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'The Catholic Church Will Undoubtedly Become More Protestant'

SPIEGEL: But he doesn't want to?

Kung: He doesn't. I'm absolutely convinced of that, because he does have the necessary authority. He would merely have to make use of it, in the spirit of the Gospel.

SPIEGEL: You don't just want to reduce the power of the pope. You are also calling for an end to celibacy, you want women to be ordained as priests and you want the Church to lift its ban on birth control. Catholics loyal to the pope say that these elements are part of the core values of the Catholic Church. If you peel all of this away, how much of the Church is left?

Kung: What remains is the same Catholic Church that used to exist -- and which was better. I'm not saying that the papacy should be abolished. But we need offices that serve the congregations, and we need the kind of papacy that was practiced by John XXIII. He didn't seek to dominate. Instead, he simply demonstrated that he was there for everyone, including other churches. He laid the groundwork for the Council and a new dawning of ecumenical Christianity. He allowed a new church to come alive.

SPIEGEL: Many in the Catholic Church says that if all the reforms you call for were implemented, you would be making the church more Protestant and abandoning its Catholic nature.

Kung: The Church will undoubtedly become somewhat more Protestant. But we will always preserve our unique nature. Our global way of thinking, our universality, differentiates us from a certain narrowness in the Protestant regional churches. It should remain that way, just as the office (of the pope) should be retained. But if everything is concentrated in the office, we'll end up with a medieval vicar, a prince-bishop and the pope as absolute monarch, who simultaneously embodies the executive, the legislative and the judiciary -- in contradiction to modern democracy and the Gospel.

SPIEGEL: You and Benedict are traveling along two different paths. You want to reform the Church to keep it alive. The pope is trying to seal off the Church from the outside world and increasingly restrict it to a conservative core, which may possibly survive.

Kung: Indeed. In the past, the Roman system was compared with the communist system, one in which one person had all the say. Today I wonder if we are not perhaps in a phase of "Putinization" of the Catholic Church. Of course I don't want to compare the Holy Father, as a person, with the unholy Russian statesman. But there are many structural and political similarities. Putin also inherited a legacy of democratic reforms. But he did everything he could to reverse them. In the Church, we had the Council, which initiated renewal and ecumenical understanding. Even pessimists couldn't have imagined that such setbacks were possible after that. The Polish pope's restoration policy, beginning in the 1980s, made it possible for the like-minded head of the highly secretive Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), once known as the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition -- and it's still an inquisition, despite its new name -- to be elected pope.

SPIEGEL: That's an audacious comparison.

Kung: It shouldn't, of course, be overstretched. But unfortunately, even as we acknowledge the positive things, the negative developments that are taking place cannot be overlooked. Practically speaking, both Ratzinger and Putin placed their former associates in key positions and sidelined those they didn't like. One could also draw other parallels: the disempowerment of the Russian parliament and the Vatican Synod of Bishops; the degradation of Russian provincial governors and of Catholic bishops to make them nothing but recipients of orders; a conformist "nomenclature"; and a resistance to real reforms. Ratzinger promoted his assistant from his days as head of the CDF to cardinal secretary of state, which makes him the pope's deputy.

SPIEGEL: What's wrong with that?

Kung: The fact that, under the German pope, a small, primarily Italian clique of yes-men, people with no sympathy for the calls for reform, were able to come into power. They are partly responsible for the stagnation that stifles every attempt at modernization of the church system.

SPIEGEL: What do conditions at the Vatican have to do with the state of the Church in Germany?

Kung: A massive system of power politics is behind all the Roman amiability, liturgical displays of splendor and pseudo-statehood. The Vatican controls the appointment of bishops and theology professorships, only allowing those who conform to its policies to attain these positions. Its nuncios monitor the bishops' conferences and constantly report back to headquarters. Denunciators are back in business in this system. Every reform-oriented pastor in Germany, and every bishop, must fear the possibility of being denounced in Rome.

SPIEGEL: What role does Cologne's Cardinal Joachim Meisner, a known hardliner, play in this power struggle within the Church?

Kung: It's an open secret that the German Bishops' Conference has come increasingly under Meisner's influence, which some wouldn't have thought possible. As it happens, Meisner has a direct line to the Roman center of power. His entourage includes younger bishops like Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, of Limburg. The new archbishop in Berlin, Rainer Woelki, is also a Meisner protégé. An attempt is underway to gain control of the most strategically important positions. They are doing everything in their power to strengthen the system of dominance.

SPIEGEL: Your prognosis sounds grim.

Kung: I think it's very important that we do not sink into pessimism. But my diagnosis has shown that the Church is sick, and it's the sickness of the Roman system. Under these circumstances, I can't just behave like an ineffective doctor and say that everything will be fine.

SPIEGEL: What would be the treatment?

Kung: The base must gather its strength and make itself heard, so that the system can no longer circumvent it. I presented a comprehensive list of measures in my book.

SPIEGEL: More than a year ago, you wrote an open letter to all bishops in the world, in which you offered a detailed explanation of your criticism of the pope and the Roman system. What was the response?

Kung: There are about 5,000 bishops in the world, but none of them dared to comment publicly. This clearly shows that something isn't right. But if you talk to individual bishops, you often hear: "What you describe is fundamentally true, but nothing can be done about it." It would be wonderful if a prominent bishop would just say: "This cannot go on. We cannot sacrifice the entire Church to please the Roman bureaucrats." But so far no one has had the courage to do so. The ideal situation, in my view, would be a coalition of reformist theologians, lay people and pastors open to reform, and bishops prepared to support reform. Of course they would come into conflict with Rome, but they would have to endure that, in a spirit of critical loyalty.

SPIEGEL: That's what led to the Reformation 500 years ago. But at the time, the Roman system was incapable of understanding the criticism from within the ranks.

Kung: After 500 years, we are surprised that the popes and bishops of the day did not realize that a reform was necessary. Luther didn't want to divide the Church, but the pope and the bishops were blind. It seems that a similar situation applies today.

SPIEGEL: Would another council like Vatican II help the Church?

Kung: I hope that there will be a council, or at least a representative convention of the Catholic Church.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that you will experience such a council in your lifetime?

Kung: One shouldn't set limits on the grace of God. It would certainly be a sign of hope if the pope were to announce, during his visit to Germany: "Although I do not agree with all of these calls for reform, as a German pope, I do wish to bring something along as a gift: In the future, those who have been divorced and those who have remarried will be allowed to receive the Catholic sacraments."

SPIEGEL: Professor Kung, thank you for this interview.

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