The second volume of Hans Kung's autobiography (Umstrittene Wahrheit: Erinnerungen, Munich, Piper, 2007) is an Apologia pro Vita Sua worthy of comparison with Newman's. It covers the years from 1967 to 1980, and reveals in great detail and clarity exactly how the Second Vatican Council was betrayed by a Curia hostile to reform and, more crucially, by the cowardice and opportunism of a great number of bishops and theologians, willing to sign their own death warrant rather than challenge power and sacrifice worldly advancement. Had he dipped his pen in the acid of Zola or Flaubert, Kung's panorama of mediocrity would have sizzled. He prefers to write plainly, sine ira et studio, and to emanate a forgiving and understanding benevolence on all. As self-vindications go, the result is an astonishing success. The very many laity and clergy who have imbibed prejudice against Kung will certainly be obliged to modify their perceptions if they read this book. In it, a simple man addresses us honestly and calmly over hundreds of pages, never raising his voice, but quietly insisting on the integrity of his testimony. He shows that what irritated the authorities was not any alleged heresy but the 'tone and style' of his public persona, his willingness to speak openly to the media and to criticize the betrayal of the Council, and his unwillingness to present himself before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in view of its refusal to reform itself as mandated by Paul VI in 1965 and its practice of judicial procedures incompatible with universally recognized norms of legality and justice. The vast Vatican operation to discredit and marginalize Kung, one of the architects of Vatican II, was the 'beginning of woes' -- the failure of theologians and bishops to call a halt to such procedures at the time ensured that very many other theologians would be silenced, forced out of the church, or simply aborted, and that theologians working in faculties of Catholic theology would live a life of fear and servitude unworthy of their academic and Christian vocations. Here this case is set out in a fully documented fashion, and it will not be so easily dismissed with the slurs and smears of the past, for we have had almost three decades to register the destructive effects of the CDF policy. We have also witnessed the disheartening plunge of the world's bishops into conformism and silence and the laming of the Church's intellectual credibility through a massive brain drain. What, finally, was Kung's intolerable offence? Simply this: that he took theology seriously, that he kept on nagging at it, that he raised the questions of truth and justice within the Catholic theological world. This single-minded passion upset a card-castle of bureaucratic custom and vested interests. Kung's voice -- so penetrating, so clear, and so deceptively simple (for its simplicity rests on the deepest theological foundations) -- simply could not be tolerated. But Kung was never excommunicated, nor did he walk away. Thus it is that his voice is still heard, loud and clear, speaking from the heart of the Church. It is the voice of a sane and healthy man, totally unfazed by the decades of abuse he has received, calling us to come out of a neurotic and regressive period in church history and to advance with boldness toward the future that Vatican II glimpsed.
It might be objected that Kung does not give a full airing to the view eloquently expressed by John Paul II in a letter justifying his disqualification as a Catholic theologian, namely, that to give up on infallibility would be to remove the certitude that must mark Catholic beliefs. In the eyes of the Vatican infallibility is more than a shibboleth; it is the very condition of firm and convincing teaching. But perhaps infallibility is merely a retrospective effect. Nicea and Chalcedon are infallible in the sense that we cannot now doubt their truth. When infallibility has been invoked to ensure in advance the certain truth of some newly defined doctrine the results have been less convincing. Indeed, the invocation of infallibility is usually the sign of a doctrine in crisis. Only two examples of papal infallibility in defining doctrine are known; the Marian dogmas of 1854 and 1950, which are only a very tiny blip on the radar screen of current Catholic theology. The infallibility of the ordinary magisterium (a thesis Kung traces to the Roman Counter-Reformation theologian Bellarmine) was hastily adopted by Vatican II and is invoked to claim that the illicitness of artificial contraception and the non-ordainibility of women are infallible doctrines. Infallibility is also invoked in connection with the canonization of saints -- which in view of some recent beatifications and canonizations is again rather unconvincing. In practice, theologians seem happy with the idea of indefectibility rather than infallibility, with the supplementary conviction that certain doctrines, especially those shared by all Christian Churches, have in practice established themselves as infallibly true.