Hans Küng and the perils of fame

During his 1977 rookie year with the Baltimore Orioles, future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray got a piece of advice from veteran Lee May: If you’ve got talent, May told the 21-year-old slugger, fame can’t help you, but the odds are it’ll ruin you. Murray followed May’s sage counsel and avoided the limelight. Father Hans Küng, the mediagenic Swiss Catholic writer who died at age 93 on April 6, didn’t. Therein lies a sad tale. 

Hans Küng certainly had talent. His doctoral dissertation on Karl Barth, arguably the greatest of 20th-century Protestant theologians, became a pioneering book in ecumenical theology. His small tract, The Council: Reform and Reunion, helped frame the discussion at Vatican II’s critical first session. Küng could also recognize and promote talent; he personally engineered Joseph Ratzinger’s appointment to a professorial chair in the prestigious theology department at the University of Tübingen. 

Yet, mythologies notwithstanding, Hans Küng had virtually no impact on the great documents of the Second Vatican Council. During the council years, he spent more of his time in Rome with the world press and with the “Off Broadway” council of public lectures and debates than doing the harder work of developing Vatican II’s texts. Ratzinger, by contrast, made critically important contributions to several conciliar documents. So did Belgian theologian Gérard Philips, who got (at best) .0001 percent of the media attention Küng received, but who was so influential in developing what the Council actually taught that another important Vatican II theologian, French Dominican Yves Congar, joked that “Vatican II” should be renamed “Louvain I,” after Philips’s university.

During and after the Vatican II years, Hans Küng invented and then exploited a new personality type: the dissident Catholic theologian as international media star. Handsome, articulate, and a reliable spokesman for the progressive cause of the moment, Küng was one of the first Catholic intellectuals to figure out that the world press couldn’t resist the man-bites-dog storyline in which a Catholic thinker challenges Church doctrine – and does so in ways that confirm progressive cultural biases. Thus the man who once wrote a truly bold book (Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection) became more of a media personality than a serious Catholic theologian. And with the 1971 book, Infallible? An Inquiry, Küng declared himself in sharp dissent from a defined dogma of the apostolic faith. 

Thus whatever his influence among the Davos elites – and one must hope that this man who never left the priesthood had some spiritual impact within that ultramundane world – it’s arguable that Hans Küng’s most serious contribution to theology after his book on Barth was an accident of the academic sabbatical system. For as he was about to go on leave from the university one year, Küng asked Joseph Ratzinger to take over one his Tübingen courses – and Ratzinger’s lectures in that course became the international bestseller, Introduction to Christianity.

Hans Küng was admirably clear about his position: he did not believe to be true, nor would he teach as the truth, what the Catholic Church definitively taught to be true. Thus it should have come as no surprise to anyone when, on December 15, 1979, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed with Father Küng, declared that he “could not be considered a Catholic theologian,” and withdrew his mandate to teach as a “Professor of Catholic Theology.” The German episcopate agreed with CDF’s decision, which reflected the bottom-line Catholic conviction that, thanks to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Church abides in a truth it can articulate authoritatively, even as its understanding of that truth develops. (Things have, obviously, changed among the German bishops.) 

The last decades of Hans Küng’s life were marked by bitter attacks on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI – although the latter, always the Christian gentleman, invited his old Tübingen colleague to share an afternoon with him at Castel Gandolfo, shortly after his election. At certain points, as I noted in a 2010 open letter to Father Küng (https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/04/an-open-letter-to-hans-kng), those anti-papal polemics descended into the toxic waste dump of calumny, not least because of Küng’s inability to liberate himself from liberal shibboleths on everything from abortion to AIDS to Catholic-Islamic relations to stem cell research – a sorry record for an intelligent man.

Lee May’s warning to Eddie Murray was spot on: fame is dangerous. Which is why, to paraphrase F.R. Leavis on the literary Sitwells, Hans Küng belongs more to the history of publicity than the history of theology. Requiescat in pace.


Photo by UNED Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia on Flickr via Wikicommons

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”