due to the lack of priests, more and more parishes are being merged, often against the will of their members, into ever larger “pastoral units,” in which the few surviving pastors are completely overtaxed. This is church reform in pretense rather than fact!

And now, on top of these many crises comes a scandal crying out to heaven – the revelation of the clerical abuse of thousands of children and adolescents, first in the United States, then in Ireland and now in Germany and other countries. And to make matters worse, the handling of these cases has given rise to an unprecedented leadership crisis and a collapse of trust in church leadership.

There is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (1981-2005). During the reign of Pope John Paul II, that congregation had already taken charge of all such cases under oath of strictest silence. Ratzinger himself, on May 18th, 2001, sent a solemn document to all the bishops dealing with severe crimes ( “epistula de delictis gravioribus” ), in which cases of abuse were sealed under the “secretum pontificium” , the violation of which could entail grave ecclesiastical penalties. With good reason, therefore, many people have expected a personal mea culpa on the part of the former prefect and current pope. Instead, the pope passed up the opportunity afforded by Holy Week: On Easter Sunday, he had his innocence proclaimed “urbi et orbi” by the dean of the College of Cardinals.

The consequences of all these scandals for the reputation of the Catholic Church are disastrous. Important church leaders have already admitted this. Numerous innocent and committed pastors and educators are suffering under the stigma of suspicion now blanketing the church. You, reverend bishops, must face up to the question: What will happen to our church and to your diocese in the future? It is not my intention to sketch out a new program of church reform. That I have done often enough both before and after the council. Instead, I want only to lay before you six proposals that I am convinced are supported by millions of Catholics who have no voice in the current situation.

  1. Do not keep silent: By keeping silent in the face of so many serious grievances, you taint yourselves with guilt. When you feel that certain laws, directives and measures are counterproductive, you should say this in public. Send Rome not professions of your devotion, but rather calls for reform!
  2. Set about reform: Too many in the church and in the episcopate complain about Rome, but do nothing themselves. When people no longer attend church in a diocese, when the ministry bears little fruit, when the public is kept in ignorance about the needs of the world, when ecumenical co-operation is reduced to a minimum, then the blame cannot simply be shoved off on Rome. Whether bishop, priest, layman or laywoman – everyone can do something for the renewal of the church within his own sphere of influence, be it large or small. Many of the great achievements that have occurred in the individual parishes and in the church at large owe their origin to the initiative of an individual or a small group. As bishops, you should support such initiatives and, especially given the present situation, you should respond to the just complaints of the faithful.
  3. Act in a collegial way: After heated debate and against the persistent opposition of the Curia, the Second Vatican Council decreed the collegiality of the pope and the bishops. It did so in the sense of the Acts of the Apostles, in which Peter did not act alone without the college of the apostles. In the post-conciliar era, however, the pope and the Curia have ignored this decree. Just two years after the council, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical defending the controversial celibacy law without the slightest consultation of the bishops. Since then, papal politics and the papal magisterium have continued to act in the old, uncollegial fashion. Even in liturgical matters, the pope rules as an autocrat over and against the bishops. He is happy to surround himself with them as long as they are nothing more than stage extras with neither voices nor voting rights. This is why, venerable bishops, you should not act for yourselves alone, but rather in the community of the other bishops, of the priests and of the men and women who make up the church.
  4. Unconditional obedience is owed to God alone: Although at your episcopal consecration you had to take an oath of unconditional obedience to the pope, you know that unconditional obedience can never be paid to any human authority; it is due to God alone. For this reason, you should not feel impeded by your oath to speak the truth about the current crisis facing the church, your diocese and your country. Your model should be the apostle Paul, who dared to oppose Peter “to his face since he was manifestly in the wrong”! ( Galatians 2:11 ). Pressuring the Roman authorities in the spirit of Christian fraternity can be permissible and even necessary when they fail to live up to the spirit of the Gospel and its mission. The use of the vernacular in the liturgy, the changes in the regulations governing mixed marriages, the affirmation of tolerance, democracy and human rights, the opening up of an ecumenical approach, and the many other reforms of Vatican II were only achieved because of tenacious pressure from below.
  5. Work for regional solutions: The Vatican has frequently turned a deaf ear to the well-founded demands of the episcopate, the priests and the laity. This is all the more reason for seeking wise regional solutions. As you are well aware, the rule of celibacy, which was inherited from the Middle Ages, represents a particularly delicate problem. In the context of today’s clerical abuse scandal, the practice has been increasingly called into question. Against the expressed will of Rome, a change would appear hardly possible; yet this is no reason for passive resignation. When a priest, after mature consideration, wishes to marry, there is no reason why he must automatically resign his office when his bishop and his parish choose to stand behind him. Individual episcopal conferences could take the lead with regional solutions. It would be better, however, to seek a solution for the whole church, therefore:
  6. Call for a council: Just as the achievement of liturgical reform, religious freedom, ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue required an ecumenical council, so now a council is needed to solve the dramatically escalating problems calling for reform. In the century before the Reformation, the Council of Constance decreed that councils should be held every five years. Yet the Roman Curia successfully managed to circumvent this ruling. There is no question that the Curia, fearing a limitation of its power, would do everything in its power to prevent a council coming together in the present situation. Thus it is up to you to push through the calling of a council or at least a representative assembly of bishops.

With the church in deep crisis, this is my appeal to you, venerable bishops: Put to use the episcopal authority that was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council. In this urgent situation, the eyes of the world turn to you. Innumerable people have lost their trust in the Catholic Church. Only by openly and honestly reckoning with these problems and resolutely carrying out needed reforms can their trust be regained. With all due respect, I beg you to do your part – together with your fellow bishops as far as possible, but also alone if necessary – in apostolic “fearlessness” ( Acts 4:29, 31 ). Give your faithful signs of hope and encouragement and give our church a perspective for the future.

With warm greetings in the community of the Christian faith,

Yours, Hans Küng

10 Responses

  1. Gene Carr

    It never seems to dawn on Hans Kung that he, with his decades of reckless opining, may in fact be part of the problem not the solution. And this particular screed is no less a litany of reckless opining. For instance, there may or may not be excellent arguments for and against the celibacy rule. But if there is any good evidence connecting the abuse scandal with celibacy, I would be interested in hearing it. According to the John Jay report into the American scene, over 80% of cases were pederastic in nature, that is the victims were post purbetal younsters. How would marriage prevent that problem? Could it not be that the elevation of a ‘pastoral’ or even a ‘therapuetic’ in the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ was at fault, when what was required was the strict application of good old fashioned Canon Law?

    Like so many clerical critics of the pre-Vatican II church repeats the Soviet inspired smear of Pope Pius XII as being somehow complicit in the Holocaust, etc, even though this BIG LIE has at this stage been refuted over and over again, most recently by the British Historian Michael Burleigh, who has most thoroughly demolished this manufacture ‘meme’ in his book “Sacred Causes”. But what matter? It is uselful for discrediting anything that was pre-Vatican II!

    Kung accused Pope Benedict of distorting the reforms of Vatican II. Yet it never seems to dawn on him that he himself may the distorting those reforms, and reading into the Councilor Decrees things that are simply not there.

    When I first read Kung’s book “Christianity”, I did not get far when my ‘sensum fidelum’ began to vivbrate and my mind and my heart said: “this is not the Christ i know”.

  2. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

    Thankyou for sharing this letter to the bishops by Hans Kung. The letter is full of wisdom, from a member of the Catholic clergy, who deeply loves God and his church.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    Gene Carr, you have a scattershot approach, but can you point out one statement in Kung’s letter that is not true?

  4. Máire

    Gene Carr, are you aware of the unrealistic age assigned to the category ‘post-puberty’ in the John Jay Report? You write, “According to the John Jay report into the American scene, over 80% of cases were pederastic in nature, that is the victims were post purbetal younsters.” People should make this assessment for themselves.
    From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ April 2011 Report, page 36, “Victims, Offenses, and Offenders in 2010,” received from surveys (voluntarily completed) of U.S. dioceses and eparchies:
    “More than half of the victims (53 percent) were between the ages of ten and fourteen when the alleged abuse began. One-fifth of the victims (20 percent) were between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, and one-fifth were younger than age ten. The age could not be determined for 8 percent of victims.” Figures from the chart on the next page: 84 victims were age 9 or younger; 224 were 10-14; 84 were 15-17; and 34 of unknown age.
    From page 45, data from (voluntary) surveys of religious institutes: “Four in ten victims (40 percent) were ages ten to fourteen when the alleged abuse began, and nearly as many (38 percent) were between fifteen and seventeen. One in five (19 percent) was under age ten, and the age of the victim could not be determined for three of the new allegations (4 percent).
    These data support Kung’s complaint “And now, on top of these many crises comes a scandal crying out to heaven-–the revelation of the clerical abuse of thousands of children and adolescents, first in the United States. . . .” Documents recently coming to light entangle Cardinal Dolan himself, head of the USCCB, in the scandal of mishandling pedophile-priest cases when he was in Milwaukee. It’s too late to diminish the impact in the USA. As Hans Kung said in a 2010 interview, Pope Benedict would say “‘I did not change. I am only interpreting.’ But he interprets everything always backwards and not forwards.” There really is no choice now but reform (not simply “renewal”) as envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.

  5. Gene Carr


    I was not challenging the fact of an abuse crisis, but Kung’s attempt to connect it to mandatory celibacy. We can argue the precise age of puberty in boys nowadays, but it is a fact that pederasts target youngsters at the cusp of puberty and thereafter. Otherwise in order to demonstrate a causal or conditional connection between mandatory celibacy and abuse (insofar as social research methods allow), one would have to compare the experience of roughly comparable groups and situations, for example other churches and religious bodies who don’t mandate celibacy. Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any studies comparable to the John Jay report. One clue, however, lies in the fact that Catholic bodies do not suffer any insurance penalties compared to other religious bodies. Another somewhat comparable situation are teachers. A report by Professor Charon Shakeshaft into the prevalence of sexual abuse in US public schools revealed a situation that some 10% of pupils are abused. According to the Professor the incidence is proportionalty worse than in the Catholic Church (you can Google this). Futhermore, abusers are passed around to other schools is a process known as “passing the thrash”; they are rarely reported to the authorities. Now there is no rule of celibacy for public school teachers. Kung has not made a sustainable point but I suspect he knows well that there is a pre-existant prejudice in the public mind to this effect.

    As regards Cardinal Dolan, from what I understand, documents reveal that he expedited the laicization of ‘unassignable’ priests by giving them a payoff to go quickly rather than go through a long drawn out canonical process. Insofar as that expedites removing potential abusers from the priesthood then it appears to me to be no bad thing.

  6. Máire

    Gene, thanks for your reply. To begin with your last point, Archbishop Dolan arranged for sexually predatory priests to receive $20,000 and an additional $1,250 each month in lifetime pension payments. He also paid their health insurance premiums as long as they did not have health insurance with some new employment (NY Times, Jun. 1, 2012). He took good, pastoral care of them while manipulating his diocese into bankruptcy so that it could pay no further compensation to abuse victims. Most important, because he did not turn the accused priests over to law enforcement for investigation, the communities they live in had no warning of the risks they represent; their names appear on no public list of people convicted for sex offenses, and they are not compelled to register with local police. Can you see why Archbishop Dolan’s behavior inspires outrage as these facts come to light in the news?
    And consider the impact of this news on the laity’s trust in the Church. In the 2011 Report I quoted above, Cardinal Dolan wrote, “We will continue to work to our utmost for the protection of children and youth. . . . We will work toward healing and reconciliation for those sexually abused by clerics.”
    Your first point about mandatory celibacy may be right with regard to pedophiles; many known secular pedophiles are married men. However, when we consider the effect of severe repression of sexual impulse as contributing to aggression against minors, a connection between celibacy and pedophilia emerges that is similar to the connection between celibacy and the phenomenon of 25,000 ex-priests in the USA. Most of these priests left to seek companionship or marriage. The USA has only 40,000 active priests, most of them no longer young, many no longer serving Rome with enthusiasm. As Kung writes, “Tens of thousands of priests have resigned their office since the Second Vatican Council, for the most part because of the celibacy rule.” And I wonder how much of the current slap-down of US nuns is the effect of continuing, ages-old fear and suppression of women in the Church, who represent female sexuality. And note the twisted logic by which the USCCB publicly and expensively opposes civil rights for LGBTs while claiming to respect their full, equal moral worth. In the USA, we acknowledge the equality of others by treating them as equals under the law, if not in church. Such situations suggest a disordered fear of sexuality and certainly warrant a re-examination by the Church of its teachings on human sexuality, as Kung advises.
    Finally, about your analogy between pedophilia in the Catholic Church and abuse of children in the public schools, I’m not sure of your point. Are you concluding that sexual abuse of children would not be more easily eradicated in the Church if the celibacy discipline ended than it is in the public schools, where teachers have no celibacy rule? From my readings about the problem, I’d agree, yet as I indicated above, there are plenty of other reasons to end the celibacy discipline.

  7. Steve Edward

    Thank you, Gene.

  8. Gene Carr


    The Milwaukee Diocese filed for bankruptcy after Dolan had left. I take it that your reference to the New York Times is Goldstein’s article. Generally when the NYT comments on anything Catholic, I am inclined to seek collaboration elsewhere before accepting it. As is now known, Cardinal Dolan is a key figure in opposing the imposition of the ‘sterilization/contraception/abortion pill’ mandate on Catholic institutions in the US. When I heard this in February, I wondered how long it would take the fanatically pro-Obama NYT to ‘dig the dirt’ on the Cardinal. Not long it seems.

    Your comment on ‘slapping down the US nuns’ tickled my funny bone. Do you really think it was all motivated by ‘fear of female sexuality’? Is is not more likely that some guy in the CDF woke up one morning and finally said to himself: “there were 186,000 nuns in the US in 1965; now there are 59,000 and they are aging–particularly the ‘renewed’ ones. For some unaccountable reason, this decline is called ‘committment to renewal’. I could think of other descriptions. Lets stop beating around the bush and send in the visatators to see what gives.”

    Now Maire, is it not possible, even a tweeney weeney bit possible, that the concept of “fear of female sexuality” never even entered the poor guy’s head?

    My use of the public school data was for the following reason. in order to establish causality, you must at least establish correlation. If in milieus that don’t mandate celibacy, there is sexual abuse of minors as great or greater than in the Church, as is certainly the case with US Public Schools (and, I understand, the Boys Scouts Of America) then your case (and Kung’s) is not made.

    I take it that on your second last point you are talking about same sex marriage. It seems to me that the issue should force upon us a series of crucial questions: What is marriage? Is it important? Why? Does the State and Society have any compelling interest in regulating marriage at all? If so why? Are there valid impedients to the right to marry?

    It seems to me that the crucial issues here are children and the procreative fact of man+woman, together with the long dependence of the human child on its parents (unlike almost all other species). That is why marriage is important and why the state and society has a compelling interest in its stability (or should have).

  9. Janice Poss

    Bravo, once again Dr. Kung!! Keep writing and talking and struggling for these reforms and betterment and understanding by clergy of the truly human condition, not one of a medievalized, partriarchally run Church that is completely out of touch, not only with our humanity, but also with divine dignity. There is something very rotten in the state of Denmark and it is festering and beginning to smell putrid all around the globe.
    Men and women in our Church are tired, frustrated and have had enough. The Spirit is acting and will act to purge out the insidiously corrupted leaders. As women, the LGBT community, women religious and fed-up priests unite, change will and can happen to make this the egalitarian Church that Christ so envisioned. The work of Vatican II still needs ot be done and someday let’s hope Kung’s, Tracy’s and Metz’ dream of a Vatican III will take place to move us ever forward to Teihard de Chardin’s Cosmic Christ Project where we all will live in the light and be free and holy whole!!

  10. Darlene Starrs

    I’m all for a Vatican III