Hans Kung

The following article is the text of a sermon preached on the
11th of April 2021 to mark the passing
of Prof.Hans Kung on Tuesday 6th April.

One of the things about preaching is sometimes you’ve just got to go with the flow. Plans for what would have been this morning’s sermon were hastily shelved last Wednesday morning when a ping on my phone informed me of the death of Hans Kung. With his passing the world lost one of the great and courageous theological thinkers of the last 100 years, a man, that many Unitarians may have been drawn to and would have admired. In his lifetime he asked questions many Unitarians would have asked and expressed views that we broadly speaking would have agreed with.
          Hans Kung was born in Switzerland in 1928 and from the age of 11 wanted to be a catholic priest he would be ordained in 1954. Within a short time, it was evident that the life of a country pastor was not his destiny, by 1960 he was teaching at the university of Tubingen, where he would stay until his retirement. It was perhaps ironic that the motto of the university is; “I dare!”. In 1979, Kung would be forbidden from teaching in any catholic institute, he kept his job at the university because they simply moved him to a secular department.
          Kung hit the headlines when he questioned the catholic churches teaching that the pope under certain conditions is infallible, that in matters of faith and morals, he is never wrong. His main argument was that such a teaching led to an absolutist attitude and an absolutist papacy. In 1978 he would write; “dogmas must be transferred into the mental climate of our time”. Faith is ever moving, ever progressing as our understanding of both the world and the human condition expands. Simply put, the world was a very different place 2,000 years ago. Kung got this, for me
          he understood both the nature of church and the human condition. Combining an understanding of the two was his gift.
          He would question the divinity of Jesus, saying that the traditional teaching stripped Jesus of his humanity. God, he said; “was present, at work, speaking, acting and definitively revealing himself in Jesus.” Of the Virgin birth; “it cannot be understood as an historical biological event” he maintained, adding “it can be regarded as a meaningful symbol for that time”.
          In his thinking he was echoing the thoughts of many liberal protestant thinkers and he was accused by his church of spreading dangerous information. The revoking of his license to teach didn’t dampen his spirits. He would be an advocate for a married priesthood, later embracing the belief that women should be ordained. He challenged, openly his churches position toward gay people and although very ill, one can only imagine his response to the Vatican’s statement two weeks ago. He was an outspoken critic of his churches ban on artificial birth control, something he maintained could have been dealt with, with the stroke of a pen at Vatican II, which by the way Kung took part in. He was baffled by the teaching on condoms especially in the fight against AIDS. He questioned the teaching on hell, it was not a concept he believed in. On hell he would say; “men make their own hell for example in wars and unscrupulous capitalism”. Asked if he thought he would get into heaven; “I hope so”.

Hans Kung
1928 - 2021

He always denied that he was a heretic out to attack his church, he maintained that medieval canon law and medieval dogma should never replace the message of the gospels. Hans Kung in the 70’s and 80’s cut quite the figure athletic and good looking, he captivated audiences around the world when he appeared on T.V., a catholic priest dressed in a crisp stylish business suit and sporting a shirt and tie. He drove a sports car, he was bright, intelligent, well- spoken and seemed to ask the questions that others in his church would never dare to ask.
          Such was his popularity that in 1985 he was invited to Ireland, amid much opposition, he spoke at Trinity College and many it seems were upset when he was a guest on the “Late Late Show”. Remember this was Ireland of the 1980’s, we were still basking in the 1979 papal visit and the country was caught up in Ballinaspittle and statutes of the virgin Mary moving all over the place. By the way, Kung did not believe in the apparitions of Fatima, Lourdes or Knock.
          For his views he was vilified within his own church and held up as a hero outside of it. He was called, a heretic, an errant, a Bette noir and best of all, he was called a protestant. He was described by bishops as being the greatest threat to the Roman catholic church since Martin Luther. He was hurt it seems by his treatment but even more, so it seems by those he considered friends, who kept silent. Although not able to teach and write as a catholic, Kung was never removed from the priesthood and remained a priest until his death. It is believed that he used to occasionally say mass for a small convent of nuns near his home.
          It is all too easy just to label Kung a critic of his church, he was for me an inspiring man, a towering intellect who sought to expand the meaning of God, church and faith to go beyond dry and dusty tomes of dogma and canon law.
          He sought to embrace within faith, the fullness of the human condition. That faith in what we call God must embrace our humanity, must celebrate it, not make us ashamed of it. Hans Kung never used his clerical titles of Rev or Father, he didn’t like them. If he had to be addressed formally, he preferred professor or doctor but most of all, he liked it best it seems when people just called him Hans. Kung had been suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease and 8 years ago he came out in support of euthanasia and assisted dying in certain cases. Aged 85 he said; “people should have the right to voluntarily surrender to God if life becomes unbearable through pain or illness”. In a 2005 interview Kung was asked; What do you think Jesus would approve of? His answer- “he certainly would not be interested in church dogmas and medieval canon law, but he would be interested to see where his spirit is alive”.
          Like I said, a man many Unitarians would be drawn to, perhaps a man many of us would admire. Professor Hans Kung passed away in his sleep on Tuesday night 6th April 2021 at his home in Germany. He was 93.

Rev.Mike O’Sullivan.
Minister Unitarian Church Cork