The question of infallibility
It is hardly conceivable that Pope Francis would strive to define papal infallibility as Pius IX did with all the means at hand, whether good or less good, in the 19th century. It is also inconceivable that Francis would be interested in infallibly defining Marian dogmas as Pius XII did. It would, however, be far easier to imagine Pope Francis smilingly telling students, “Io non sono infallibile” — “I am not infallible” — as Pope John XXIII did in his time. When he saw how surprised the students were, John added, “I am only infallible when I speak ex cathedra, but that is something I will never do.”
I became acquainted with the subject very early in my life. Here are a few important historical dates as I personally experienced them and have faithfully documented in Volume 5 of my complete works:
1950: On Nov. 1, facing huge crowds in St. Peter’s Square and supported by numerous high church and political dignitaries, Pope Pius XII definitively proclaimed the Assumption of Mary as a dogma. “The immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” I was there in St. Peter’s Square at the time and must admit that I enthusiastically hailed the pope’s declaration.
That was the first infallible ex cathedra proclamation by the church’s senior shepherd and highest teaching authority, who had invoked the special support of the Holy Spirit, all according to the definition of papal infallibility laid down at the First Vatican Council of 1870. And it was to remain the last ex cathedra proclamation to date, as even John Paul II, who restored papal centralism and was always happy to seek publicity, did not dare to play to the gallery by proclaiming a new dogma. As it was, the 1950 dogma proclamation had been made despite protests from the Protestant and Orthodox churches and from many Catholics, who simply could not find any evidence in the Bible for this “truth of faith revealed by God.”
I remember German theology students, who were our guests in the Collegium Germanicum (German College) in Rome, discussing the problems they had with the dogma in the refectory at the time. Only a few weeks previously, an article by the then leading German patrologist, Professor Berthold Althaner, a highly regarded Catholic specialist in the theology of the Church Fathers, had been published in which Althaner, listing many examples, had shown that this dogma had did not even have a historical basis in the first centuries of the early church. It goes back to a legend in an apocryphal writing from the fifth century that is brimful of miracles.
We seminarians at the German College at the time thought that the students’ “rationalist” university teachers had kept the Pontifical Gregorian University’s general perception regarding this dogma from them. The general perception at the Gregorian was that the Assumption dogma had “developed” slowly and, as it were, “organically” in the course of dogma history, but that it was already ascertained in Bible passages such as “Hail (Mary) full of grace (blessed art thou),” “the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28), and although not “explicitly” expressed, it was nevertheless “implicitly” incorporated.
1958: Pius XII’s death marked the end of a century of excessive Marian cults by the Pius popes that had begun with the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Pius XII’s successor, John XXIII, was disinclined toward new dogmas. At the Second Vatican Council, in a crucial vote, the majority of the council fathers rejected a special Marian decree and in fact cautioned against exaggerated Marian piety.
1965: Chapter III of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church is devoted to the hierarchy but, oddly enough, Paragraph 25, which is on infallibility, in no way actually goes into it. What is all the more surprising is that in actual fact the Second Vatican Council took a fatal step. Without giving reasons, it expressly extended infallibility, which was confined to the pope alone at the First Vatican Council, to the episcopacy. The council attributed infallibility not only to the assembled episcopacy at an ecumenical council (magisterium extraordinarium), but from then on also to the world episcopacy (magisterium ordinarium), that is, to bishops all over the world if they were agreed and decreed that a church teaching on faith or morals should permanently become mandatory.
1968: the year the encyclical Humanae Vitae on birth control was published. That the encyclical was released on July 25 of all times, which was not only during the summer holidays but, on top of that, in the middle of the Czechoslovak people’s fight for freedom, is generally interpreted as Roman tactics so that there would be less opposition to it. Perhaps, however, it was quite simply because work on this sensitive document had only just been finished. Whatever the reason for the timing, the encyclical hit the world “like a bomb.” The pope had obviously greatly underestimated the resistance to this teaching. Isolated as he was in the Vatican, he had not envisaged that the world public would react quite so negatively.
The encyclical Humanae Vitae, which not only forbade as grave sins the pill and all mechanical means of contraception but also the withdrawal method to avoid pregnancy, was universally regarded as an incredible challenge. Invoking the infallibility of papal, respectively episcopal teaching, the pope pitted himself against the entire civilized world. This alarmed me as a Catholic theologian. I had by then been professor of theology at the Catholic theological faculty of Tübingen University for eight years. Of course, formal protests and substantive objections were important, but had the time not now come to examine this claim to the infallibility of papal teaching in principle? I was convinced that theology — or, to be more precise, critical fundamental theological research — was called for. In 1970, I put the subject up for discussion in my book Infallible?: An Inquiry. I could not have foreseen at the time that this book and with it the problem of infallibility would crucially affect my personal destiny and would present theology and the church with key challenges. In the 1970s, my life and my work were more than ever intertwined with theology and the church.
1979-80: the withdrawal of my license to teach. In Volume 2 of my memoirs, Disputed Truth, I have described in detail how this was a secret campaign carried out with military precision, which has proved to be theologically unfounded and politically counterproductive. At the time, the debate about the withdrawal of my missio canonica and infallibility continued for a long time. It proved impossible to harm my standing with believers, however, and as I had prophesied, the controversies regarding large-scale church reform have not ceased. On the contrary, during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI they increased on a massive scale. That was when I went into the necessity of promoting understanding between the different denominations, of mutual recognition of church offices and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the question of divorce, of women’s ordination, mandatory celibacy and the catastrophic lack of priests, but above all of the leadership of the Catholic church. My question was: “Where are you leading this church of ours?”
These questions are as relevant today as they were then. The decisive reason for this incapacity for reform at all levels is still the doctrine of infallibility of church teaching, which has bequeathed a long winter on our Catholic church. Like John XXIII, Francis is doing his utmost to blow fresh wind into the church today and is meeting with massive opposition as at the last episcopal synod in October 2015. But, make no mistake, without a constructive “re-vision” of the infallibility dogma, real renewal will hardly be possible.
What is all the more astonishing is that the discussion (of infallibility) has disappeared from the scene. Many Catholic theologians have no longer critically examined the infallibility ideology for fear of ominous sanctions as in my case, and the hierarchy tries as far as possible to avoid the subject, which is unpopular in the church and in society. When he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger only expressly referred to it very few times. Despite the fact that it was left unsaid, the taboo of infallibility has blocked all reforms since the Second Vatican Council that would have required revising previous dogmatic definitions. That not only applies to the encyclical Humanae Vitae against contraception, but also to the sacraments and monopolized “authentic” church teaching, to the relationship between the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all the faithful. And it applies likewise to a synodal church structure and the claim to absolute papal power, the relationship to other denominations and religions, and to the secular world in general. That is why the following question is more urgent than ever: Where is the church — which is still fixated on the infallibility dogma — heading at the beginning of the third millennium? The anti-modernist epoch that rang in the First Vatican Council has ended.
2016: I am in my 88th year and I may say that I have spared no effort to collect the relevant texts, order them factually and chronologically according to the various phases of the altercation and elucidate them by putting them in a biographical context for Volume 5 of my complete works. With his book in my hand, I would now like to repeat an appeal to the pope that I repeatedly made in vain several times during the decadelong theological and church-political altercation. I beg of Pope Francis — who has always replied to me in a brotherly manner:
“Receive this comprehensive documentation and allow a free, unprejudiced and open-ended discussion in our church of the all the unresolved and suppressed questions connected with the infallibility dogma. In this way, the problematic Vatican heritage of the past 150 years could be come to terms with honestly and adjusted in accordance with holy Scripture and ecumenical tradition. It is not a case of trivial relativism that undermines the ethical foundation of church and society. But it is also not about an unmerciful, mind-numbing dogmatism, which swears by the letter, prevents thorough renewal of the church’s life and teaching, and obstructs serious progress in ecumenism. It is certainly not the case of me personally wanting to be right. The well-being of the church and of ecumenism is at stake.
“I am very well aware of the fact that my appeal to you, who ‘lives among wolves,’ as a good Vatican connoisseur recently remarked, may possibly not be opportune. In your Christmas address of Dec. 21, 2015, however, confronted with curial ailments and even scandals, you confirmed your will for reform: ‘It seems necessary to state what has been — and ever shall be — the object of sincere reflection and decisive provisions. The reform will move forward with determination, clarity and firm resolve, since Ecclesia semper reformanda.’
“I would not like to raise the hopes of many in our church unrealistically. The question of infallibilityThe question of infallibility cannot be solved overnight in our church. Fortunately, you (Pope Francis) are almost 10 years younger than I am and will hopefully survive me. You will, moreover, surely understand that as a theologian at the end of his days, buoyed by deep affection for you and your pastoral work, I wanted to convey this request to you in time for a free and serious discussion of infallibility that is well-substantiated in the volume at hand: non in destructionem, sed in aedificationem ecclesiae, ‘not in order to destroy but to build up the church.’ For me personally, this would be the fulfillment of a hope I have never given up.”
[Fr. Hans Küng, Swiss citizen, is professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at Tübingen University in Germany. He is the honorary president of the Global Ethic Foundation ( The sixth volume of his complete works, Church Reform, is expected later this year also from Herder. This article was translated from the German by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt.]

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  1. Nessan Vaughan says:

    Hans Kung continues to inspire me. His book, published in the early 1970s, ‘On Being a Christian’, opened my mind to the uniqueness of Christ, to his radical nature and to his identification with humans in all our weaknesses and gifts. Kung’s Memoirs are also fascinating and insightful.
    While not being optimistic that his plea concerning Infallibility will be acted upon, I enthusiastically support his stance in this regard.
    Finally, the withdrawal of his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian, which is still in force, constitutes a grave scandal, in my view.
    Nessan Vaughan

  2. This letter from Hans Kung is very important. May I quote from the last paragraph of an article of mine due to be published in The Catholic Times next weekend.
    “a most significant and charitable action towards Kung would be for Francis to restore his credentials as a catholic teacher who throughout these difficult years has remained a priest in good standing. The restoration of Teilhard de Chardin, and of many others, only came after their death. It would be a pity were history to repeat itself”.
    We should seek in his 88th year and in this year of mercy, to recognise his sincerity and loyalty.

  3. You would have that that something as significant as Papal Infallibility in Catholic Church teaching, and Hans Kung’s continued and learned interest in the doctrine, would have initiated a decent level of debate on this site especially as, as far as I know, we never have had a discourse on this subject. But then again, given that we all know only too well the kind of world and church we live in, we are not surprised at all by the silence, with the exception of the comments of Nessan and Chris.
    So, in a desperate attempt to break the silence I share, below, a letter from last week’s Tablet by Prof. Nicholas Lash under the title Church Teaching. In his letter he refers to two questions which, he feels, require “urgent attention”. The second of these is the question of the “reception” of teaching. Now, as I have lived through the relevant period, I know that Lord Acton’s “echo” was definitely not heard in the case of Humanae Vitae, a reaction which crushed Pope Paul. However, I am wondering if the echo was eventually heard with regard to Papal Infallibility. Prof. Lash does not enlighten us.
    One final thought before you read the letter below. Before he went into the conclave which elected him Pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, during a large congregational meeting of bishops and cardinals, spoke of the “theological narcissism” that was blighting our church. I often wonder what had he in mind. Any suggestions …?
    Church teaching
    Throughout a distinguished career, Hans Küng has been preoccupied with the question of infallibility (“Controversial Swiss theologian pleads with Pope Francis to solve problem of infallibility”, http://www.thetablet. But two other questions also require urgent attention. The first, as I have long maintained, is the ambivalence of the notion of “instruction”. At the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism is the subordination of education to governance. If we are told that, through consecration, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, we are being educated, instructed, told what is the case. But if someone says to us: “Shut that door”, we are not being educated; the instruction takes the form of a command. Too often the issuing of commands has been substituted for teaching. When Pope John Paul II said that the Church has no authority to ordain women, and that this pronouncement was held to be definitive, I rather suspect that he simply believed it to be his prerogative, as pope, to issue such instructions. Given that the question of the ordination of women has not been given serious and sustained consideration either by theologians or by councils and synods, it is clearly open for discussion, and a papal fiat closing down that discussion before it had really started was not an exercise in papal teaching. It was, clearly, a command: an act of governance. The second is our neglect of the doctrine of “reception”. After the First Vatican Council, John Henry Newman hesitated before accepting what the Council had to say about papal infallibility. He was, said Lord Acton, “waiting for the echo”. Acton understood, as many before and since have failed to do, that it is not the business of those whom we call “teachers” in the Church to tell us things we did not know, but to articulate, interpret, clarify, the faith we have in common. Nothing can become “the teaching of the Church” unless and until the People of God as a whole “echo” the expression: react to it with something like “Yes”, “Amen”, “that’s it”. In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclicalHumanae Vitae, which condemned “any action which either before, or at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation”. Catholics do not sit light to instructions from the papacy. But during the half century since Humanae Vitae was issued, it has become increasingly clear that the condemnation of all forms of contraception has not been “received” by the Church at large. The “echo” for which Newman waited after Vatican I has not been forthcoming. Therefore, it must be insisted, that most contentious proposition in the encyclical has failed to become “the teaching of the Church”. NICHOLAS LASH CAMBRIDGE

  4. Paddy, discussion of infallibility is itself a contribution to theological narcissism. “Something as significant as Papal Infallibility in Catholic Church teaching” — in fact it is a doctrine that may have no meaning (as Garth Hallett SJ argued in 1975) and that in practice is unusable. I call it the Cheshire Cat doctrine, since all that is left is its vanishing smile, which lends some aura to the papacy but has no real content. Theology has much more profound matters to wrestle with, and the changing landscape of Catholic thought will consign the infallibility episode to ever deeper oblivion. That is the “echo” — not the shallow infallibility craze that excited Catholics in the era of the Piuses.

  5. I too was surprised that this thread had not produced greater comment. Whether or not infallibility is a Cheshire Cat or a Magician’s Rabbit, we can still respect and acknowledge the significant contribution that Hans Kung has made to the Church with the restoration of his authority as a Catholic Teacher. It is not too late yet but it maybe soon.
    I will post under a separate heading the Catholic Times article I referred to #2- if it will fit!

  6. This weekend, on March 19th, the Swiss theologian, Hans Kung celebrates his 88th birthday. A man of significance in the life of the Church during the years of the Council where he was one of theologians invited to advise the Council Fathers the periti. Some were appointed to support and advise individual bishops, others were appointed to the Council in general. Hans Kung was one such expert. Another, Joseph Ratzinger, served as peritus to Cardinal Josef Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, in Germany , later taking the name Benedict XVI when he was elected Pope in the conclave that followed the death of John Paul II.
    A prolific writer with many significant books to his credit he was a teacher and speaker with a world-wide impact. He was appointed a professor at Tubingen in 1960, the university that was to be his home in the coming years. His views on infallibility inevitably lead to a clash with Rome and, in 1979, only a short time into the papacy of Karol Wojtyła, he was stripped of his licence as a catholic teacher, the missio canonica.
    In subsequent years, Kung continued his critical analysis of the Church that he has been faithful to all his life. In spite of significant controversy that has surrounded his professional life as a theologian, he remained and still remains within the Catholic community that has been his home.
    In the last few days, the National Catholic Reporter in the US and the Tablet here in the UK , have simultaneously published an “urgent appeal to Pope Francis to permit an open and impartial discussion on infallibility of pope and bishops”. In that statement he writes “It is certainly not the case of me personally wanting to be right. The well-being of the Church and of ecumenism is at stake”.
    Given the openness that has been the hall mark of Francis since he became Bishop of Rome, is it too much to hope that in this Year of Mercy, Francis will countenance discussion of Kung’s argument? Much of Kung’s criticism surrounds the absolutist-centralist position of the papacy and the evident need for the collegiality propounded by the Council to become a reality. This is reflected in so much of the teaching we receive from Francis, the need to recognise the diversity of those faithful to the Christian message, their cultural background and social circumstances. One size does not fit all, it is an artificial construct to believe that it is possible.
    Kung wrote his own Open Letter to the Bishops published in 2010, defining the issues facing the Church that he saw as crucial in the early years of a new century. He received not a single response to his statement of concern. He commented that “Not only was there no positive reaction, but also no negative reaction, only complete and utter silence”. Had Kung become so much of an outcast that no one dare comment for fear of being tainted by association with him? Read his letter again, it is available on the web, and you will appreciate the words of someone deeply concerned with the integrity of the Church, a man who speaks from the depth of personal conviction, shaped by his years of theological research and teaching. In the last interview given by Cardinal Martini, and published posthumously, the Cardinal spoke of the Church being 200 years behind the times. Why can’t we listen to prophets whilst they are still alive? But for his age and poor health, Carlo Martini may well have been a significant presence in the Consistory that elected Jorge Bergolio. How refreshing, and vital, these last three years have been, with his example of a simple faith and a life of commitment to the poor that has been the gift of Francis to the Church.
    Maybe we are now entering a period of real dialogue and that a pilgrim Church will thrive in a new landscape. We have nothing to fear from openness and honesty in our exchanges. Only an attempt to hide in the cloud of secrecy will damage faith.
    Kung’s writing has been a serious and valued contribution to our discussion in recent years since the Council.
    A most significant and charitable action towards Kung would be for Francis to restore Kung’s credentials as a Catholic Teacher who, throughout these difficult years has remained a priest in good standing. The restoration of Teilhard de Chardin, and of many others, only came after their death. It would be a pity if history were to repeat itself.
    END First Published in the Catholic Times March 16th 2016

  7. Leonardo Boff says that Pope Francis’s focus (my words) is the “path of Jesus.” Pope Francis probably considers “papal infallibility” a moot point as he concentrates on Jesus. Pope Francis shows no particular concern about the Church’s infrastructure or its politics, which would include the situation with Hans Kung, and many others. We know Pope Francis comments on world politics and even gets personally involved, if we are to understand that he influenced Barak Obama to reconcile with Cuba. However, addressing issues that need reconciliation within the Church, do not appear to be of Francis’s interest or maybe even of Francis’s competence. Although, we have yet to see what his report reveals from the two synods on the family.
    It seems Pope Francis and the Vatican have forgotten the “Luther Saga”. Avoidance of listening to “Catholic Reformers” in particular, and that includes Hans Kung, reveals a very soft stance on true communication, love and mercy by Pope Francis, as it applies to the “in-house” RC Church issues. As Robert Mickens reported last week, as Pope Francis begins year four, we have yet to see substantial change(s) in the structure of the Church. From my perspective, while Pope Francis has written well, spoken well and acted well, there remains serious infrastructure problems, like the need to revamp the curia, implementation of collegiality, the inclusion of women, and a mechanism to meet with Catholic reformers and reform groups. Pope Francis risks “playing the part” and not securing vital and substantial change for the Universal RC Church.

  8. Willie Herlihy says:

    Darlene Starrs@7
    I think Darlene, has put her finger on the problems with Pope Francis.
    I include the following passage from her letter. I think it illustrates the lack of change effected by Pope Francis.
      (there remains serious infrastructure problems, like the need to revamp the curia, implementation of collegiality, the inclusion of women, and a mechanism to meet with Catholic reformers and reform groups.)
    With the Curia, he is surrounded by a group of religious fundamentalists, they are seriously opposed to reform of any kind.
    Pope Francis speaks like a reformer,yet, he still has a serious conservative streak,.I think that, coupled with the old adage “culture eats change” is the reason, why he has had no success in reforming the curia.
    For reasons outlined above,I think the year of mercy is a smoke screen.
    Fr Tony Flannery and the other silenced priests,should not hold their breaths, hoping to be back in ministry again.

  9. I suspect what would get Pope Francis’s attention is a situation in the Church, that he would find personally embarrassing. As I also suspect, the situation with the sisters of the U.S. represented such a scenario for him. It is with great sadness and regret, and perhaps, shame…that the adults of the RC Church are treated like children….to be seen perhaps…but, not heard. No doubt this continues to have serious ramifications for the longevity and relevancy of the Universal Church.

  10. Richard O'Donnell says:

    Reading this letter from Hans Kung reminds me again why he is my favourite theologian, after Teilhard de Chardin. However, the problem with papal infallibility will probably not be addressed by Pope Francis as it is irrelevant to 99.99+% of Roman Catholics. But, then again, with this Pope of surprises-who has gone quiet on the surprises lately- you never know. I am inclined to agree with Joe @4.
    However, papal infallibility has some serious implications for ecumenism. So, I suppose, Kung is probably right, as usual. It is worth taking off the books- a bit like limbo-which I think was also quietly, even if not officially, shut down.

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