Hans KüngIt is exciting to see Hans Küng, the great Catholic theologian and well-known papal cynic (for lack of a better description, seem so enthused by the decisions and actions of Pope Francis so far. In a National Catholic Reporter piece, titled “The Paradox of Pope Francis,” which shares a similar thesis to my earlier America essay, “What’s in a Name? The Significance and Challenge of St. Francis for Pope Francis,” Küng offers a personal reflection on how he sees the promise and challenge of the intention Pope Francis has seemingly laid out in his decision to take the name after the famous Saint of Assisi: “It is above all about the three basic concerns of the Franciscan ideal that have to be taken seriously today: It is about poverty, humility and simplicity.” He goes on to suggest why it hasn’t happened before: “This probably explains why no previous pope has dared to take the name of Francis: The expectations seem to be too high.”

Aside from the fact that I have pointed out that the some of the discussions about Francis of Assisi in light of the new Bishop of Rome have, as Küng does and admits to some degree, simplified and idealized the thirteenth-century saint and neglected the deeper and most significant dimensions of his life and legacy, Küng offers a unique contribution to the discussion at hand.

His essay centers on four questions about what lies ahead, structured around the basic premise that the institutional structures of the Roman Curia form an oppositional force to legitimate change and progress in the church’s constant need to return to the fundamentals, or what Küng calls “the early Christian concerns.”

He places Francis in opposition to his contemporary, Pope Innocent III in a way that is not entirely accurate. For example, Innocent III not only was a brilliant canon lawyer (something Küng notes) and theologian, but was an organizational genius. Nevertheless, his vision for the church was one of structure and order according to his time, while Francis, according to Küng, was not at all interested in these things because of his desire simply to attend to his so-called “early Christian concerns.” What is somewhat complicated about this, which gets overlooked, is that Innocent III provided the very condition of the possibility of the Franciscan Movement by granting the oral probation for its licit establishment in 1209 and, perhaps more importantly, Francis of Assisi sought this institutional approval that eventually culminated in the Regula Bullata of 1223.

Nevertheless, as I point out in my America essay, Francis was not a blind follower of Innocent or any other ecclesiastical leader. At various points in his life and ministry, Francis exercised what I anachronistically call “ecclesiastical disobedience” (akin to “civil disobedience”). Francis’s relationship to exercises of ecclesiastical power and structures of power, such as the curial interventions in his evangelical movement, are more complex than a narrative such as the one Küng tells — in genuine good will, I presuppose — can express.

The greatest take away from Küng’s piece is the final sections of the essay in which the German theologian gets to the main point: there will be resistance from those who exercise power to maintain the status quo. How that is overcome remains to be seen. I agree that as the whole church, that is the Body of Christ, we need to reform ourselves and our institutions of power. However, his last paragraph is one that comes across as a bit confrontational in a way that I’m not sure will be helpful. Küng writes:

We should then in no way fall into resignation; instead, faced with a lack of impulse toward reform from the top down, from the hierarchy, we must take the offensive, pushing for reform from the bottom up. If Pope Francis tackles reforms, he will find he has the wide approval of people far beyond the Catholic church. However, if he just lets things continue as they are, without clearing the logjam of reforms as now in the case of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, then the call of “Time for outrage! Indignez-vous!” will ring out more and more in the Catholic church, provoking reforms from the bottom up that will be implemented without the approval of the hierarchy and frequently even in spite of the hierarchy’s attempts at circumvention. In the worst case — as I already wrote before this papal election — the Catholic church will experience a new ice age instead of a spring and run the risk of dwindling into a barely relevant large sect.

Ironically, this confrontational approach “from the bottom up,” at least as Küng seems to present it, actually contradicts his desire to point to Francis of Assisi as a model for reform. Francis did not provoke “reforms from the bottom up that will be implemented without the approval of the hierarchy.” On the contrary, he sought approval from the pope and his curia from the beginning (in fact, his entire lifestyle shift began with the approval of his local bishop, Guido of Assisi around 1206).

I agree that change is needed. Big change!  I agree that Francis of Assisi is a powerful model for what that could look like and mean.  However, I’m not sure that Küng’s well-meaning proverbial call to arms is the answer. It appears to be just a reiteration of his earlier calls for similar action. I think that a serious look at Francis of Assisi’s negotiation of these relational structures of power between his movement and the church’s leadership, between his desire to follow in the footprints of Christ and his solidarity with the marginalized, between his expressed loyalty to the church and his willingness to act out of conscience — this is more nuanced, subtle, and effective than rallying something of a quasi-democratic grass-roots movement.

Perhaps it is time we all really take Francis of Assisi seriously.

Photo: File


  1. It is always good to remember what our Lord suffered when he challenged the status quo. The cross is always before us. I think the greatest challenge to Pope Francis will be his position as leader of the ‘status quo’. Speaking ‘Truth to Power’ when you are the power – will he truly be able to stand firm in his resolve to follow Christ ‘all the way’, and will the consequences be the same. We were told by Himself that they (the consequences) would be!

    1. Good points! But let’s not forget, no one is ever ‘outside’ of power — Pope Francis is ingrained in a structure of power exercise, but so are all members of the Body of Christ, the Church. How it is deployed is the key — we’ll see what happens. Hopefully Pope Francis can deploy power in a way more like St. Francis did and less like previous Bishops of Rome (in that regard, I agree with Küng for sure). Thanks for comment!

  2. Kuing is correct. The only way that the Catholic Church can change is from the bottom up. Francis’ world and its problems cannot compare to the societal and institutional changes that have occurred over the millennia. This is not to lessen Francis’ attributes, holiness and what changes he achieved through his example and his theology. I hope we never lose sight of that.

    The place to begin to effect change is within the Curia. Perhaps term limits would be a good start?

    I agree with Jonathan Stigant’s caveats as he detailed them.

  3. Fr. Dan, the NCR essay by Swiss “rebel theologian” Prof. Hans Küng seems to be an English translation of an article that appeared a few weeks ago in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. I can’t help but wonder if something has been lost in the translation. The last paragraph of the German article begins: “Unsere Hoffnung sollten wir nicht zu früh aufgeben!” That is, we shouldn’t give up hope too soon. So I think the essence of Küng’s message is a positive one, and the undertone of the German article seems to be one of amazement. The rallying call is, well, Küngian. But it may resonate over here, particularly with German & European Catholics.

  4. Referring to the last line of the article–I emphasize rather taking Jesus seriously. Francis shifted the focus from the “church” to Jesus. That is over-simplification, but it is still true. If people JUST followed chapter five of the Matthew’s Gospel (as I believe Francis tried to do), “Christianity” would regain the love which once animated and identified it.

  5. It is difficult for me to believe that the hierarchy of the Church will ever give up any of its power. It is true that the faithful will make changes and reform with or without Rome. The promises of Vatican II must be completed and the lies of the past must be corrected. The movement has all ready begun with the ordination of women priests and more inclusive reforms.

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