Why the Pope Dined with a Dissenter

  • Share
  • Read Later
A papacy makes for strange dinner companions: Word this week that Pope Benedict XVI dined for two hours with dissident theologian Hans Küng may be difficult for many conservative Catholics to digest. Küng, who had long been denied his request for an audience with John Paul II, is widely viewed as a kind of "anti-Ratzinger" because of the sharp contrast between his liberal views on doctrine and those of the fellow German theologian who would eventually become pope. In fact, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had a role in stripping Küng of the right to teach Catholic theology in 1979, because he had challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility. Just after the Cardinals chose the new Pope, Küng showed a TIME reporter an old Ratzinger essay in his library that called on Rome to share power with local bishops. “That was Ratzinger,” quipped Küng . “Back then we were on the same side.” In fact, until their dinner Saturday, the former colleagues hadn't seen each other in more than two decades.

So why did Benedict, 78, open his doors to Küng ? The first answer may be as simple as the desire to catch up with an old friend and colleague: the two men had taught together at the University of Tübingen, and both had served as theological advisers during the Second Vatican Council. Küng , 77, was quoted in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Tuesday as saying the Saturday dinner meeting at the papal summer residence in Castel Gondolfo was “a reciprocal joy to see each other after so many years.” A Vatican statement said that the pair's standing doctrinal disputes were not broached. Among the topics reportedly covered were the relationship between faith and science, and inter-faith dialogue.

But if this was simply a personal catching-up or theological rap session, Ratzinger might have invited Küng for dinner during his two decades as a Rome-based cardinal. Instead, it appears that the new pope wants to establish an ongoing open dialogue with those who may have different views. The Küng dinner is, in fact, Benedict's third potentially controversial encounter in the past month. In late August, the pope met with the Italian writer Oriana Fallaci, who has penned fiercely anti-Muslim books since 9/11, and then two days later he welcomed Bishop Bernard Fellay, the excommunicated head of an ultraconservative movement founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

It's hard to know the specific motivation behind Benedict's desire to meet with each of these surprise visitors. But it is by now clear that the new Pope is conscious that his job description has radically changed. As Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 20 years, Cardinal Ratzinger had been responsible for keeping certain arguments on theological lock-down. But when you become father to a flock of 1 billion, your dining-room door must be kept as open as possible.