When I was in seminary, Hans Kung, Swiss priest theologian, was a rock star who appeared on pop television shows, was on the cover of Time and a guest of JFK in the White House. I saw him preach from the elegant high pulpit in Rockefeller Chapel while Dean of the Chapel Bernie Brown’s chandelier of a thousand paper cranes moved quietly overhead. Handsome and challenging, Kung questioned such rigid ideas as papal infallibility, and promoted global ecumenicism, common sense rules for conduct and euthanasia. He even criticized John Paul II for betraying the ideals of Vatican II. He accepted the dearness of nature (though not the wilder ideas about it) and the value of science, including evolution and neuroscience.
Worse, he put all these ideas in books that sold well. He was repeatedly disciplined, but the Vatican never set Hans Kung outside the gates, only forbade him to teach theology. If they had elected him Pope, the Roman Catholic Church would have been quite different. Too late now. He’s 85, about as old as Ratzinger, whom he once supported, though Kung’s clear conscience seems to have preserved his health.
Kung has continued to be politically active, working with the UN to endorse non-violence and respect for life, solidarity and a just economic order, tolerance and a life of truthfulness, equal rights and partnership between men and women. What this proves to me is that Benedict XVI may be the institutional Pope, elected and wearing red kid shoes never worn by any fisherman, but Kung is a natural Pope, his status earned through a lifetime of wisdom and pastoral care. He may turn out to be a rallying point in the struggle for control now beginning. In fact, he marks a difference between authority that is achieved by politics (reference “House of Cards”) versus one that is earned by service and thoughtfulness.
Since I pretty much share Kung’s worldview, I would give the following advice to the College of Cardinals. (It’s safe for me to be radical since no one will pay the least attention to what I say.) The first thing I would advise is a tectonic shift in the church’s obsession with sex and disease. What forces could possibly produce priests who prey on children instead of praying with them? Why force unwanted children to be born?
Science has so totally reframed our understanding and management of sex and disease (somehow linked in the mind of the church) that even the supposed healing practices of former times have now become sources of damage. What are hospitals but monasteries with doctors instead of monks? In England they call nurses “sisters” because once they were nuns. Prayer has been replaced by antibiotics, used just as indiscriminately until they lose their efficacy. The Rites once called forthrightly the LAST rites, are now just for “illness.” What kind of religion can’t face death?
Marriage has been overwhelmed by commercial ceremony, (rather like a Vatican mass -- so good for tourism), detached from tender sex and joyful reproduction, which have detached from each other. The old rules about how to handle birth, coitus and death in Sacred Ways are hardly even remembered. Communion? What does it mean in a world of alcoholics?
What happened to overturning of the tables of the money changers? Economics have become a source of demonic evil. Celibacy and poverty were once ways of ensuring that power and wealth remained with the institutional church instead of defaulting to priestly empires and family ownership. That wasn’t very admirable, but now such rules are worse -- vows that deform and separate honorable people from their vocations.
In places where the power of the institution is still rooted in the conviction of supernatural powers and in images of eternal life, there is still comfort to be offered -- even practical help if the local priest is willing to spend the money the church would like to keep secret for their own aggrandizement. But STILL the power of the church as an institution is NOT used to influence nations. There is no financial support for the cure for HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis -- a once-Christian charge now taken up by cyber-CEOs (Bill Gates as Bishop), showing that the secular tech world has more heart than cardinals have.
Kung has accused Benedict XVI of going back to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Those who “know,” will understand that this was the historical moment when the institutional church opted for control and rigidity, the ultimate political moment that determined which books of the New Testament would be called “gospels” (there are many more than four) and which policies would shape decisions. It was sort of an early version of the United Nations where the Assyrian Church of the East, the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, and the Roman Catholics all met at the invitation of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. There were several hundred delegates, only five of which were from the Roman Catholic church. But the pattern was the Roman Empire.
Among the politically negotiated decisions was the Trinity, a way of dealing with the sticky issue of how a “one and only” monotheistic God, could have a son named Jesus. Was He an illusion? Did it mean that God had had sex, meaning that He also must have had a body? Just how human is God Himself?
The meeting also set the formula for calculating Easter which was meant to focus on the “second birth” of Jesus when he escaped death. (Also conveniently co-opting the Easter bunny-and-egg fertility ideas of the pagans and the ancient vegetable ceremonies of spring.)
This was the beginning of canon law, unchanging rules of discipline. A summary follows for your amazement.
1. Prohibition of self-castration. (Why so important that it’s first on the list?)
2. How long persons had to study before being baptized. (Citizenship is parallel.)
3. Prohibition of the presence in the house of a cleric of a younger woman who might bring him under suspicion. (Subintroductees. They’ll never suspect altar boys.)
4. Ordination of a bishop in the presence of at least three provincial bishops and confirmation by the Metropolitan bishop.
5. Provision for two provincial synods to be held annually.
6. Exceptional authority acknowledged for the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome (the Pope) for their respective regions.
7. Recognition of the honorary rights of the see of Jerusalem.
8. Provision for agreement with the Novatianists, an early sect.
9–14. Provision for mild procedure against the lapsed during the persecution under Licinius.
15–16. Prohibition of the removal of priests. (And they want to take tenure away from teachers.)
17. Prohibition of usury among the clergy. (How is it the lay people are excused?)
18. Precedence of bishops and presbyters before deacons in receiving Holy Communion.
19. Declaration of the invalidity of baptism by Paulian heretics.
20. Prohibition of kneeling on Sundays and during the Pentecost (the fifty days commencing on Easter). Standing was the normative posture for prayer at this time, as it still is among the Eastern Christians.
I’ve colored red (rubrics) the rules that are “moral” which immediately reveals that this conference was not so much about sin as about table manners: who sits where (when they are allowed to sit) and who is not allowed to come to the table. The rest of Canon Law, about which I know little, has accumulated over the centuries, one way or another.
Are you watching House of Cards? We’ll all be watching House of Cardinals for a while. Maybe Hans Kung will have words for us. Maybe we should learn to make origami cranes. What if we folded a thousand Black Swans?