Special Report: Dialogue between König and Dupuis
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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

-- Franz Josef Rupprecht

Christa Pongratz-Lippitt
Writer witnessed conversation between cardinal and censured theologian Jacques Dupuis


Cardinal Franz König, archbishop of Vienna, was one of the great men of the church and an architect of the Second Vatican Council’s achievement. For the last 16 years of his life, I worked closely with him as his contact with the English-speaking world (the cardinal himself spoke English fluently, if with a strong accent). He invited me to help him almost immediately after my appointment as correspondent in the Austrian capital for the international Catholic weekly The Tablet. Any time an English or American publication asked him to write for it, he would ring me and invite me to come round to his residence. We did dozens of articles like that over the years. He spoke, I translated, and we sent off the text.

At the beginning of July 2003, he rang me to say that that he had had a letter from Fr. Jacques Dupuis. The Belgian Jesuit had become famous in 1998 after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened an investigation into his work. Dupuis claimed that the great religions of the world existed de jure -- as part of God’s plan -- and not simply de facto, as a human construction. Now he wanted to come from Rome to Vienna to thank König personally for having publicly defended him in The Tablet. Although they had spoken to one another on the telephone at the time of the congregation’s investigation, the two men had never met.

König told me that Dupuis also had two projects in mind for him. One was an article on interreligious dialogue with regard to Asia and above all India in the light of recent developments in Rome, particularly the publication of the declaration Dominus Iesus by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the year 2000. This Vatican document stressed the uniqueness of the salvation brought by Jesus Christ through the church, and its main target had widely been thought to be Dupuis. In addition Dupuis had dedicated his latest book, Christianity and the Religions (English version published by Orbis in 2002), to König, and hoped that König might review it. Both pieces might possibly appear in The Tablet, he thought.

The cardinal was more than willing to pursue the suggestions. From his boyhood he had been fascinated by the world’s religions. Interreligious dialogue remained a consuming interest of his, and for several years before the turn of the century he had stressed that he had no doubt that it would be of primary importance in the third millennium.

Dupuis’ original book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, had been published in 1997. König ordered a copy immediately upon seeing the review of it by Fr. Gerald O’Collins in The Tablet for January 1998. He read it with close attention and said afterward that he had found it “riveting.” As he was later given a second copy, he presented me with his first one, which I still have, full of notes scribbled in pencil in the margins with an extra wad of comments tucked inside the cover.

Around April 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened an investigation into some of the theological views expressed in the book. König immediately rang me with a request: Could I please ask John Wilkins, the editor of The Tablet in London, if he might publicly defend Dupuis in its pages? I had worked with the cardinal for many years by that time and had always admired how calm he remained during our interviews, despite the many deadlines he had to keep. But during the Dupuis investigation he was a changed man. It obviously upset him greatly. He asked me to come round several times but on each occasion, instead of remaining seated as he usually did when we met, he would keep striding up and down and frequently interrupted our conversation by saying he had to telephone Rome to check something and would I mind waiting while he went to his study to do so. On one occasion when he came back he was very pale and when he picked up a book his hand shook -- something I had never seen before nor ever experienced afterward. It transpired that he had been in touch with the congregation authorities, and he had come to the conclusion that they had not studied Dupuis’ work properly. Moreover, he mused, how could they, as it was written in English and, as far as he knew, none of those responsible for the investigation had an expert command of that language?

Dupuis had meanwhile broken down under the stress and was in a hospital. Cardinal König rang me frequently in between my visits to his residence to ask if I had any news from The Tablet’s then-correspondent in Rome, the journalist Gerard O’Connell, who knew Dupuis well. I have several tapes of the preparatory material the cardinal dictated for his article “In Defence of Fr. Dupuis” published in The Tablet for Jan. 16, 1999. I have recently listened to the tapes again for the first time since then and it is obvious that König was shattered by the way Dupuis was treated and deeply saddened by way the congregation had gone about it.

I remember how he would sit there shaking his head and muttering, “What happened to the spirit of the council?” or “How could they do this to a man as loyal as Dupuis?” He was determined to defend Dupuis against Rome as he was deeply shocked at how unfairly, in his opinion, Dupuis had been treated by the congregation. Nevertheless, he was loath to come out openly against the Vatican congregation. König was deeply loyal, albeit on occasion critically loyal, and during the Dupuis investigation one could see that it was costing him sleepless nights. The burden of his office as a cardinal -- even if retired -- weighed heavily upon him.

“I cannot remain silent,” he wrote in the Tablet article. “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has moved too fast too soon. … We have a privileged position as Christians, but we must be humble and understand that Christ’s message goes beyond us.”

On March 1, 1999, König received a personal letter from the prefect of the congregation, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, saying he had read König’s article “In Defence of Fr. Dupuis” in The Tablet “with astonishment and sadness” and defending the congregation. On the same day, Wilkins as editor of The Tablet received from Ratzinger’s office a copy of the same letter to König translated into English with a request to publish it. I was able to persuade König to send a comment on Ratzinger’s letter and both appeared in The Tablet the following week.

Now, after more than four years, Dupuis would be in Vienna from July 15-18, 2003. König suggested that it might be a good idea if we spent the whole of Wednesday, July 16, together. Temperatures in Vienna had been more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit for some days -- that was the summer when so many elderly people died of the heat. König was after all 97 and Dupuis almost 80. We would take it gently, the cardinal said, with coffee breaks and “a nice lunch” in between. I was with them in König’s flat from 10:30 a.m. until after supper. I clearly remember that when the cardinal saw us out to the taxi in which I escorted Dupuis back to the Jesuits that night, it was already dark.

A few days after this meeting, König fell and broke his hip while on holiday in the mountain resort and shrine of Mariazell, Austria. After an operation, he did not regain consciousness for more than 12 hours but made a miraculous recovery, and only a few weeks later was back to his normal work schedule. He continued to visit parishes and confirm young people until three weeks before he died peacefully in his sleep eight months later on March 13, 2004. He never got around to the article and review he had discussed with Dupuis, who himself died unexpectedly only nine months after the cardinal. I kept the tapes I had made of the dialogue between them that Wednesday in July 2003. They would have wanted them to be published, and recently I began transcribing them. For the first time since the cardinal’s death I heard again as I listened that boldly open and thoughtful discourse between cardinal and theologian -- a pattern of the mutual trust that they obtained at Vatican II, and that we need more than ever today.

-- Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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