From beginning to end, Hans Küng’s book, The Catholic Church: A Short History, provides a critique of the Roman Catholic Church through and through. Yet, here is a voice from inside the ranks, if you will, with Küng having served as official theological consultant to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), appointed by Pope John XXIII himself.
Still, because of the challenges Küng has voiced over the years, most of them summed up in this book, the Vatican withdrew his ecclesiastical teaching authority in 1979, especially in light of his criticism to the doctrine of papal infallibility.1 Nevertheless, through it all, Küng calls the Church of Rome his “spiritual home to the present day.”2 I’d say quite a testimony and challenge to many modern Christians who so easily exit stage left when things get challenging and tough within their own church context.
What the book does is track the Roman Catholic history from Jesus to the present-day, at least coming from the Catholic mindset that everything began with Christ. Of course, one could spend volumes on such a history. However, this “short history” is very thorough itself at 270-pages. Yet one thing to remember is that Küng is not ultimately here to paint a beautiful, unscathed picture of Rome. As noted above, he points out all things good, bad and ugly.
When it comes to unearthing and dealing with problems – religious, historical, socio-political, personal – it is recommended that one usually start at root level. At least, that would be my advice. To deal with merely surface issues, current events or peripheral matters will likely inhibit true learning, growth, transformation and forward-movement. We can all think of examples where this is true. And, so, with the Roman Catholic Church, it’s important to start at the beginning, back on those dusty paths of first century Palestine. That’s exactly where Küng begins his assessment.
The book commences with questions about the intention of Jesus and the foundational nature of church, particularly posing this question: Was Jesus Catholic? In this early section, Küng leads with thought-provoking question:
“By way of experiment, is it possible to imagine Jesus of Nazareth at a papal mass in St. Peter’s, Rome?”3
He continues with these incriminating words:
“At any rate, we must never forget what the sources are unanimous in reporting. Through his words and actions this man from Nazareth became involved in a dangerous conflict with the ruling forces of his time. Not with the people, but with the official religious authorities, with the hierarchy, which (in a legal process which is no longer clear to us today) handed him over to the Roman governor and thus to his death. Such a thing is, of course, no longer conceivable. Or is it?”4
Wow! There’s no doubt the connection he is making between the religious authority of Jesus’ day and the current leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.
I suppose, for most Catholics, the answer to the initial question posed would be, “Yes, we can definitely imagine Jesus of Nazareth at a papal mass.” But for most Protestants, that answer would be “Well, I’m not so sure about that,” if not an outright, “Uh, no!”
And it’s from this launching point that Küng continues with his critique of the Church of Rome, though remembering his own claim that it is his spiritual home and family. Thus, he does believe there is much to offer within the Catholic context. But not everything.
As a little side caveat: Such an honest evaluation would do well within each branch and tradition within Christianity. There are some folk offering that across the board. Yet, I would surmise there are still people out there who are anti-Catholic. By that I do not mean that one is unwilling to properly assess and challenge the problems of Rome (for this is what Küng has done, and of which I would do on items such as papal infallibility). What I mean by “anti-Catholic” is any person or group that still thinks nothing of Christ is actually taking place within the Roman Catholic Church context. To that, I simply say: Rubbish! Much reform has taken place within Rome, especially in light of Vatican II. And more does need to take place. But, I note that there are very unhealthy aspects within the evangelical context, both beliefs and practices. It’s just that one is so easily sold on the fact that their own particular setting is always best – not fully correct, but at least best. I’m happy to allow that both Rome and evangelicalism are in need of some overhaul changes on some level.
If one wants a fair introduction to Roman Catholicism, its history and theology, especially from a Catholic himself, I believe this book stands as a solid piece of the puzzle..
1. [Küng, Hans. The Catholic Church: A Short History. New York: The Modern Library, 2007, loc.3083]↩
2. [Ibid., loc.147-148]↩
3. [Ibid., loc.329]↩
4. [Ibid., loc.331-334]↩