For decades Swiss theologian Hans Kung has been in the forefront of dialogue between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians of orthodox creeds. In the academic arena he has heartily joined in the search for contemporary ways to express Christian faith.

Dr. Kung was dismissed as an official theologian of the Roman Catholic Church on the ground that his writing cast doubt on several of the most basic doctrines of his church. This has left churchmen around the world in a quandary.

Will the dismissal, they ask, dampen years of ecumenical dialogue?

Will it dampen the spirit of free academic inquiry that was a hallmark of the Roman Catholic reform known as "Vatican II"?

And how is this event to be undestood in the face of the Pope's reputation as a champion of free religious expression in communist Poland and outspoken advocate of global human rights?

Ironically the questions surface at a time when many churchmen had high hopes for interfaith dialogue. Some Lutherans, for example, were expecting major strides toward Catholic-Lutheran reconciliation. Some were even expecting that 1980 would bring Vatican approval of the Augsburg Confessions, the statement of Lutheranism that was a cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation.

Instead, this 450th anniversary year of the confessions brought news of the Kung censure. It was a disappointment for ecumenically minded Protestants and Catholics alike -- even for many who personally disagree with Professor Kung's own views about today's many-faceted ecumenical issues.

Compounding the concern has been a whole pattern of hearings given by the Vatican to professors and churchmen known for their more liberal interpretations of Catholic faith.

In January Edward Schillebeeckx, a Dutch Theologian of worldwide reputation, was summoned before the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was not unfrocked as a result, but in early February the Vatican reversed liberalizing trends among many of his fellow clergymen and bishops in the Netherlands.

Some had sought to make celibacy optional for clergymen, allow priestly education in lay universities, individual choice on birth control, and greater church roles for laymen and women.

Roman Catholic officials who defend recent Vatican actions do not see them as steps back to a pre-Vatican II posture. They see them as an effort to uphold traditional Roman Catholic ideals. Nor do they see the actions as attempts to infringe academic freedom or ecumenism among the orthodox churches. In fact, Archibishop John Quinn, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops , argues that the Kung situation could contribute to ecumenical discussions by clarifying the exact views of the Roman Catholic Church.

Other Catholics, however, worry about the negative fallout.

"Ecumenically speaking, the Kung dismissal borders on the disastrous," says Dr. Leonard Swidler of Temple University and editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.

The approach in dealing with Professor Kung's case brought letters of protest to the Vatican from dozens of Catholic and Protestant scholars and churchmen in Europe and America.

The Academy of North American Ecumenists wrote of its collective concern about the negative effects for ecumenism. In Milwaukee in early March a group of Roman Catholics formed an Association for the Rights of Catholics to find ways to protect their rights of dialogue and ecumenical openness as encouraged by Vatican II.

The controversy is likely to go on for some time. But seasoned church historians worry that a host of sensational but misleading labels that are being attached to recent events obscure their historical significance.

The Kung situation is a case in point.

Professor Kung has spoken of his own case as a kind of modern Inquisition tinged with the inhumane treatment given a Galileo. His implied allusion to the harsh secret trials of religious dissidents by church authorities in medieval times is clear.

Other observers have seen Hans Kung as a kind of modern-day Luther, a man who wanted to bring reform to the Roman Church from his priestly post in Germany (where Dr. Kung teaches) but was forced out of it in the process.

Yet few knowledgable observers feel that either "shoe" really fits the foot of Professor Kung. The picture is more complex:

* Today's Europe is very different from Luther's. Then, the context involved a splitting-off of a whole movement from the prevailing church, whereas Professor Kung perceives his work as a search for unity in the context of an already divided Christendom.

* Today's roman Catholic Church is also very different from the Catholic Church of Inquisition days. To be sure, Professor Schillebeeckx criticized how his own case was reviewed by the Vatican. The theologian under investigation, he said, had relatively little say during the investigation and little knowledge of it until it was well advanced.

Nevertheless, says the Rev. Charles La Fontaine of the Graymoor Ecumenical Institute in New York, today's Roman Catholic church is not the kind of inflexible church that could wield vast secular political authority as it did during Inquisition days.

* When the Vatican has tried to engage Professor Kung in discussions at various points over the past decade, he has refused on the grounds that the talks would not be conducted in a sufficiently open atmosphere or "between equal partners in a fraternal spirit." He has also published articles challenging traditional Roman Catholic views. He has urged modernist interpretations of doctrines of divine sonship, pre-existence, and incarnation. And though he has taken no final position about papal infallibility, he has called for the convening of an international commission to reconsider the issue.

* Professor Kung's state university at Tubingen, West Germany, is a unique educational setting. A concordat between the Vatican and the German government requires that appointments of Catholic professors must be approved by the country's Catholic hierarchy. This concordat proved particularly important in the Kung case, since he is known to have had a rivalry with the German hierarchy.

Veteran American Catholic sociologist the Rev. Andrew Greeley observes, "The Pope didn't take the initiative to have Kung censured. It was the German hierarchy. To be sure, the Pope had to approve this.But he was largely responding to demands made first by them." The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that Dr. Kung's recent books have become best-sellers, Fr. Greeley adds.

Thus snap labels will not fit the Kung case. Whatever the outcome of his situation and that of other Roman Catholic liberals, it remains a question for many Western Catholics and Protestants how a popular Pope like John Paul II can take actions that seem restrictive of free theological inquiry.

To some it seems inconsistent with his stands for religious freedom in Poland. The Pope is a man who has known the necessity of compromise while trying to coexist with Marxist secular authorities. And he has taken some of the most vocal papal stands for human rights in recent times.

While critics have seen recent Vatican actions as infringements on basic human and intellectual rights, other observers say that this is simply not how Vatican officials view the situation. They consider recent actions in terms of the duty to correct and defend doctrine, not in terms of human rights.

As Archbishop Quinn sees it, "This is not really a human rights issue in the sense of how individuals or churches relate to civil society. All the Pope is saying is that Kung is not a Catholic theologian."

But although Professor Kung may still be able to teach in Germany, the fact that he has been deprived of his status as an official Roman Catholic theologian leaves some of the more liberal Catholic scholars in America uneasy. They have found it difficult not to feel the implication of events as matters of human rights.

"The fact that the Pope seems not to have perceived the apparent inconsistency of his appeals against the violation of human rights around the world and his handling of the Kung case -- I simply don't know what to make of it," says Fr. Greeley.

The extent to which that apparent inconsistency can now be resolved may indicate much about the broader atmosphere of interfaith dialogue in the coming decade.

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