Pope Benedict and his harshest critic

The Pope and his harshest critic: Benedict XVI disappears behind the [Cathcon: black] legend Hans Küng spread about him

A conservative who did not want to admit that the Church, too, has to face the present: Benedict XVI's image is immovably fixed. But is it right? No, say Manfred Lütz and Markus Lanz. In 2018, they had a long conversation with the Pope Emeritus.

Someone who was eternally stubborn who did not understand the spirit of the Council? Joseph Ratzinger did not oppose the Church but tried to explain it to modern people.

Was the absurd image of Joseph Ratzinger produced by a Swiss? In any case, real connoisseurs of the future Pope are regularly surprised by the cabaret-like caricatures of the man that are circulating around the world. Markus Lanz, who experienced Joseph Ratzinger in person for the first time in 2003, writes today: "There are not many in whom media exaggeration and reality diverged as much as in Joseph Ratzinger's case." Why is that?

Ratzinger himself never made much of a fuss about himself. Yet he became the shooting star of theology in the 1960s, young, smart and modern. He did not come conservatively from medieval scholastic theology but from Augustine, from the Church Fathers, he wrote down for Cardinal Frings the reformist ideas for the Second Vatican Council that "the good Pope" John XXIII was so enthusiastic about. He collaborated on the texts of the Council with eminent modern theologians whom he admired, with Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac and others, all of whom had been suspected or even reprimanded by the Roman authorities before the Council.

At that time, he met a Swiss theologian in Rome, Hans Küng, who was already making a lot of fuss about himself and lecturing privately but who did not actually contribute to the texts of the Council. Nevertheless, Hans Küng later succeeded in creating the impression that he himself was the decisive modern Council theologian and that Ratzinger was merely someone who was eternally stubborn who had never understood the spirit of the Council.

At that time, however, there was no talk of such begrudging disparagement, quite the contrary. Shortly after the Council, in 1966, one could still take some credit for poaching the young starting theologian with the likeable Bavarian accent from the renowned University of Münster and luring him to Tübingen. And Hans Küng could take some credit for the fact that it was he who had brought Ratzinger to the liberal theological faculty on the Neckar. A young modern theologian at a rather modern faculty, at that time it was a good match.

The essence of faith

Up to this point, Joseph Ratzinger's image was still more or less congruent with reality: one knew that this young man was a theologian with heart and soul, loved science and did not shy away from any intellectual debate. Personally, he was modest and reserved. He was not interested in power, nor did he have a knack for it, so throughout his life he depended on collaborators whom he stuck by through thick and thin.

But that was also his tragedy. Because he did not have a good knowledge of human nature, this resulted in the great problems of his long life. Even at university, he was overwhelmed by necessary personnel decisions. In Münster, he had not even managed to part with his assistant, with whom, as everyone knew, he did not get along. That was the deeper reason why he left there.

So suddenly they were together in Tübingen, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger. But now the paths of the Swiss and the Bavarian increasingly diverged. Küng began to work on the ecclesiastical institution, while Ratzinger endeavoured to explain Christianity to modern people. In 1968, his first big bestseller, "Introduction to Christianity", was published and translated into countless languages. He stood by this juvenile work until the end of his life. Just one year before his death, he allowed me to revise it for a wider audience.

Küng, on the other hand, who may have been spurred on to do the same by his colleague's early fame, pushed out his spectacular book "Infallible? - An Inquiry" two years later and soon owed his reputation to his popular attacks on the ecclesiastical institution. But while Küng even spoke about the infallibility of the Pope in his book "Existiert Gott?" (Does God Exist?) and thus could not get away from the view of the institution, Ratzinger delved more into questions of faith, wrote about death and eternal life, tried to keep the essentials of Faith in view of the excesses that were common after councils.

"Scuffles" with colleagues

And then Joseph Ratzinger went from Tübingen to the University of Regensburg in 1969. From this point on, the legends begin. He himself told Markus Lanz and me in the last conversation we had with him that concentrated academic work was no longer possible at the highly politicised Tübingen University. There had been "scuffles" with professors. He himself, however, was not affected at all. But he was shocked by the fact that it was the professors who were closest in spirit to the rioters who suffered the most. This is actually quite a plausible explanation.

But Hans Küng always promoted the legend that anyone who fled from him, from Tübingen, from the Tübingen riots to the supposedly tranquil Regensburg, had to be afraid of modernity. Why was that? Regensburg was a super-modern new university with the best research opportunities, whereas Tübingen was a contemplative old university town, and science today no longer takes place within walking distance, as it did in the Middle Ages, but via international publications. But everyone still believes the beautiful legend of the media-savvy Hans Küng. Hans Küng defeated Joseph Ratzinger in the media.

And then, in 1977, Joseph Ratzinger, of all people, who was not particularly interested in institutions and above all administratively inept, fell under the yoke of ecclesiastical office. Even his greatest opponents never denied that he wanted to become neither Archbishop of Munich nor Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith nor Pope. But he took these offices upon himself out of religious duty. In Munich, he saved himself by simply taking over the proven staff and letting them do their job.

And they obviously did not bother the reticent amiable professor, now wearing the mitre, with delicate or even sordid details, according to the Munich study published in 2022. Even as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he stood behind his staff, who often thought and acted more narrowly than he did. He himself had asked John Paul II to allow him to continue publishing and he did so with pleasure. But the fact that as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he also had the duty to say what was no longer possible was clearly no fun for him.

The tricky matter of infallibility

As Pope, he probably allowed himself to be persuaded by his staff to reuse old papal paraphernalia in order to document his theological conviction of the unbroken tradition. Although outward appearances were never important to him. He had always walked around St. Peter's Square in an old greasy cassock. In the end, he personally did not care about the papal vestments he wore as Pope Emeritus.

But if, in his theological view, a Pope was not merely a functionary who would retire at some point, then he could not simply drop out of this sacred game, he had to play along until the end. When I visited him in the gardens at some point, at the end of the conversation he pointed to a few souvenir pictures with his photo that his staff had put on the table: "You can take another one . . ." Pause and then from the bottom of his heart: "Or better leave it. This cult of personality is terrible!".

I was told that you cannot do two things in Swiss media: Praise Joseph Ratzinger and rebuke Hans Küng. I am doing both here, and yet I hope for Swiss leniency towards a possibly erring German. The difference between Joseph Ratzinger and his self-confessed adversary Hans Küng is not only that Küng drove a fancy sports car through Tübingen while Ratzinger only ever rode a bicycle, but also that Hans Küng wrote a three-volume work about himself, an autobiography. Joseph Ratzinger also wrote a three-volume work - but not about himself but about Jesus of Nazareth.

Küng with a bust of himself

But they agreed on one thing: the infallibility of the Pope was probably a highly sensitive matter for both of them. In fact, no pope has emphasised as often as Benedict XVI that certain texts of his are by no means infallible and that one is welcome to contradict him. He himself had never been in complete agreement with any pope, not even with Pius XII, he told Markus Lanz and me with a smile when we had a great conversation with him in April 2018.

A good conversation

He was as witty and quick-witted as ever in that conversation then, but also incredibly open and said such surprising things that we have now published it as a book. One of the most touching passages concerned his old friend Hans Küng. Why did he actually invite Hans Küng after his election as Pope? we asked him. It was a matter of course for him, Benedict replied. Küng could come to him whenever he wanted.

They had a good conversation, Benedict said, and added with a laugh that after all Küng had not spoken badly of him for two years. He had already asked himself what was actually going on with Küng. And then Pope Benedict asked very seriously if we knew how Küng was doing. He had been worried because he had heard that he was not well.

(Hans Küng died at the age of 93 in 2021, he promoted an international global ethic to the end, a poor substitute for Catholicism.)


Manfred Lütz is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, theologian and book author. He has been a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life since 1997. On 2 February, the book edited by him and Markus Lanz "Benedikt XVI. Unser letztes Gespräch" (Kösel-Verlag, Munich, 96 p., Fr. 27.90) will be published.


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