Pope John Paul II has done plenty of traveling during the past year. But he and other Vatican officials apparently aren’t going to tolerate a wandering Roman Catholic theology.

The Vatican increasingly has acted to curb liberalism in Catholics’ teachings and lifestyles. In his statements, the popular Pope has indicated that he has a very definite idea of what constitutes true Catholic doctrine. That doctrine, for the most part, has delighted conservatives, while creating discomfort among Catholics seeking greater liberalizing influences than those of the Second Vatican Council.

In recent weeks and months the Vatican has collared several liberal theologians. French Dominican scholar Jacques Pohier was suspended from priestly functions because he questioned the doctrine supporting Christ’s bodily resurrection. Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx was summoned to Rome for doctrinal questioning: critics said his 767-page Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (Seabury, 1974) denies Christ’s divinity and bodily resurrection.

The Pope, himself, requested a special audience last fall with Pedro Arrupe, head of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Pope expressed concern about reports of the Jesuits’ “secularization”: their alleged leniency on homosexuality, involvement in political and social action causes, and laxity in following their vows. Arrupe’s response was to send a letter to all major Jesuit superiors, leaders of the church’s largest and most respected order with 27,500 members worldwide. Arrupe ordered Jesuits to examine their lifestyles for “secularizing tendencies” and abandon work “incompatible with the priestly character.”

In its most controversial action, the Vatican last month censured liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng. Through its watchdog agency for Catholic orthodoxy, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican declared that Küng has “departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith” and could no longer be considered a Catholic theologian or function as such in a teaching position. The Pope had read the doctrinal congregation’s 1,000-word statement prior to its release, and had given it his full approval.

Küng, 51, a professor of dogmatic and ecumenical theology and director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, is one of his church’s most vocal and best known critics. In his writings, such as Infallible? An Inquiry (Doubleday, 1971), Küng has challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility. He also has questioned Catholic doctrines pertaining to the Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, and Christ’s deity.

Article continues below

In 1975, the doctrinal congregation gave Küng formal warning to change his liberal opinions, which “were opposed in different degrees to the doctrine of the church.”

The ’70S: You Were There

The Religion Newswriters Association, composed of more than 200 persons who report religious news full-time for the secular press, last month took a parting look at the entire decade. Members were asked to list 10 major developments that are likely to have lasting impact. Their choices (in order of importance): women’s struggle for new status and roles in religion; Roman Catholicism’s entrance into the era of Pope John Paul II; Islam taking front and center on the world’s stage; sex ethics as a major focus of church debate; Protestant evangelicals gaining a high profile in American society and moving closer to the mainstream; church-and-state, God-and-Caesar issues all over the world; issues surrounding America’s alternate altars—Eastern religion and new religious sects (cults); the expanded role of the electronic church and parachurch organizations; the struggle of mainstream churches, reeling from the social shocks of the 1960s, to regain their equilibrium; bureaucratic forms of ecumenism moving at a slower rate, with unofficial ecumenism moving rapidly along other lines (other issues included the charismatic movement, unity pro and con on abortion, and biblical inerrancy).

Küng has stuck to his theological guns, however. He heard of his censure while on a skiing vacation in Switzerland, and returned the next day to Tübingen for a regularly scheduled lecture. A larger than normal audience gave the professor a bouquet of carnations, and cheered when he declared, “I remain a priest and a theologian in the Catholic Church, and I will continue to fight until I am rightfully reinstated.”

Küng’s status at Tübingen remained in question last month. The Vatican ruling allows Küng to remain a priest. He can teach anywhere as long as he clearly indicates that his teachings and writings are not Catholic doctrine. But Küng vowed to remain on the Catholic faculty at the secular, state-run school. (There is also a Protestant faculty in the school’s religion department.) The Vatican has interpreted its Hitler-era concordat with the German government as saying that professors must have the church’s endorsement to teach Catholic theology.

Observers said Küng’s censure was the harshest church action against a prominent theologian since the liberalizing Second Vatican Council—although the doctrinal congregation stopped short of excommunicating him or from using the word “heresy” in its statement.

Article continues below

Reaction to the censure was characteristic. Liberal theologians defended Küng and called the censure “repressive” and a blow to intellectual freedom. Sixty U.S. and Canadian Roman Catholic theologians signed a statement saying that Küng “is indeed a Roman Catholic scholar.” Three U.S. Catholic scholars drafted the statement: Charles Curran of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., editor Leonard Swidler of the Journal for Ecumenical Studies, and David Tracy of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Curran has been an outspoken critic of certain Catholic teachings on sexual morality, such as the Vatican’s stance against contraception.

Conservatives, who felt Küng long has bordered on heresy, approved the censure. John R. Quinn, president of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “I am proud of my church.” The Vatican action appeared to have been coordinated with the backing of the West German church hierarchy; it had the full support of Küng’s local bishop and West German Cardinal Joseph Hoffner. Some observers say, in fact, that the Vatican would have preferred to delay action against Küng had not bishops from a number of nations urged action against him.

In best-selling books such as On Being a Christian (Doubleday, 1976), Küng attracted a wide following in liberal Protestant as well as Catholic circles. He has championed the ecumenical cause and won the support of various leaders in that movement.

While evangelicals may agree with Küng’s criticism of such doctrines as papal infallibility, they probably would reject other of his teachings. “He is much more liberal than he is evangelical,” said Harold O. J. Brown, professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Küng denies the full authority of Scripture, said Brown. Küng also does not regard a personal relationship with Christ as necessary for salvation and “at best” is unclear on the deity of Christ, said Brown.

Observers agree that Pope John Paul seems bent on restoring unity of Roman Catholic doctrine, which in recent years has been fragmented. The Pope and Vatican officials “seem to be very much concerned about what they call ‘causing confusion in the minds of the faithful,’ ” said Walter J. Burghardt, editor of the highly respected Catholic thought journal. Theological Studies.

Article continues below

Burghardt said it is too early to speculate whether the recent Vatican crackdowns signify a concerted trend against liberalism. Many Catholic theologians disagree with much of Küng’s theology, said Burghardt. But what concerns them most about Küng’s censure, said Burghardt, is the doctrinal congregation’s secretive methods: “It looks like the decision has been reached before the individual is alerted that he is under investigation,” said Burghardt.

Küng, himself, was more explicit in criticizing the doctrinal congregation. He protested against the “secret inquisitorial proceedings.” (Küng has refused for years to go to Rome for questioning.)

The popular Küng hoped for public pressure on the Vatican in his behalf. In a written statement of reaction following his censure, Küng had said, “I know that I have behind me countless theologians, pastors, religion teachers, and lay people in our church.”

But last month Küng did not have the support of John Paul. And no matter how much he or other Catholic theologians would like things changed, the Pope’s vote still counts most.

The cults
The Children of God: Fewer and Far Out

Correspondent Joseph M. Hopkins filed this report, updating information on the Children of God, a radical sect that emerged from the fringes of the Jesus movement in the late 1960s. Hopkins has written numerous articles (issue of Feb. 24, 1978, p. 44) and a book about the group.

“Moses” David Berg cites persecution as the reason for strategy and organizational changes in the Children of God. “The system is out to get us, and they are driving us from the streets,” complained Berg, 60, the founder-leader of the small, but international group.

In a “MO Letter” dated December 31, 1978, Berg told his disciples, “Beloved, we have had our good years!—our fat years and our famous years!… I believe that we’re now entering into our worldwide persecution lean years! Jonestown is their excuse to attack all the cults, and the cults are their excuse to attack us! Because there is not one of them that preaches Christ like we do.”

Berg, who two years ago renamed the group “Family of Love,” has ordered COG members into newly-formed small groups—“for security, smaller families more difficult to find.” His new strategy calls for door-to-door witnessing, peddling cult literature, organizing home Bible studies, and pushing the “Worldwide Mail Ministry.”

He also has called for stepping up the “Flirty Fishing” outreach to older men who are lonely and sufficiently affluent. (Under the Flirty Fishing policy, COG members use sex to win a hearing for the gospel. Their sexual contacts are asked for money “gifts,” which COG members give to their church.)

Article continues below

In a bitter blast at the news media last May, Berg revealed the firing in 1978 of 300 COG leaders. He said, “You [media] can’t hurt us anymore! We’ve already disbanded.… Go to Hell where you belong! We’re on our way to Heaven in spite of you! Thank God!”

Hundreds of family members have defected. From January 1978 to May 1979, total membership fell from 8,068 to 4,958; the number of live-in adults dropped from 3,650 to 3,259. (The number of children increased slightly from 1,451 to 1,699.) Despite the exodus, Berg exulted, “Our Worldwide Mail Ministry is absolutely booming at the rate of … about 300 new members per month.” The October Family News reported 6,700 “workers” in 83 countries.

A former top COG executive believes those figures are inflated. He estimates that only about 1,000 hard-core disciples remain. Literature distribution plummeted from a high of 8 million pieces per month to 3 million by December 1978 and to 1.5 million by August 1979. Last May Berg chided his followers. “Our world income is off over 25 percent this year!”

Casualties of the 1978 purge included Berg’s daughter Linda (“Queen Debbie”) and her ex-husband (“Jethro”), together with their present spouses Bill (“Isaiah”) and Melissa (“Joy”). Deborah (now Linda’s legal name) had pioneered a number of schools for COG children, six in Italy alone. Jethro had instituted and administered the group’s computerized accounting system. Isaiah and Berg’s son Jonathan (“Hosea”) had launched the sect’s monthly pictorial New Nation News. Melissa, daughter of former senior vice-president John Moody of Mobil Oil, gained national attention when in 1971 she married David “Michael” Senek, a Newton Falls, Ohio, COG convert. The two couples now are living in the U.S.; Berg banished them from South America.

Barbara Kaliher Cane (“Queen Rachel”) was heir apparent to “King” David’s throne until her defection several months ago. Mike Sweeney (“Timothy Concerned”) assumed Rachel’s leadership post, only to be axed a short time later when he refused to sign a “MO Letter” defaming Rachel. He and his wife Debbie (“Cornia”) now are involved in social work in Europe.

Recent castoffs are Berg’s legal wife Jane (“Mother Eve”) and her consort Stephen Ferguson (“Stephen David”). Jane and a team of disciples spent the past few years ministering to Arabs in North Africa, southern France, and the Mediterranean island of Malta, where last spring she was granted an audience with Libyan dictator Muammar El Qaddafi.

Article continues below

In an open letter last February to Qaddafi, a long-time COG booster, Berg shared his pleasure over the ouster of the Shah of Iran. Berg is rumored to be hiding out in Switzerland, although he wrote Qaddafi that he could be reached in Madrid. COG world publication headquarters has been moved from Rome to Zurich.

Bizarre aberrations continue surfacing in the “MO Letters.” The letters are extolled by their author as “God’s Word for today” and therefore of greater relevance than “God’s Word for yesterday,” the Bible. In Berg’s latest revelations:

• The Trinity consists of Father, Mother, and Son. The female member, the Holy Spirit, is described as the “Holy Queen of Love” and is portrayed by an artist as a beautiful, near-naked woman.

• Homosexuality and oral sodomy are acceptable under certain conditions as being “within the limits of the love of God.”

• Children conceived through Flirty Fishing are called “Jesus Babies.” Childhood sex is encouraged. A recent “MO Letter” contains an explicit photograph of the practice. Berg relates that he was introduced to oral sex at the age of three by a “little Mexican girl” babysitter. (This perhaps is a clue to his early and lifelong obsession with sex.)

In an interview, Berg’s daughter Deborah attested to growing up in a wholesome Christian home. However, it is no secret that in recent years Berg became deeply involved with wine, the occult, and women (he has admitted in print that he and his mistress “Maria” have been afflicted with venereal disease). What went wrong? How did this apparently authentic Christian ministry get off track?

A former high-ranking leader theorized that Berg fell victim to delusions of self-importance and power, of divinely conferred authority, and of messianic identity and mission. Like the late Jim Jones, Berg submitted to no higher authority, but forced his authority upon his disciples, while demanding total obedience.

A former top COG executive says COG is not a potential People’s Temple—mainly because cult members are dispersed throughout the world. But there are many parallels, including: supplanting biblical revelation with cult teaching; sexual and financial exploitation; manipulation of minds, bodies, spirits; stifling of dissent; paranoid hatred, suspicion, and fear of “outsiders”: and preoccupation with death. (In letters to Qaddafi and to his followers Berg has alluded to the approaching end of his earthly ministry and to “sweet release to a new world and a new life!”)

Article continues below
North American Scene

Four U.S. Congressmen have urged greater support for persecuted Christians in Soviet bloc nations. Senators Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa) and David Boren (D-Okla.) and Representatives Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and James Howard (D-N.J.) introduced companion resolutions in Congress last month protesting mistreatment of Christians by the Soviet Union as in violation of the Helsinki accords. Assemblies of God layman Jepsen also has called for a “national awareness campaign,” in which Americans support their suffering fellow Christians by writing or calling the Soviet embassy in Washington, their congressmen, and the White House.

Mennonite farmer Bruce Chrisman was convicted last month of federal income tax evasion. A U.S. District Court judge in Springfield, Illinois, upheld an Internal Revenue Service claim that Chrisman, 30, of Ava, Illinois, did not file a tax return in 1975. Actually, Chrisman did file a return in 1975—but with insufficient information to satisfy the IRS. Chrisman had attached a letter to his return saying he objected on religious and moral grounds to paying taxes that support the U.S. military. Chrisman’s attorney argued unsuccessfully that his client’s religious beliefs should exempt him from paying that portion of his federal income tax that supports the military.

Deprogrammer Ted Patrick was indicted on kidnapping charges last month. The charge stemmed from the alleged abduction last fall of Church of Scientology member Paula Dain, 24, of Los Angeles, who says she was held 37 days against her will in an unsuccessful attempt to get her to forsake her church. The San Diego, California, grand jury also indicted Dain’s father and stepmother, who had sought Patrick’s help.

A divorced woman who is living with a boyfriend cannot keep custody of her children, the Illinois State Supreme Court ruled last month. Such a living arrangement creates an unhealthy moral environment for children, and is immoral and in violation of state laws against open fornication, the court ruled. Divorce lawyers called it a landmark decision and expected that a flood of child custody suits would result.


Lutheran theologian William H. Lazareth has been named to succeed Lukas Vischer as director of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order. Lazareth, regarded as one of the Lutheran Church in America’s top theologians and a second place finisher in balloting in 1978 for LCA president, assumes the post May 1. Vischer stepped down at the end of 1979 after 14 years as Faith and Order director. He now becomes director of the Protestant Office for Ecumenism in Switzerland—a specially created post of the German-Swiss Conference of Churches.

Article continues below

Immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Jimmy R. Allen, has been elected president of his denomination’s radio and television commission. The post has been filled by interim administrators since last February when, in controversial action, the commission’s trustees sent 26-year president Paul M. Stevens into early retirement because of differences over financing and programming priorities. Allen had a local television ministry in San Antonio, Texas, during an 11-year pastorate there.

James H. Taylor III has been named general director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (formerly China Inland Mission). Founded by his grandfather, OMF currently has personnel working in nine East Asian countries. Taylor is a former Free Methodist missionary to Taiwan and since 1970 served as the first president of the interdenominational China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei; he assumes the new post in July. He succeeds 11-year director Michael Griffiths, who next fall becomes principal of London Bible College.

Tale of two Trinities: Walter C. Kaiser, Old Testament scholar and author, has been appointed dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, where he has been a faculty member for 16 years. In the nearby Chicago suburb of Palos Heights, Trinity Christian College (Reformed) announced the appointment of new president Gerard Van Gronigen. A well-known Reformed pastor and theologian, he currently teaches at Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

For the third straight year, singer Anita Bryant was voted the most admired woman in America in the annual poll of readers of Good Housekeeping magazine. Only former first lady Pat Nixon, who was this year’s second-place finisher, has been named first more times (four) since the poll was begun in 1969.

United Church of Canada clergyman Bruce MacDougall has been named president of Faith at Work, succeeding Jeffrey Kitson, Bermuda businessman and president for two years. MacDougall has been executive director for Faith at Work, Canada. The organization promotes what it calls “relational Christianity” through its 30,000-circulation Faith at Work magazine, and conferences.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.