There is good news for all who enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies of spiritual leaders. Just days ago the third volume of the Dutch translation of Hans Küng’s memoirs appeared. The book costs almost 60 euro’s (about 80 dollar), but it is value for money, for it runs to 752 pages.
Hans Küng, the famous but controversial Roman-Catholic theologian, is advanced in years. When he had completed the second volume of his autobiography, he expressed his fear that he might not live to finish the third volume. Fortunately, he did. The book covers the period of his life since 1980, when the Catholic church withdrew his teaching license. But that did not silence him, as we read on the back of the book cover. Since that time he has been especially active in the dialogue between the world religions, while he also wrote a number of highly interesting books. I have read some of these, and also the first two volumes of his autobiography. These made fascinating reading, and it will not be long before I will buy the third volume. I am, in particular, curious about the final chapters in which Küng addresses some crucial questions: Was it all worth it? How will I die? And what will come after death?
But currently I am reading the biography of the Dutch emeritus-cardinal Ad Simonis, written by historian Ton Crijnen (Kardinaal Simonis: Kerkleider in de Branding; Published by: Valkhof Press, 2014; 592 pp.; 39,95 euro). Like Küng, Simonis has been very controversial, but in a different way than Küng. Where Küng longed for a renewal of Catholicism, Simonis has always been a man of the tradition. In the part of the book that I read in the past few days Simonis appears mostly as a rather tragic figure—a man with a high calling and with solid principles, but unable to understand contemporary culture and also the changes among the Catholic believers. I fear that he will be mostly remembered because of his unfortunate statement ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’! in his 2010 television interview about the sad story of sexual abuse in the Roman-Catholic Church. However, the biographer also presents him as a simple and cordial man. This is also my own recollection from a very pleasant visit I had, together with two colleagues, with him in his home at the Maliebaan in Utrecht, at the time of the Adventist world congress in1995 in that city.
I am very interested in this kind of biographies and autobiographies of church leaders and theologians, specially of those who belong to he Catholic tradition. I usually find in their life and in the ministry in their church much that evokes a sense of recognition. It reminds me over and over again how much my church resembles the Church of Rome—in particular in its structure and its dealing with problems—in spite of the strong traditional anti-feelings towards Catholicism.
In a paragraph in one of the first pages of the book (in the Introduction) I was struck by a statement about Simonis which made me think about a clear parallel between him and the top leadership of my own church. It is said of Simonis that he had a very poor relationship with the progressive 8-May movement. He simply could not see this movement as ‘the other face of his church’. Instead he saw this liberal movement as ‘the face of a different church’. Throughout his ministry Simonis did not strive for unity in diversity in his church in the Netherlands. He did all he could to hold on to traditional ideas, that were no longer experienced as relevant by many members of his church, and he resisted everything that differed from age-long tradition. It is not difficult to see a parallel in the tragic attitude of (in any case: a part of) the leadership of the Adventist world church.