Kung: radical thorn in Rome's side

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HANS KNG flies into Kuala Lumpur today at the invitation of the collected chairmen of the world's stock exchanges. He will arrive there from Japan where he spoke yesterday to bankers and financiers at a conference held by one of the nation's leading newspapers.

But Hans Kung is not an economist. He is a theologian who has been working on developing a new set of non-religious ethics. With the support of leading ex-politicians, including Helmut Schmidt, Lord Callaghan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter, he has drawn up a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities (to match the one of Human Rights which celebrates its 50th anniversary soon). His private interlocutors include Henry Kissinger and the former World Bank president Robert MacNamara.

Hans Kung has always been a mover and shaker. In the Sixties he was the most prominent young theological adviser to the Roman Catholic Church's revolutionary Second Vatican Council. He proved a far-sighted prophet: all his key proposals were embodied, even if in modified form, in the final documents of the Council. "Never again would an individual theologian have such influence," wrote the Vaticanologist, the late Peter Hebblethwaite. But when Pope John Paul II came on the scene everything changed.

The Polish prelate cracked down on the progressives and Professor Kung was first to be disciplined. Since then he has become, in the words of one of the Church of England's most eminent church historians, Professor Henry Chadwick, speaking at Prof Kung's 70th birthday last week in London, the leader of the church's "loyal opposition" and a thinker "more Catholic than Roman".

The atmosphere now in the Church, says a still-vigorous and outspoken Prof Kung in a retrospective interview with The Independent on Sunday to mark his birthday, is reminiscent of "the calm of the cemetery" which gripped Rome at the end of the last long papacy, that of Pius XII [1939- 58], who similarly suppressed the new theologians of his day. "Then, like now, everybody was afraid to speak out for fear of the sanctions."

But the answer to long pontificates is not a retirement age for popes or a limited term of office. Instead it is "a much more radical new orientation in accordance with Gospel values". Vatican II's notion of pope and bishops working together collegially has been largely overturned. "There was a clear decision and this pope is just ignoring it," Prof Kung says. "He has betrayed the Council." In place of that vision John Paul II has restored a "solitary absolutist monarchy".

At the heart of his criticisms is the widening way in which Rome claims infallibility. It was this issue which in 1980 caused the Vatican to withdraw his licence to teach in a Catholic theology department. "I was punished for the questions I asked in my book Infallibility? An Enquiry. But the questions I asked then have never been answered."

In recent years the Pope has declared as infallible his ruling that women can never be ordained. Suggestions have been made that infallibility extends to the ban on artificial contraception and, said Prof Kung, in "the most stubborn and extremist positions on the questions of abortion and euthanasia". But this is not infallibility, "it is ideology". And it leads to a situation where it is impossible for the Church ever to admit it was wrong.

Prof Kung reveals that Pope Paul VI told him privately that it was just such reasoning which lay behind the 1968 decision not to lift the ban on contraception. "The conservatives in the Curia told him: 'If you go against the consensus of previous popes and bishops on this very important point of morality, then you would be heretical'. But you cannot keep to a wrong doctrine for fear of having to admit you misled a great number of people."

The present Pope has issued some apologies - most recently for the Church's condemnation of Galileo. Prof Kung is unimpressed. "It's rather a comedy to see the kind of efforts they make. Galileo is rehabilitated by science; he does not need the Roman Curia. It would be much more important for them to rehabilitate Martin Luther and the Reformers. And a number of theologians this century would merit rehabilitation."

John Paul II's position is "tragic", he feels. "He has travelled the world, speaking and admonishing people and writing encyclicals, and after 20 years of propaganda for his views what is the result? He has not changed anything. There are more Catholics than ever against the official teaching on sexuality and marriage - and more Christians opposed to Rome than in the time of John XXIII," at the turn of the 1960s.

Part of the problem is the Pope's lack of experience of democracy. "He lived under the Nazi regime in his younger years and afterwards under the Communist regime. Like many in the East he has muddled democracy with materialism, consumerism and libertinism. "

Yet there were no theological arguments, only those of tradition, against many issues - like clerical celibacy, women priests or allowing divorced Catholics and non-Catholics to take communion. "All this could be done overnight. But [the Curia] prefer that our churches become more and more empty rather than joining in a common ecumenical eucharist."

During the 1980s, Hans Kung conducted a series of dialogue lectures with members of other faiths. "Having studied the differences between religions I observed more and more that, in morals, there are great similarities." It has brought him to the search for a Global Ethic.

He is pressing for the issue to be debated in the UN General Assembly. Financiers have surprised him with their eagerness to listen. He and former chancellor Schmidt have just published a book, A Global Ethic and Global Responsibilities. At the other end of the scale his privately financed foundation is developing programmes for schools.

"If we can arrive at this minimum of values, ethical standards and moral attitudes which can be supported by all religions and by non-believers, then we may have something to hold a pluralistic society together. That would be something positive for religion to offer our world".