Soon after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a leader in the campaign against Dr. Küng, became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, he invited Dr. Küng to his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome. Pope John Paul II had denied more than a dozen of Dr. Küng’s requests for a meeting.
Dr. Küng and Cardinal Ratzinger had become friends when Dr. Küng recruited Cardinal Ratzinger to be a professor at the University of Tübingen in 1965. They split over the student revolts of 1968, which had horrified Cardinal Ratzinger. They continued to diverge, and Dr. Küng came to refer to the cardinal, who was head of the Vatican office responsible for defending church orthodoxy, as “the Grand Inquisitor” or “head of the K.G.B.”
Nevertheless, after Cardinal Ratzinger became pope, the two enjoyed a long dinner at the pope’s summer residence after agreeing not to disagree. Pope Benedict applauded Dr. Küng’s efforts to revive the dialogue between faith and the natural sciences. Dr. Küng praised the pope for reaching out to other religions.
But after Benedict resigned the papacy in 2013, Dr. Küng suggested that the pope had been out of step with “modernity” and that the church was in need of more progressive leadership.
“In this dramatic situation the church needs a pope who’s not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn’t champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution,” he wrote, “a pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. ”
Dr. Küng’s image was distinctly nonclerical. Athletic and handsome, he wore crisp business suits, not a priest’s collar, and drove a sports car. On his trips to the United States, he sometimes appeared on television talk shows, and his youthful style drew comparisons to President John F. Kennedy.
Dr. Küng preferred to be called “professor” or “doctor” or “just plain Hans Küng,” explaining that the title “Father” was not traditionally used in German-speaking lands.