The Vatican yesterday declared Hans Kung, perhaps the most widely known theologian in the Catholic Church today, guilty of heresy, stripping him of his right to teach and ruling that he "can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian."
The announcement by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, was personally approved by Pope John Paul II, the Vatican said.
Not since the silencing of an American Jesuit, the late John Courtney Murray, a quarter of a century ago, has the Vatican moved against such a distinguished churchman.
Yesterday's action against Kung, together with a number of other recent Vatican moves to restrict sharply the limits of theological speculation, have sent chills of apprehension through the Catholic scholarly community and threatened to further the split in the church between the liberal and traditionalist camps.
Kung, 51, said he would try to hold on to his positions of director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research and professor of dogmatic and ecumenical theology at the University of Tubingen, in West Germany, where he has taught since 1963.
"As a Catholic theologian, I will continue to stand up for Catholics and fight so that this step will be revoked," he said.
The four-page document from the Vatican said that Kung "in his writings, has departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith, and therefore he can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role."
The Sacred Congregation, which since the 13th century has policed the doctrinal orthodoxy of the church, faulted Kung for Challenging the doctrine of papal infallibility and the bishops as sole arbiters of Catholic doctrine. Kung's efforts to interpret in contemporary terms ancient church formulations on the nature of Christ were also cited.
Fluent in five languages, the Swiss-born Kung has lectured around the world. His books -- serious works of scholarly theology -- are widely read. The 720-page tome, "On Being A Christian," sold more than 55,000 copies in English even before it was published in paperback -- the religious publishing equivalent of a platinum record for a rock star.
As a brilliant young theologian and an official adviser to the German bishops, Kung saw many of his ideas for church renewal enacted by the Second Vatican Council, which wrought revolutionary changes in the Roman Catholic church 15 years ago.
The action against Kung came as Catholic scholars awaited word on the outcome of the Vatican questioning last week on the distinguished Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, about possible error in his views on the divinity of Chirst. Also under fire is the French theologian, Jacques Pohier, whose book, "When I Say God," was condemned by the Holy Office earlier this year.
Other recent signs of a new demand for orthodoxy in the church include:
The recycling and prominent display in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, of the Sacred Congregation's condemnation last summer of a book on human sexuality, published three years ago under the aegis of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Condemnation earlier this month on Vatican Radio of the views of Schillebeeckx and Kung.
Two injunctions in recent months from Pope John Paul II to the Jesuit order to clean house of doctrinal dissent.
The Rev. John Breslin, a Jesuit priest who is currently an editor for Doubleday, publishers of Kung's books in this country, speculating on the action against the theologian, observed that, "It's going to dampen down a lot of theologizing."
Although the University of Tubingen is not a Catholic school, an agreement unique with German universities, gives the German bishops the final say on appointments of Catholics to theological faculties.
Kung's permission to teach at Tubingen was withdrawn yesterday by his bishop, although his status as a priest is not affected. The bishop of Stuttgart has said he would ask university authorities to find a replacement for Kung.
In the past, Kung has been something of a hero to liberal Catholics for his flouting of the Sacred Congregation which symbolizes the most reactionary element of the faith. Both in 1966 and again in 1975, he defied a demand from the Sacred Congregation that he come to Rome for interrogation on his ideas. Yesterday's judicial decision from the Scared Congregation noted the warning that was given him in 1975 -- a warning, which, it said, he failed to heed, thus justifying the current action against him.
The Vatican coincidentally issued another statement yesterday, unrelated to Kung, in which Pope John Paul proclaimed Jan. 1 as World Peace Day.
Declaring that "truth is the power of peace," the pointiff said in his Peace Day declaration: "What should one say of the practice of combating or silencing those who do not share the same views by labeling them as enemies, attributing to them hostile intentions and using skillful and constant propaganda to brand them as aggressors?"