Hans Kueng is dead! I feel I owe him an immense debt since, when in my usual state of confusion  where religion is in question,

I read his book DOES GOD EXIST?  (published aeons ago) and decided that, however strong the voices are nowadays that tell us to live without all that stuff, I would (hesitantly)  stay with it.

Someone should write a play – maybe they have? – about Kueng and Ratzinger, the two young whizz-kid professors from Tuebingen attending the Vatican Council together between 1962-5. They were close friends, and, presumably, as intellectual Catholics witnessing the stupendous Council unfold, they realized that change was not only in the ait, but desirable. But then came 1968, Les evenements, and the great divide opened between them: Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was horrified by the anarchy, the student revolt, the revolution which was shaking the church, the stream of clever men and women leaving their monasteries and convents. Kueng took the other view. It said in the obits that Benedict used to entertain Kueng to dinner in the Vatican in later days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall – only it is very unlikely, given the domestic perfections in which Benedict lived, that there were any flies. His secretary Georg Gaenswein, known as Gay Org or il bello Giorgio, would have seen to that.

My divided soul admires both the Tuebingen whizz-kids. Why, when the Church embraced some measure of the Enlightenment, in the 1970s, did it need, vandalistically, to discard the Latin Mass and its beautiful musical settings? Yet equally, how COULD Ratzinger, when still a Professor, have failed a Ph.D thesis because the candidate questioned the historical reality of Abraham? (!)

When the Church chose, very early in its history, perhaps in the First Century, to celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same feast day, it laid down a template for the future. Paul in one of the earliest Christian documents (Galatians) denounced Peter for appearing to backtrack on the Revolutionary Gospel, by insisting that Gentile converts follow the Torah, circumcise, abstain from forbidden meats etc.  Yet both went to Rome, both died martyrs deaths.

When I wrote a  sceptical book about Paul (Paul:The Mind of the Apostle) I rather pooh-poohed the historical reality of all this; but then archaeologists found in the church of St Paul Outside the Walls, chains which undoubtedly dated from the time of the Apostle. The tradition that Peter and Paul were both in Rome and both died for the Faith is very, very old.

Pass a generation, and you see the Church,  in the 80s or 90s, in documents such as the Gospel of Matthew, saying that Christ had been  a  Judaic compromiser – on the one hand,  like Paul, denouncing the scribes and Pharisees for their punctilious attitude to the Torah,  on the other, like Peter, saying that not a jot or tittle of the Torah could be discarded before the End of Days.

We have not reached the end of Days yet, but some would say we had come close to witnessing the end of historic, institutional Christianity in Europe. The conservatives, for whom Benedict XVI is a hero, think everything would be all right, even if it were only for the faithful few, if the Church stuck to its guns, and continued to behave as if the last 250 years had not taken place. The followers of Kueng see nothing but death in such an attitude, and point to the catastrophic effects of conservative clericalism, not least in the child abuse scandals.

I find Kueng’s later work, insisting not only on ecumenical approaches to Protestants, but to all people of faith, very  inspiring. “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions”. It won’t DO for  secular Western liberals simply to denounce all the religious experiences of the human race as mumbo-jumbo, and remain intolerantly uncomprehending of why the millions troop to Mecca, to the banks of the Ganges, to Lourdes, in spite of the Enlightenment. The imaginations which conceived of the Upanishads and built Chartres Cathedral have things to teach.

Kueng stirred us both to be adventurous in our thought about the whole spiritual adventure of the human race, and , if we are believers, to be humble about the way we claim infallible authority for our beliefs. Was it  the Dominican Lacordaire who said, in the 19th century, that he hoped to die a penitent Catholic but an impenitent Liberal?