Depending on one's viewpoint, the Vatican's discipling of theologian Hans Kung is a setback to the ecumenical movement, a threat to academic freedom or long overdue.

On Dec. 18, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith formally declared that Kung could no longer be considered a Catholic theologian.

Kung's bishop appealed to Pope John Paul II to reconsider the edict, but after a meeting between the pontiff and five German bishops -- who were believed to have been instrumental in the Vatican's move -- the pope said the order would stand.

While the initial protests against Kung, probably the world's best known theologian, came largely from Catholics, non-Catholic church leaders are now expressing concern that the ecumenical ties that have developed since the Second Vatican Council have been threatened.

The Vatican's action, said one group of top Protestant theologians, "have brought tyhe churches perilously close to the reopening of old divisive wounds."

The influential nondenominational weekly, Christian Century, in a lead editorial, called the Holy Office's move against Kung, "a profane act by the Sacred Congregation." Part of what troubled the Century was the people's acquiesance. "It is as instinctive for inquisitors to hold inquisitions as it is for crocodiles to eat explorers. That the pope reviewed the case and went along with it is the deeply troubling sign. . . . Why go easy on Galileo after the centuries and help create new Galileos now?" the editorial asked.

Last fall, the pope stated that the church had erred in forcing the 17th century scientist to recant views that have since been proved correct.

The Century suggested that the most serious result of the Kung affair was the climate of intellectual fear it created. "Timid bishops, seminary reactors, Catholic University officials and theologians themselves, not knowing whose company to keep or how far to go in the pursuit of truth, will lose the kind of daring which Christianity needs today if it is to out-think the secular world on urgent issues and help the community of faith survive into a new day."

The United Methodist Reporter, a widely circulated independent Methodist weekly, said editorially that "the Roman Catholic hierarchy has taken a step backward which is bound to conjure up images among Protestants of a time when the former Holy Office crushed reasoned dissent, created an atmosphere of inquisitional sterility, and thus cut off meaningful dialogue with non-Catholics.

"The very topics with which Dr. Kung has dealt in his writings and for which he is now censured -- papal infallibility, concepts of the divinity of Christ and the teaching authority of the church --are precisely the foundational matters which must be dealth with openly and thoroughly if Roman Catholics and Protestants are ever seriously to consider ways of bridging their differences."

The 35-member faculty of the Harvard University Divinity School, where both Kung and Pope Paul II have lectured, suggested in their statement that "the growing ecumenical dialogue itself exercises a corrective discipline stronger and more lasting than any authorities can enforce."

The executive board of the North American Academy of Ecumenists -- 150 Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox scholars -- questioned the "fairness" of the procedures used against Kung. "The action against this renowned Roman Catholic theologian will inhibit him and consequently many others in their service of teaching to all Christians," the board said.

Nine Lutheran theolgians who have been involved in the official Catholic-Lutheran dialogue expressed dismay at the "secret and nondialogical" proceedings used against Kung and expressed fears that the action "will hinder further Lutheran-Roman Catholic relations."

An even stronger protest came from Eastern Orthodox church leaders in that body's dialogue with Roman Catholicism. "The authoritarian-oriented mode of procedure . . . cannot but spread a profound chill over the relations between our churches," they said.

As the protesters were gathering signatures to their petitions, another Catholic theologian was disciplined for his views. The Brazilian Franciscian, the Rev. Leonardo Boff, noted for his contributions to the liberation theology of Latin American, was notified that some of his writings have been condemned by the Holy Office.

Not all those who commented on the Kung affair were critical of the Vatican. James Hitchcock of the University of St. Louis, who said he was speaking on behalf of about 500 members of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, cabled the pope that all members of the orthodox-oriented group "fully endorse" the action against Kung. "By his writings and lectures, Father Kung has unsettled the faith of innumerable numbers of Christian faithful," Hitchcock said.

Catholics United for the Faith, a conservative Catholic lay group agreed. President H. Lyman Stebbins commended the Sacred Congregation for "defending the rights of the faithful to true doctrine, which the church was commissioned by Christ to do. All Catholics should rejoice that the Church does not abandon her flock."

Two unofficial right-wing Catholic publications went even further. Twin Circles, not only applauded the Kung censure but demanded editorially that U.S. Catholic bishops "move swiftly and decisively" against American Catholic theologians who supported Kung and thus "quell this latest rebellion."

Associate editor Paul Fisher of the National Catholic Register, commending the Vatican of disciplining Kung, wrote that the Vatican "has dropped one shoe. We eagerly wait to hear again that regrettable but necessary sound" and called for similar action against a number of theologians, including Catholic University professor Charles Curran and the renowned German Jesuit, Karl Rahner.