Controversal Catholic theologian Hans Kung was notified yesterday that Pope John Paul II has suspended a Vatican order that would have muzzled the academic, pending the outcome of a meeting this week with a group of German bishops.
The latest development in the Kung affair came just a week after the pontiff had approved a declaration by the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog agency that the internationally known churchman "can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian."
That ruling by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, stirred a storm of protests and threatened possibly the most serious crisis in the worldwide Catholic church since the controversy over birth control in the 1960s.
A spokesman for Kung at the University of Tubingen in West Germany, where he has taught for 19 years, said yesterday that the theologian was "encouraged" by the development.
The pope's decision came after Bishop Georg Moser of the Rottenburg-Stuttgard diocese appealed to the pontiff in Kung's behalf. Under a special agreement between the church and the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, which controls the University of Tubingen, Catholic bishops can veto teachers on the school's Catholic theology faculty. (A comparable agreement prevails with the Lutheran church for the Protestant faculty.)
Under this agreement, it became Moser's duty to carry out the Vatican's judgement against Kung by requesting his replacement on the theology faculty.
Kung said in a telephone interview last week that Moser wrote the letter but did not send it. Subsequently, Moser met with Kung for two hours Wednesday night in what was described in a formal statement as an "attempt to reach an understanding."
Kung, who called the bishop "a courageous man," said that the bishop was "trying to mediate" the situation.
On Friday, the bishop went to Rome to see the pope and last night an aide to Kung said in a telephone interview that the pope had agreed to talk to "representatives of the German bishops" sometime before the first of the year. He added that Bishop Moser had been invited to attend those talks, which will be held in Rome.
"It is a great success for the bishop," said Dr. Karl Josef Kueschel, an assistant to Kung at the Institute for Ecumenical Research, which Kung founded at t he university. "He [Bishop Moser] got a suspension of the whole thing."
The pope's decision to involve the German hierarchy in the Kung affair puts the controversy back where some church insiders believe it began.
The liberal Kung has long had sharp ideological differences with two of the most influential members of the German hierarchy: Cardinal Joseph Hoeffner, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich.
The Rev. Thomas Stransky of St. Paul's College here, who served in the Roman Curia for a number of years, speculated last week that "the Holy Office usually does not take the initiative in these matters. They must have gotten some sort of go-ahead from somewhere." A logical source, he feels, is from the German hierarchy.
In 1973, the Sacred Congregation demanded the Kung appear for questioning. He refused to go, maintaining that the Vatican agency failed to inform him of the specific charges against him.
He was defended then by Cardinal Julius Doepfner of Munich, then the head of the German bishops, and helped by what one American theologian called the "relatively temperate hand" of Pope Paul VI.
Now, Doepfner is dead, his place as cardinal of Munich has been taken by Ratzinger and his post as head of the German bishops' conference by Hoeffner, "a sworn enemy of Kung," according to Temple University theologian Leonard Swidler.
There has been "a radical shift in ecclesiastical power" in Germany, Swidler pointed out, as well as a similar shift at the Vatican, with the ascendancy of the theologically traditionalist Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to the papacy.
Not since the birth-control controversy a decade ago, which some scholars blame for a large exodus of prists and lay persons from the church, has the Catholic church faced the crisis of authority created by the Kung affair.
Within hours of the announcement last Tuesday of the Holy Office's ruling, a chorus of voices from the mainstream of Catholic scholarship around the world rose in protest.
In the United States, 70 leading Catholic theologians signed a statement publicly opposing the Vatican's decision. "Whether or not we agree with his ideas, the theologians said in their statement, Hans Kung "is indeed a Roman Catholic theologian."
In Germany, students and faculty joined in street demonstrations. Priest in Germany threatened to refuse to preach at masses if Kung were removed from his post on the faculty.
Even in this holiday season, when academics are scattered, defense committees here and in Europe were formed. A group of distinguished German scholars last week fromed the Committee on Human and Christian Rights in the Church, which Kung characterized as an ecclesiastical version of Amnesty International.
Kung discussed his situation by trans-atlantic telephone yesterday morning on an hour-long listener call-in show on radio station WRC here. John McLaughlin, the former Jesuit priest who was an adviser to President Nixon, served as host.
"I think the time is over when some bureau in Rome can decide who is a Catholic and who is not a Catholic, Kung said.
Kung added that while he is the one currently under fire, a more serious issue "is not just one person . . . but millions who share very similar views. . . . We have to consider the situation of all the theologians."
That's what many churchmen are worried about. In seeking to discipline Kung, the Holy Office took on a man whose reformist views are a symbol of the massive changes that have swept the church in the 15 years since the Second Vatican Council.