Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann has labeled the Vatican's censure of Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung a "heavy blow to theological freedom" and a serious threat to ecumenism.

Moltmann, one of the foremost contemporary Christian theologians and a colleague of Kung at the University of Tuebingen in West Germany, defended the rights of Protestants to intervene in the Kung controversy. "In the era of ecumenism," he wrote in the Feb. 20 issue of the nondenominational weekly Christian Century, "when one member [of the Christian Church] suffers, all members suffer. Rome's decision in the Kung case affects Protestant theologians also, especially those who are open to the ecumenical spirit."

In Moltmann's view, the conflict over Kung revolves around the Catholic theologian's questioning of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

"No other [Christian] church holds or recognizes this dogma," Moltmann pointed out. He quoted Pope Paul VI's observation that because of this dogma, "the pope is the greatest obstacle on the road to ecumenism."

Moltmann added that "since the Second Vatican Council, a succession of ecumenical study groups has tried to overcome this obstacle by envisioning a unified authority that would be acceptable to the whole of Christianity, without prejudice to the irreformable jurisdictional primacy of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church." He said the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue that grew out of the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council has made great strides in this direction.

"It is this renewal in the light of the gospel, as set forth in Kung's theology, that is at stake today," Moltmann asserted. If the Roman Catholic hierarchy rejects such efforts at renewal, he continued, there will be "an end for the present, to any possibility of ecumenical agreement on the point of deepest division.

"As far as Protestant Christians are concerned," Moltmann continued "Kung's propositions can be debated, and in part accepted, but submission to the jurisdictional primacy of the pope cannot. Unfortunately, the Kung case shows Protestant theologians what would happen to them if they surrendered even a little finger to this primacy."

On the point of the theological freedom, Moltmann observed that "for Christian theology, truth and freedom are grounded in Christ himself. Theology's freedom exists in the community of churches . . . Within the church, theology is responsible for itself. To make it into a mere explicator and defender of a doctrine laid down by the church is to reduce it to impotence."

To view theologians as "nothing more than apologists for church doctrine," Moltmann suggested, "would put an end to all dialogue in the church."

Moltmann questioned whether the dialogue and "opening up" of the church following the Second Vatican Council was "but an interlude, not meant to be taken seriously."

The action against Kung, he added, "has set in motion, in the ecclesiastical, ecumenical and public arenas, procedures that threaten us all. That is why we cannot be silent."