Hans Küng has written an important open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church. In it, he hits the pontificate of Benedict XVI hard but, in my opinion, fairly.
First, there was fear when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope as he had most recently been head of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — formerly known as the Holy Inquisition. Then, there seemed to be relief and even hope as he appeared to move more gently than he had as head of the congregation. Then, there was some confusion as he seemed just oblivious to the effects of his statements about Moslems, Jews and so forth. He seemed to be lost and uninformed. Finally, with the waves of the storm over priestly abuse finally reaching Europe, he seemed unprepared — even after some 20 years of the growing scandals. When the scandals finally reached Munich, where the pope served as archbishop from 1977-82, instead of facing the scandal head-on, the cardinals and the curia closed ranks and acted as if the people’s concern about what had happened to their children and the children of their neighbors was instead an attack on the church and on the pope personally.
Küng, in his letter, lists a number of missed opportunities in the five short years of Benedict’s pontificate:
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…
- 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.
and so on. Near the end of his letter he writes, “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?”
He then lists six suggests to the bishops:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
It is often said that the Roman curia is a huge bureaucracy which cannot quickly change. The image often used to represent the curia is that of a huge cargo ship. Such a ship, it is said, cannot quickly come to a stop or change course. We are asked to wait for years while the curia considers its options and slowly comes to a decision.
Unfortunately, we live in a different time. The world has changed. One can fly anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. E-Mail reaches its recipient within thousandths of a second. The web connects us all. The world has changed, and the church must, too, change in order to stay relevant to the new world in which she finds herself.
The church as responded quickly when it needed to. Just six months into the reign of Pope Celestine V, the so-called “hermit pope,” when it was clear that his strengths were more in line of being a hermit than being a pope, he was “encouraged” to resign. His reign lasted from July 7, 1294 to December 13, 1294.
I am not suggesting that the pope resign. That would be short-sighted and, given the reach of this scandal, ineffective. The pope, however, should move more quickly than slowly in bringing this scandal to a conclusion. Waiting for the great ship of the curia to decide whether to turn and in which direction just won’t do for the current problem.
Kúng’s letter comes at an opportune time and helps us focus on what needs to be done to move out from under the present scandal and not be content to sit still but instead move the church back to making the reign of God more present in the world of today.