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Hans Küng and Tübingen: Compromise and Aftermath

by John J. Carey

Dr. Carey is professor of religion at Florida State University. This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 13-20, 1980, pp.791-796. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The Tübingen compromise, which allowed Hans to remain on the university faculty and to retain his status as director of the Ecumenical Institute but at the same time removed him from the Roman Catholic theological faculty, appeared initially to resolve a delicate situation. It relieved all parties concerned from a lengthy and costly court hearing; it freed Küng to do his work, and it allowed the university to settle its own affairs.

Under terms of the compromise, Küng retains the title professor of ecumenical theology and is free to give university lectures and seminars. He can supervise doctoral students, but his students must be presented for their degrees (and thus approved) through the Catholic faculty. Küng will no longer teach any of the required courses in theology for Catholic students. Although Catholic students can attend his lectures and seminars, they will not be examined on Küng’s materials, and his lectures will not count for credit in theology for them. As a result, there are now three tracks in theology at Tübingen: Protestant, Catholic and Küng’s ecumenical theology. Like most compromises, this one has left many people displeased, and it may create more serious problems than it solves.

The German Model

It is now possible to trace the steps in the Küng case because of the publication in Germany of a full documentation of all the letters, resolutions and theological statements involved, beginning with Küng’s "Appeal for Understanding" in January 1978 and concluding with his public statement on April 10, 1980. The book, published on May 21, is titled The Küng Case: A Documentation (Der Fall Küng:Eine Dokumentation, edited by Norbert Greinacher and Herbert Haag [Munich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag]). To set the Küng compromise in proper perspective, however, one must initially note some of the special circumstances in Tübingen and consider the pattern of theological education in Germany. Tübingen is a beautiful university city nestled in the hills of Swabia some 25 miles south of Stuttgart. It has one of the oldest theological faculties. in Germany and is today not only the largest center for theological study in Germany but one of the largest in the world. Gabriel Biel and Melanchthon taught here; Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin studied here; David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur developed the famous "Tübingen school" of historical-critical approaches to the Bible in... the mid-19th century; Adolph Schlatter, Gerhard Kittel and Ernst Käsemann brought distinction to New Testament studies in the 20th century; and Karl Heim and Gerhard Ebeling gave the university international theological visibility in the previous generation.

Since the establishment of a Roman Catholic theological faculty in 1817 (an unusual move in a predominantly Protestant region of the country, but reflective of a conciliatory ethos at that time in Württemberg), a long history of engagement between the two faculties has evolved. In a situation rare in Germany, the two now share space in the same building, and students from both traditions can attend lectures and seminars in both faculties. In times past, various ecumenical seminars have been held, growing mostly out of Kung’s ecumenical interests -- his seminar with Jürgen Moltmann on "Contemporary Christology," one with Heiko Oberman on "The Concept of Justification in Luther and the Council of Trent," and another with Eberhard Jungel on "Natural Theology in Barth’s Church Dogmatics."

Unlike theological schools in the United States, however, these university faculties are closely tied to the Protestant and Catholic churches: The ipso facto establishment of the two major Christian traditions via West Germany’s church tax means that few people here question the close relationship of the faculties to the churches. German theological faculties are thus much more similar to sophisticated denominational seminaries than they are to American divinity schools at private universities. They are not even comparable to our interdenominational but independent seminaries such as Union in New York or the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. The American pattern of a religion department in a state university is totally different from the German model, though a few small departments for the study of comparative religions and the sociology and philosophy of religion exist in various German universities.

The point, however, is that the faculties have the basic task of preparing young people for careers in the church -- as ministers, priests and teachers in the school system. The professors enjoy the status of civil servants and in that sense are one step removed from direct ecclesiastical control; but their primary responsibilities are clear, and all theological work is done in a distinct confessional mold. Sensitivity to church needs and to the concerns of ecclesiastical authorities is consequently more acute than has traditionally been the case in America’s private divinity schools or independent seminaries.

Although the contacts between Protestant and Roman Catholic colleagues have been generally cordial in Tübingen over the years, there nevertheless exist two totally separate faculties, two libraries, two patterns for examinations and, in the last analysis, two ways of doing theology. No cost accountant would ever say that this is the most efficient way to organize a program of theological studies, but it works for the German scene. The Protestant faculty, some 30 professors with 1,700 students, is substantially larger than the Roman Catholic faculty, which has 12 professors and about 600 students.

A Deep Split

In this context the Küng settlement takes on a significance not immediately understood in America. Neither faculty is happy with the prospect of there being a third option for theological studies. While the compromise was a pragmatic solution to a delicate local situation,, both faculties fear that it might set a precedent in German universities for the establishment of an alternative approach to theological studies which transcends confessional boundaries. In a time of tight fiscal allocations no one wants to see a new trend that could call into question the present comfortable arrangement. An independent or ecumenical option is thus seen as a threat, not as an opportunity, even by more progressive spirits on both faculties.

Consistent with that concern, the Protestant faculty recently voted not to allow students from Roman Catholic backgrounds to work for degrees with the Protestant faculty. Such arrangements were never common but were at least possible in an earlier ecumenical era. Although the main line of the argument was that students should pursue theological studies within their own confessional tradition, the hidden premise was that such experiments could eventually undermine the status quo of having two separate faculties. If students can do degrees with either faculty regardless of their confessional background, why do we need two faculties? Economic fears -- the possibility of losing a number of positions if the faculties were combined -- are clearly apparent.

A second major consequence of the compromise has been a deep split within the ranks of the Catholic faculty. The decisive event in the whole Kung episode was the declaration issued by seven (out of 11) of Küng’s colleagues on the Catholic faculty on February 5, when they maintained that any professor without a missio canonica (i.e., official endorsement as a teacher of Roman Catholic theology) should not remain on a Roman Catholic faculty (Der Fall Küng, pp. 235-44). That declaration -- published simultaneously by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the local Schwäbischen Tagblatt -- was a dramatic reversal of an earlier public stand taken on December 8, when the full professors of the faculty unanimously expressed their support of Küng and pointed out the dangers for freedom of theological research and teaching intrinsic in the German bishops’ position (ibid., pp. 100-101). Again on January 10, the larger group of the Catholic faculty (including some student representatives and the equivalent of American instructors and assistant and associate professors) issued a declaration expressing hope for an amicable resolution of the conflict, and insisting on faculty, autonomy in all academic matters. Something happened between December 18 and February 5 to change the minds of the majority of full professors on the Catholic faculty. What was it?

No one apart from the seven professors involved -- Alfons Auer, Walter Kasper, Gerhard Lofink, Ludger Oeing-Hanoff, Rudolf Reinhard, Max Seckler and Hermann Josef Vogt -- knows for sure, and they have taken so much heat about it that they do not discuss the circumstances, apart from their own group and some trusted friends. It is generally believed, however, that Kasper and Seckler drafted the public statement. Although the statement was not polemical in tone, it had a caustic quality and clearly suggested that under the circumstances Küng should not remain on the Catholic faculty.

By those sympathetic to Küng, the February 5 statement was regarded as a betrayal in the midst of battle. The Protestant faculty, which on December 19 had endorsed Küng on the principle of freedom of theological inquiry (Der Fall Küng, p. 292), was stunned because its members had assumed that on this fundamental principle they were at one with their Catholic colleagues. Küng was taken completely by surprise and deeply hurt personally; as one of the senior members of the Catholic faculty, he had been a key figure in the appointment of all seven persons and had regarded them as supportive friends as well as colleagues.

Protests against the methods of the seven (they caucused secretly and did not discuss their intentions with other members of the faculty) were made

by Wolfgang Bartholomäus, dean of the Catholic faculty, and Küng’s other colleagues Norbert Greenacher, Bernard Lang and Herbert Haag. Petitions and declarations of support for Küng came from other theological faculties in Europe (both Catholic and Protestant), but the deed was now done: Küng could not count on the support of his own colleagues in what had initially appeared as a "showdown" struggle against Rome and the German bishops.

‘Dancing on Eggs’

Reactions to the statement of the seven varied depending on political and theological sympathies. On the progressive side in Germany and Europe generally, the response was one of amazement and rage. On February 6 the well-known Dusseldorf historian Christoph Weber, who had been invited by the Catholic faculty to give a lecture at Tübingen during the summer semester, sent a telegram to Dean Bartholomäus canceling his lecture. He spoke for a wide circle of liberal Catholics when he said: "Of all the documents I know in German church history of the 19th and 20th centuries, today’s declaration of the seven Tübingen professors is the most shameful. . . . This agonizing dancing on eggs [Eiertanz] with all of its delicate apprehension is only a testimony to cowardice and hypocrisy" (ibid., p.244).

Whatever the motives and the causes of this shift, the action of the seven has caused what may be an irreparable cleft in the Catholic faculty. Anyone who has ever lived through a major crisis on a university or seminary campus knows that once events come to the point where everyone has to take sides, no one forgets in future years who stood where when the chips were down. Personal relationships have been ruptured, and professional life has been rendered unpleasant and awkward. Some theorize that the seven got a call from Rome or were subjected to intense pressure from the German bishops.

Surely the dimensions of fear and even jealousy cannot be discounted. It is a sad truth that although Küng is regarded as one of the world’s most influential theologians in wider circles, there have been resentments locally about his popularity, his penchant for getting into headlines and his "superstar" status. There is some speculation that the seven used this occasion to express some long-standing personal resentments. Kasper, who had earlier criticized the Christology and method of Küng’s On Being a Christian but who most persons close to the scene felt would be supportive on the issue of the boundaries of theological inquiry, has become one of the primary leaders of Küng’s opposition in Germany (the other being Karl Lehmann of the University of Freiburg) and has now emerged as the major theological adviser to the German Bishops’ Conference,

The most puzzling signatory was the progressive ethicist Alfons Auer. Even his friends were confused when just one week after the original statement of the seven, Auer (along with Heinrich Fries of Munich and Bernhard Welte of Freiburg) drafted a letter to Cardinal Hoffner of the German Bishops’ Conference urging his support for freedom of theological inquiry. The letter was sent to the cardinal with 145 signatures of Catholic professors in Germany (ibid., pp. 249-53). No one with whom I spoke could reconcile Auer’s two contradictory positions; they may be symbolic of the conflict of emotions generated in a circumstance like this.

Deficient in ‘Churchliness’?

At a deeper theological level, it is worth noting that 11 of the 12 members of the Catholic faculty are priests, and there is a fundamental difference of opinion at the bottom of this dispute over what is called Kirchlichkeit -- perhaps best rendered "churchliness." It is one of three criteria -- along with academic thoroughness (Wissenschaft) and openness to the times (Zeitoffenheit) -- which Kasper has developed as the basic criteria for a valid Catholic theology. Kung’s theological views, as understood by the seven, may be academically thorough and sensitive to the times, but they are deficient in Kirchlichkeit -- for Küng is believed to be not properly respectful of the lines of authority that are at the very heart of the church. This point is so crucial that it must be considered in more detail.

The seven articulate a position that the faith of the church is preserved in the magisterium (i.e., the official teaching office of the church) and that theologians should interpret that given body of truth.

They also feel that power and authority are rightly vested in bishops and in the pope. Although there are some legitimate zones for theological disagreement, this viewpoint holds that there are some fundamental Roman Catholic truths, and that if one is not in agreement with them, one simply no longer stands in the Roman Catholic tradition. At the core of those fundamental truths are the classic creedal statements on Christology and the special mystique about the authority of the pope.

The issue of loyalty to authority is important. For priests of this persuasion, both Küng’s bold attack on papal infallibility in 1970 and his critical public assessment of the first year of the pontificate of John Paul II would be examples of bad judgment, bad timing and bad taste. This general viewpoint fits well with traditional Roman Catholic conservatism, and is one in which most Catholic theologians implicitly worked prior to Vatican II. For priests -- even those with some theological openness -- this matter of Kirchlichkeit goes to the marrow of their self-understanding.

Kirchlichkeit means something else for the minority of the Catholic faculty, as symbolized by Küng but likewise cogently articulated by Greinacher and Haag. They are basically committed to a historical-critical methodology that recognizes the fact that all human institutions have a political and ideological orientation. This methodology regards all theological "truths" as molded by circumstance and culture; it takes more seriously the pluralism of the modern world and the importance of democratic consensus in church government. It maintains that New Testament exegesis is important for dogmatic theology, and does not shirk from the tensions created by such exegesis for the proclaimed faith of the church. It does not deny the legitimacy or importance of the magisterium but would differ from the majority group concerning the methods and practices of the magisterium. In this view the intervention of the magisterium in the church’s intellectual life should be, limited to those occasions when the church is dealing with matters of ultimate loyalty, such as confrontations of church and state, confrontations with other faiths, or internal schismatic movements.

In matters of church life and style, this minority viewpoint values openness, collegiality and democratic procedure more than submission, episcopal authority and .the mystique of Romanitá. It is fundamentally distrustful of a hierarchy which under the aura of Kirchlichkeit bypasses openness and due process. The minority stands self-consciously in the tradition of Tübingen Catholic independence from Rome, expressed so vividly over a century ago in the Tübingen opposition to the infallibility decree of 1870 and subsequently to the anti-Modernist oath imposed by Pius X in 1910. Because of Küng’s prominence, most Americans have assumed that his perspectives on theological method and the nature of the church have been widely shared in the Tübingen Catholic faculty. The definitive action of the seven, however, has put that myth to rest.

Hardened Attitudes of Protestants

Prior to this last pressure move by Rome and the German bishops, these "two ways" of being a Catholic and of doing Catholic theology coexisted with some gracefulness in the Catholic faculty. If they created tensions for each other, they nevertheless represented important alternatives within the world of Catholic scholarship. The repudiation of the minority view by the majority, however, has deeper implications than the compromise worked out for Küng. It raises serious questions about how much diversity (or creativity) one can expect from Tübingen Catholic theologians in the future.

A third consequence of the compromise is that it has hardened Protestant attitudes toward Roman Catholicism. The pope’s public statements addressed to all persons of goodwill, and his assurances of Roman Catholic interests in ecumenism, are less than persuasive when set against the hierarchy’s treatment of Catholicism’s leading ecumenical theologian. Jürgen Moltmann assessed the significance of the Küng case for Protestants in an article titled "Hans Küng, Rome and the Gospel" in Evangelische Kommentare. He noted that the procedural methods of the Roman church raise serious questions about human rights in the church, and also that the action of Rome has essentially destroyed the basis for ecumenical discussions on the nature of papal authority and primacy. His conclusion seems to reflect a broad Protestant consensus: "Unfortunately the Küng case will demonstrate to Protestant theology what happens to you if you extend even a little finger to this primate" (ibid. p. 445).

I could find little charity among Protestants here concerning the Catholic Church; the assumption is that in recent months the church has shown its true colors, and that in essence it is still triumphalistic, autocratic and inflexible. Many persons fear for the future of the joint Protestant-Catholic faculty colloquium, which in past years has met monthly and has been cochaired by Moltmann and Küng. Küng, of course, can no longer represent the Catholics, and it is unclear under the circumstances whether the Protestants will want to continue this professional interaction at all.

Frozen Out

A final result of the compromise is the way in which it seriously curtails Küng’s influence in Germany. His theological writings (in Roman Catholic circles) are now viewed as perhaps "academically interesting" but not as representative of what the church teaches. As a result Kung will be virtually frozen out of all conferences, assemblies or workshops which are under the official control of the German hierarchy. That ban will probably be honored in France, Italy, Spain and Catholic Switzerland -- all areas where Küng has had considerable support. He will find it difficult to place his doctoral students and assistants who aspire to academic careers in Germany, since endorsement of prospective faculty members by the German Bishops’ Conference is required for all Catholic faculties. (It is reflective of such pressures that Küng’s senior assistant, Hermann Haring, has recently accepted an appointment in Holland.) So long as German theological faculties are organized as they are, the Catholic bishops can keep Küng’s viewpoint from spreading directly to other universities.

Küng has always had, however, a substantial following among both clergy and laity in most of the countries of western Europe, and there will continue to be ecumenical, civic and academic occasions that will give him a public platform. The enormous range of support attested to in the Documentation volume shows that he speaks for many influential people over several continents. The United States, with its private universities and seminaries and vigorous centers of liberal Catholicism, has long provided a supportive climate for Küng, and it is possible that he will spend more time on our side of the Atlantic. Various forms of media will see to it that his viewpoint continues to get a wide hearing.

On the Tübingen scene, no one is quite sure how many students Küng will be able to attract to his fall semester lectures on ecumenical theology, since that course will be optional. There is on one side of this coin the students’ tendency to attend lectures which they need for their examinations; on the other side is the fact that there is strong political support for Küng among the students (there was a huge rally and torchlight parade last December on the night following the Roman edict to withdraw his missio canonica), and for many students, both Protestant and Catholic, the issues in the Küng case are larger than the man himself, Küng’s status at the university is not dependent on the number of students who come to his lectures (nor on the number of his doctoral students), but the fall semester will be some index of the viability of this new "third track" in theology.

Not surprisingly, Küng’s support comes from the better-educated stratum of German society; it is more urban than rural; it is more extensive in northern Europe than in southern Europe. He has spoken persuasively to that large number of Germans who, although they still pay the church tax, have not been active in church life, The bishops’ strategy is to isolate Küng so that he will appear to be a religious philosopher (one thinks of Bloch or Jaspers) without a visible community. Küng hopes that his ecumenical theology will continue to be a viable alternative to Rome even within the Catholic tradition, thus demonstrating that the life and spirit of the church are broader than the official posture of the hierarchy.

The hierarchy clearly has political power; Küng must rely on the informal power of the written and spoken word, on the university tradition of inquiry and discussion, on the theological ground of ecumenical consensus, and on the democratic ideal of due process. The Tübingen compromise is not the last word in this struggle, but it shifts the context for future encounters and obviously makes Küng’s task more difficult.

Broadened Interests

Where does this leave Küng? Contrary to some popular sentiment in America, it does not mean that he has, or will, become a member of the Protestant faculty. In this context, one does not just slide across to the Protestant faculty because of a dispute with the German bishops. Küng continues to see himself as a Catholic Christian and retains his status as a priest. In an attempt to find some humor in the situation, he told me, "At least I don’t have to go to faculty meetings any more!" He may well turn now to other audiences and address other problems on the world’s theological agenda. He is interested in broadening his ecumenical interests to include serious dialogue with Judaism and other non-Christian faiths. Although the German cultural setting has kept him from serious engagement with feminist theologians and other representatives of liberation theology I would not be surprised to see him take those movements more seriously.

Some of his good friends, as well as his critics, have chided him for a number of years for spending too much time on structural problems of the church and internal issues of ecclesiology; I would now predict a broadening out of various issues of religion and culture. Some indication that he has been moving in this direction is seen in his Terry Lectures at Yale, Freud and the Problem of God (Yale University Press, i979), and his German lectures on Art and the Question of Being (Kunst und Sinnfrage [Benzinger, 1980]).

Ecumenical theology does not have a natural base in Germany; it falls between two fairly rigid ways of interpreting the Christian tradition. In Protestant circles Küng is generally regarded as a Catholic theologian with some peculiarly Roman Catholic problems. I came to Tübingen expecting to find a whole theological community shaped by the progressive spirit of Ernst Käsemann, Jürgen Moltmann and Hans Küng. I found that Käsemann’s approach to the New Testament has been almost totally repudiated by his New Testament successors; that Moltmann stands virtually alone in the Protestant faculty with his interests in liberation theology and the problems of other cultures; and that Küng, though supported by his small group of assistants at his Ecumenical Institute, is officially embraced by neither Catholics nor Protestants.

Pain and Ambiguity

All of these discoveries have sobered me; Tübingen, for all its charm, is not the theological symbol I thought it was. Yet for all the conservatism -- political and ecclesiastical -- which I found among the full professors of both faculties, it was heartening to find a substantial number of younger scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, who both personally and professionally are committed to keeping lines of communication open. They want a genuinely ecumenical climate. Both deans -- Karl Nipkow of the Protestant faculty (long active in the World Council of Churches) and Wolfgang Bartholomäus of the Catholic faculty -- are open and gracious men. So there is some hope, and surely currents of academic vitality, but candor requires the conclusion that the ecumenists in Tübingen are going against the stream.

One should not, however, be excessively pessimistic. It is easy to idealize places -- and academic institutions -- about which we know little. I gained some perspective on the present situation in Tübingen when I read extensively about the history of theology there and reviewed the controversy evoked by the famous "Tübingen schools" (both Protestant and Catholic) in the 19th century.

The fact is that every creative thinker and movement at this place for 200 years has had to fight the parochialism of Swabia, the wrath of the pietists (Germany’s historic version of fundamentalists) and the power of church officials, both Protestant and Catholic. No theological faculty anywhere ever totally transcends the limits of regionalism, class, nationality and ecclesiastical tradition. If a closer look demythologizes Tübingen’s mystique as a world ecumenical center, at the same time one can be grateful that at least two leading contemporary figures and a number of their younger colleagues continue to show a vision for the whole church, and provide creative thought that is worthy of the Tübingen legacy of several centuries.

The future, of course, remains open, as do Küng’s strategies. Perhaps the Spirit can bring some healing in the days ahead. At the present time, however, this famous center of theological inquiry is obviously in transition, and feels much pain and ambiguity.


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