Tradition: Precious Gift or Ball-and-Chain?

Well, the Catholic Church is officially pope-less, and conversation about the future direction of the church and the possibilities a new pope presents has reached a fever pitch. Of all the things I have read about the current state of affairs in Vatican City, this article is my favorite:

It’s written by brilliant theologian Hans Küng, Catholic priest and emeritus professor at Tübingen, who had his authority to teach Catholic theology revoked back in 1979 but Tübingen allowed him to continue teaching as a member of the Protestant faculty. Küng carries a bit of a grudge, no doubt: otherwise, one would hardly compare the hierarchical system of the Catholic Church to the government of Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, while Küng has criticized the Church on a variety of issues, including papal infallibility, the refusal to ordain women, and the resistance to interreligious dialogue and openness [the latest book I have from him on my shelf is a 750+ page tome on Islam], he also has refused to leave the Church, instead working to reform the Church from within, hoping for a change of heart in its leadership.

As I read the article, I was struck by his connection to Pope Benedict. Kung writes that “In 2005, in one of Benedict’s few bold actions, he held an amicable four-hour conversation with me at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in Rome. I had been his colleague at the University of Tübingen and also his harshest critic. For 22 years, thanks to the revocation of my ecclesiastical teaching license for having criticized papal infallibility, we hadn’t had the slightest private contact.” Even though I knew both of them had been at Tübingen, I hadn’t really put the connection together.  Then, toward the end of the article, Küng notes that he and Benedict are “the last active theologians to have participated in the Second Vatican Council.” Wow–I was stunned when I realized how perfectly the divergent theological lives of these two men sum up the ambiguous legacy of the Council itself: a “disbarred” Catholic theologian and a Pope, both of whom had served as expert theological advisors [peritus] to the Council. I say again: Wow.

The whole article left me wrestling with the ambiguous nature of tradition that all churches must deal with: is it a precious gift to be treasured at all costs, or it is a ball-and-chain, to be cut off, regardless of the costs? Obviously, it is a bit of both; but how does a church find the happy medium? It is patently clear to everyone except the Pope apparently [one can only hope at least a few of the cardinals see clearly] that the Catholic Church has skewed far to the “precious gift” side of the balance, such that they have ended up protecting sexual predators and marginalizing women on a scale so vast it is hard to comprehend.

I am left thinking about my own beloved Lutheran Church, and where we fall in all of this. Obviously, we are less bound to tradition than our Catholic brothers and sisters, and yet, we too struggle with these issues, as we try to proclaim the gospel faithfully in a way that resonates with the lives of God’s children here and now. It’s no easy task. But, as we struggle to find our way, I find that I am grateful for voices like Hans Küng and others, who speak a word of wisdom to the church catholic, and invite all of us to wrestle with these same questions Catholics are faced with so pointedly now. We miss a great opportunity if we only watch the Catholic debate from the sidelines and don’t ourselves engage in some of the same dialogues. Maybe there could be “Lutheran Spring” as well!

One thought on “Tradition: Precious Gift or Ball-and-Chain?

  1. Kristin, thank you for sharing the NYT essay and for lifting up the Vatican II connection between Hans Kung and Cardinal Ratzinger. I am hoping and praying for spring.


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