Hans Kung 'The Catholic Church' (Phoenix Press, 231 pp; $21.00 softcover)

Was Jesus Catholic ?  Is 'Roman Catholic' an oxymoron ? Would the Pope be pope if he wasn't infallible ? Is there a Catholic Gorbachev hidden among the cardinals ?

Master theologian Hans Kung poses answers to these and similar questions in a short 231 page history of the Catholic Church. The pace is fast but worthwhile in an easy to read  inexpensive format.

Most readers will be familiar with Hans Kung, who was born in Switzerland in 1926, studied at Rome and Paris, and ordained a priest in the Catholic Church in 1954. From 1960 till his retirement in 1996, he taught at the University of Tubingen.

In 1962 Pope John XXIII appointed Kung as a theological consultant for the Second Vatican Council, where he radically modernised key areas in teaching and practice. Much water then flowed past on the Tiber: what followed was a stormy relationship with Rome, culminating in a Vatican censure in 1979 that banned his teaching as a Catholic theologian. Tubingen then appointed him to a personal chair of ecumenical theology, but he remains a Catholic priest in 'good standing'.

In 'The Catholic Church' Kung describes the various epoch-making paradigms of  the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Jewish-Christian paradigm. Readers should note at the outset that the book has no footnotes nor bibliography - it is a lecture not a thesis.

Kung argues that the Catholic Church is an organic process that is maturing and spreading. High hopes for change were seen in the Second Vatican Council, but it still discriminates against women - by prohibiting not only contraceptives and the marriage of priests but also the ordination of women.

Neither Nazism, Stalinism nor Maoism have been able to destroy the Catholic Church. It remains a worldwide community of believers and committed people. It is probably the oldest and most successful organisation in the world - even though at times servile towards superiors and arrogant towards inferiors.

Kung sets out to provide orientation in three respects - basic information about the dramatic historical development of the Church, a critical historical stocktaking to show its evolution, and concrete challenge to introduce reform. He aims to offer construction, reform, and renewal, covering two thousand years in a short paperback.

Jesus is portrayed as proclaiming the kingdom of God, not enunciating himself nor a future church; rather his incarnation is seen as a great eschatological collective movement, sealed with baptism in his name and through a ceremonial meal in his memory.  Perhaps it is not possible to imagine Jesus at a mass in St Peter's Rome - instead we may use the same words as Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor 'Why do you come to disturb us'

Kung presents a diorama of happenings over the centuries  of the Catholic Church - the keyhole approach to history, emphasising the distinctive changes that have affected the course of history, from the early Councils to the Reformation, the intricacies of papal rule, even 'Councils come and councils go but the Roman Curia remains'.

The Church's silence over the Holocaust is considered: the hierocratic Pius XII  (1939-1958) saw the Jews as people 'who had murdered God'. As a triumphalist representative of a Roman ideology, he regarded Rome as replacing Jerusalem, and was even against the foundation of  a Jewish state in Palestine.  Pacelli did not even protest against the pogrom of 'Kristallnacht'  in 1938.

The silence against the Holocaust was a moral failure.  There was no thought of excommunicating 'Catholics' like Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Bormann, but then the Protestant churches did nothing against Goring or Eichmann. Perhaps Hochhuth's play about Pius XII 'The Representative' has an appropriate subtitle - 'A Christian Tragedy'

'The Catholic Church' concludes that four conditions need be met if that church - or any church - is to have a future in the Third Millennium. The Church must not fall in love with the Middle Ages, the Reformation or the Enlightenment. Nor can it be patriarchal, fixated on stereotyped images of women, nor exclusive male language or predetermined gendered roles. Office and charisma must be combined.  Furthermore,  a church cannot be narrowly confessional nor Eurocentric.

When the virtual disappearance of Communism came in 1989,  the world has entered a new post-modern period; now Christianity must find its way to an ecumenical paradigm in the upheaval between modernity and post-modernity. 

Kung leaves the reader asking many questions including - who is orthodox, who is catholic, and who is evangelical. This book is a must for laity and clergy - and it's short.