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Küng Invokes Spirit of Second Vatican Council He Hardly Saw

Irish Times, September 14, 2010 by Most Rev Michael Smith, Bishop of Meath

RITE AND REASON: Hans Küng is less qualified than most to criticise the pope

ON THURSDAY Pope Benedict will begin his visit to Britain. It will end next Sunday with the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham. The theme of the papal visit is “Heart speaks onto heart”, a motto Cardinal Newman chose for his coat of arms.

It is fitting that Cardinal Newman should be beatified. This great scholar’s reverence for the Bible and his writings on the laity have a special connection to the Second Vatican Council. He made an urgent plea for laity to be fully recognised in the church, and believed faith was a matter of both head and heart.

A moving example of Pope Benedict speaking from the heart was his very helpful Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland last March. He says “with words that come from my heart ... I wish to speak to each of you individually and to all of you as brothers and sisters in the Lord.” He speaks of wounds inflicted on Christ’s body by child sexual abuse and of the sometimes painful remedies needed to bind and heal them.

After that letter, Dr Hans Küng wrote what he described as an open letter to the church. It was deeply critical of Pope Benedict, those working in the Roman Curia and “subservient” bishops.

It contained factual errors, eg that Pope Benedict had taken bishops of the traditionalist Pius X Society back into the church without precondition.

Running through the piece was an infallibility no pope would claim. He spoke of the betrayal by successive popes and the Curia of the “spirit” of the Vatican Council, without defining what exactly that “spirit” was.

But it is his claim to be the true interpreter of the documents of the Vatican Council that I find most difficult to accept, given the reality of his involvement with it.

Being present each day over the four years of the council, I had an opportunity of observing its workings closely. Scholars with expertise in theology, biblical studies, ecumenism etc had been appointed as “experts” to assist Council Fathers.

These were assigned to different commissions, the primary one being the Doctrine Commission. It would consider in detail proposals received from the Council Fathers, and establish reasons why some could be accepted and/or some could not.

One of those involved with the Doctrine Commission was Irish Franciscan biblical scholar Fr Alexander Kerrigan. I met him most days at the council, a kind and affable priest.

I was surprised one morning to find him visibly angry after his experience the previous evening at a commission meeting. It had followed a visit to the commission by Dr Küng, the only time Fr Kerrigan had seen him present.

Dr Küng left quickly, taking no part in the discussion. Since Dr Küng was spending a great deal of time giving lectures on the council and interviews to media, his refusal to be involved in drafting council texts was not appreciated by many.

When he published his autobiography I was naturally interested in how Dr Küng presented his non-involvement in this central work of the council. He admits that he made a conscious decision not to be involved in the commission’s work.

His account of why he did not do so is less than convincing. This is all the more regrettable as he had an opportunity to be involved in the three foundation documents of the council: on the church; on divine revelation; on the church in the modern world.

He claims he had individual bishops submit his proposals in their name. That misses the point since all proposals were debated by the commission and he refused to be present to support his submissions.

A clear conclusion, for me at least, is that Dr Küng is less qualified than most of those present to interpret that ephemeral concept which he constantly evokes – “the spirit of the Vatican Council”.

A major theme of this pontificate is Pope Benedict’s defence of truth and morality and his robust criticism of moral relativism. In media coverage of his visit to Britain we should be mindful of ulterior motives behind campaigns to damage him.

Typically his critics reject his views as inconsistent with their agenda that morality is a matter of opinion. Rather than prejudging his visit this week we need to keep our hearts open to his key messages.

Most Rev Michael Smith is Catholic Bishop of Meath. He attended all 168 days of the Second Vatican Council for which he and 11 other young priests prepared the official record.