Hans Kung: The Catholic Church

July 12, 2021

     Here is another attempt, rather in the manner of some of the writings of Geza Vermes, to lay out the reality of what happened as Christianity developed right from its very beginnings; the difference is that the book is written by a committed – and controversial – Catholic priest and theologian rather than a Jewish sceptic. Küng is happy to stand accepted ideas on their head and ask awkward questions, though at times I also felt he moved on leaving some of them unanswered. I suppose you would have to call him a critical friend of the church.

Along with other recent church historians, Küng is clear that without Paul there would be no Catholic (or Christian) church. He outlines the early centuries with broad brush-strokes; a key moment is the religion becoming the official one of the Roman Empire, and the next key figure after Paul is Augustine of Hippo, to whom we owe the notion of original sin, and the linked vilification of sex and sexuality.

I had not clearly understood the notion of the gradual creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the west as a rival to the Byzantine Empire in the east, nor realised the widespread use of deliberately forged documents to embed the development of the hierarchy of the Western church, with its emphasis on the authoritarian power of the pope, which went against the practices of the early Church.

Kung also clarified for me the differences at the heart of the split which finally came to a head and hardened permanently in the eleventh century: the pope is an absolutist monarch, the Eastern churches retain autonomy and a collegiate relationship among themselves, which again is closer to the time of the early church. So from relatively early on, the powers and abuse of them by the papacy has been at the heart of what divided first the whole church, and more recently the Western church. Küng is scathing about the appalling papal vice and corruption which led to the Reformation, and recognises the general coherence and validity of Luther’s arguments and criticisms.

The failure of the Roman Catholic Church properly to reform itself, and the consequent religious wars, Küng sees as a major factor contributing to the development of secularism, with an age of reason replacing an era of faith, and being faced by a papacy demonstrating lengthy and long-lasting resistance to anything even vaguely modern or democratic, permanently turned in on itself and attempting to perpetuate the attitudes and behaviours of the late Middle Ages.

Küng offers a very strongly worded criticism of the Church, headed by Pius XII, for its failure to condemn the Nazi extermination of the Jews, and notes that despite its original hopes, the reformers of the Second Vatican Council ultimately have failed to shake or curb the immense power of the papacy and Roman Curia.

As a brief, clear and comprehensive introduction to the Catholic Church, this is excellent.

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