A charming dissident: Hans Küng and China

The Swiss theologian and co-author Julia Ching shared a bitterness about the injustice they suffered from the Church

Apr 17, 2021

A Chinese boy walks through the aisle during a Mass at a Catholic church in a village near Beijing on Holy Saturday, April 3. (Photo: Jade Gao/AFP)


By Gianni Criveller

Hans Küng, the great contemporary theologian and intellectual who died on April 6, paid significant attention to China and Chinese religions.

The thoughts of the Swiss theologian had a clear progression from the particular to the universal. Starting from the theme of justification, which gained for him the esteem of Karl Barth, the giant of 20th-century Protestant theology, Küng became interested in the themes of the Church, particularly papal infallibility, certainly a significant problem in ecumenical dialogue.

Küng then addressed the central themes of Christianity: the mystery of Jesus, the questions of God and of eternal life. The Vatican censorship that since 1979 prevented him from teaching Catholic theology had, perhaps, the effect of broadening his horizons. Küng landed on the themes of interreligious dialogue and invented Global Ethics. It was in this context that Küng approached China and its religions. In a remarkable meeting in 2005, Küng talked about his Global Ethics project with his friend and rival Pope Benedict XVI.

It was in Beijing (in 2009, I believe) that I met Küng. We were both involved in the academic movement of “cultural Christians,” which for a couple of decades caused impressive growth in Christian studies in Chinese universities. Küng was also a member of the scientific committee of the Institute for Sino-Christian Studies in Hong Kong, an ecumenical organization that for many years organized my seminars in Chinese universities. Those were years full of openings, of possibilities and of encounters — things now denied by the nationalist involution preferred by President Xi Jinping. With his Sinicization program, Xi is imposing Confucianism (in its worst ideological version) as the only form of thought allowed in China.

Küng and I attended the same conference, guests of the department of religions of the Academy of Social Sciences and of the Center for Christian Studies at the People’s University of China. He was the star of the event, a self-assured man full of charm and much admired. I talked to him for a few minutes. I told him that I had read and reviewed a book on Benedict XVI, which described the very strong relationship that, in the 1960s in Tübingen, existed between the young professors Joseph Ratzinger and Küng. For years, every Thursday night, they had dined together.

Then something divided them: the 1968 movement. The shy Ratzinger could not bear the rebelliousness of the students. The bold Küng, on the other hand, did not feel bad in the climate of protest. I told Küng that I was impressed with the story of their strong friendship and subsequent distance. Very politely, and with a bit of irony, he said to me: "But now you should read my book as well." The subtext was clear: there is also my version of what happened between Ratzinger and me. I confess that I have not yet kept my promise to read his autobiography (My Struggle for Freedom, 2004).

Julia Ching, a great Sinologist

In 1988, Hans Küng co-published Christianity and Chinese religions. I did read this book, and with great profit. The book introduced me to the co-author, Julia Ching, unjustly omitted in the obituaries I read that mention the book. Ching (1934-2001) was a great Sinologist who died of a recurrent tumor not treated promptly when she was a young Ursuline nun in Taiwan. I narrated the heartbreaking human and spiritual story of Julia Ching, a case of abuse of power in the religious world, in a 2019 article for L’Osservatore Romano and UCA News.

Born in Shanghai, Ching grew up in Hong Kong, where she studied at Canossians and received baptism at the age of 16. Her brother Frank, a well-known Hong Kong journalist and writer, followed her example and was later introduced to the Catholic faith.

In her impressive autobiography, The Butterfly Healing (1998), Ching writes with great consideration of Hans Küng: "With his flaming red hair, rugged looks and fighting spirit, Hans was full of life and energy." Küng deserves credit for having recognized, with brilliant intuition, the intellectual qualities of Ching (she was certainly not as famous as he was) and for choosing her as a collaborator for the ambitious project (I think it is the only case of a book co-signed by Küng).

Ching said Küng was the first theologian who took her seriously. They had in common, among other things, bitterness about the injustice and dullness they suffered from the institutional Church.

Ching described their frequent and exacting exchanges. The two intellectuals did not always agree. Julia, having abandoned the religious life, was a wounded woman who, almost spasmodically, worked for reconciling her many souls. She seemed to be leaning toward Buddhism and reluctantly spoke of God. Sometimes she was afraid she no longer believed in God. Küng was critical of Buddhism for focusing on suffering and on the negative things in life.

He told her of the fundamental trust of Christians in Jesus. “I prefer Christianity, a religion of revelation. We [Christians] try now to reduce suffering in the world. We believe in Christ as the victor over death and destruction.”

These exchanges might surprise those who remember Hans Küng, who never left the priesthood, only for his dissidence. Julia and Hans became good friends, and both died in the Catholic faith.––ucanews.com


Fr Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME Inter-national Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in Greater China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong.

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