Sometime in the 1980s I attended a lecture by radical Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung at Temple University. Kung in those days was the Catholic equivalent to secular philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Many of Kung’s books were as dense and thick as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.
Although Kung, who died in 2021 at the age of 93, was much better looking than Sartre, he did not, like Sartre, bed young women en masse, although many Church people “in the know” assured me that Kung lived with a woman and didn’t honor his priestly celibacy vows.
Kung was a frequent contributor to America magazine, a Jesuit publication that I frequently read as a high school student. In the Seventies the magazine was championing liturgical change and modernism at any cost, advocating for the reform of the old Latin Mass and the reinvention of Church architecture. The magazine excelled in abstract illustrations of post Vatican II Church altars: kitchen tables that held two sticks that vaguely resembled a cross.
America magazine terrified me because it seemed to welcome the wholesale deconstruction of a liturgy that I had known and loved since childhood.
Kung, who was censured by St. Pope John Paul II and condemned by Pope Benedict XVI, was a professor of ecumenical theology at Tubengin University in Germany. In his author photos he is usually depicted in a shirt and tie (no Roman collar for him). His thick shock of tussled hair has always been one of his signature trademarks.
Father Dwight Longenecker, author of ‘The Path to Rome-Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church,’ writes that Huns Kung’s difficulties led him into doubt and ultimately to dissent. Longenecker believes that Kung’s pre-eminence among German theologians has contributed to “the parlous state of the German Catholic Church today—teetering as it is on the brink of schism.”
After meeting Kung and getting his autograph, I interviewed Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong in a Philadelphia café.
Here was another radical clergyman, albeit an Episcopalian. I was struck by Spong’s patrician, diplomatic manner; he reminded me of an English Vicar. Gracious and gifted with a keen sense of humor, I enjoyed our chat despite the verbal bombs he delivered: Jesus did not rise from the dead. Jesus was also not the son of God, and His miracles were exaggerated.
And while we’re at it, the Virgin Mary was not really a virgin, and there’s no such thing as Heaven or Hell.
After the interview, I began to read Spong’s books but soon found the exercise useless. Why does this man even bother to call himself a Christian?
The negative power of Sponge’s writing became amplified when a friend of mine confessed that Sponge had almost caused him to lose his faith. In other words, Spong had brought him to the brink of atheism.
Some quotes by Spong:
“The Bible is not the word of God. It’s the tribal story of a particular people…”
“Live fully, love wastefully.” (This piece of advice might have come from Henry Miller’s ‘The Tropic of Cancer.’)
For many years — theologically speaking — I was between a rock and a hard place. I was at that time a fan of liberal theology but I didn’t like the liberal (and often wacky) liturgy that went with the liberal liturgy, but it seemed you couldn’t have both.
I could never get used to women priests at Episcopal services, even though Kung and Spong would have urged me to do so. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Episcopal Church had not yet become contaminated with leftist theology. Philadelphia still had an Anglo Catholic church that celebrated the Old Rite, had a convent of nuns that dressed in traditional habits, and that made you think of poet T.S. Eliot’s description of himself as a “classicist, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.”
In the 1990s the one remaining Anglo Catholic church in the city was perceived as being “more Catholic than the Roman cathedral on the Parkway.”
This was before the left-leaning contingent in the Christian world invaded the citadel of Anglo-Catholicism. Were I to attend this church today, I would see altar girls and a number of liturgical innovations that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s. And while this parish has not yet incorporated women priests, one gets the feeling that rainbow stoles and Hilary Clinton pantsuits are on the horizon.
Female acolytes or altar servers are common in most Roman Catholic parishes except those that follow the Traditional Rite. In many Catholic parishes the female altar servers far outnumber male altar servers. Altar serving has become primarily a girl’s club, causing boys to vacate the premises. Traditionally, the idea behind having only male altar servers was to “school” boys into entering the seminary.
The progressive clock is ticking, as they say.
That clock, of course, is relentless in its pursuit of the Apocalyptic hour.
A prime example of the Christian Left’s relentless campaign to destroy Christianity is what happened to a former Anglo Catholic church in a Philadelphia neighborhood known as Roxborough.
St. Timothy’s. a stone church with an English style cemetery, was traditionally Anglo Catholic until the 1980s when dissatisfied Roman Catholic newcomers, mostly women who could not obtain a divorce in their own Church, began to join the parish, eventually taking it over and reformatting the liturgy, replacing the high altar with a table and substituting the Old Rite with an extreme form of the Novus Ordo Mass.
Today at St. Timothy’s one can hear sermons by the woman rector who will explain to you that “Hades” as mentioned in scripture is not meant to be interrupted as Hell, although Paradise is to be interrupted as Heaven.
Here we have Hans Kung and Bishop Spong’s philosophy in a nutshell.
Hans Kung’s once radical views have now gone mainstream. When it comes to theology and liturgical practice, every Catholic parish now seems to be a law unto itself. Roman Catholic parishes now are now formulated theologically according to the orthodoxy or non-orthodoxy of the pastors. They range from strict to casual and easy going, from (almost) open communion to stern announcements from the altar that, “Only Catholics are permitted to share in the Eucharist.”
This is most evident at weddings and funerals when many of the guests might be from different faiths. Some Catholic priests refuse communion to politicians who support abortion, while other Catholic priests are indifferent to the matter.
Recently, I happened to attend a Mass at historic Old Saint Mary’s Catholic Church on S. 4th Street where I ran into an old work acquaintance of mine, a convert to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church. This person, whom I’ll call X, joined Old St. Joseph’s parish, the historic Jesuit church also located on 4th Street, after his conversion.
When I asked X if he still felt comfortable at Old St. Joe’s he surprised me when he said that he had left the parish and was now considering joining St. Mary’s because the Jesuits were “pushing heretical ideas.”
I asked X what he meant and he cited a book that the parish was recommending for parishioners, a work by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a retired Fordham University theologian and a sort of female version of Hans Kung, who has put forth ideas like: “No one has to die for our sins. It’s time to rethink the crucifixion.”
Johnson is the author of many books, including “Quest for the loving God,” (2011), which drew criticism from the US Bishops Committee on Doctrine.
X also told me that Johnson also questions the Resurrection, a key point — in fact, the most central point in all of Christianity.
Johnson condemned the bishops in a 2015 article:
“There were these men and they had all the power. I was vulnerable and at their mercy. There was patriarchy using its power against me, to deprive me of what, in fairness, I should have been given. I kept thinking that in another century, they would be lighting the fires outside.”
I wished X the best of luck at Old Saint Mary’s where, presumably, there are no Jesuits.