VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI (search) met with one of his fiercest critics, the Swiss dissident theologian Hans Kueng (search), in yet another sign the pontiff wants to reach out to prominent Catholics who fell from grace under his predecessor.
In an interview with The Associated Press from his home in Tuebingen, Germany, Kueng called Saturday's meeting "extraordinary" but said it was wrong to speak of reconciliation.
"I am sure that this will be seen in the Catholic world, and even more than that, as a hopeful sign because it shows that he (Benedict) has more positive intentions than maybe what was seen at the beginning," Kueng said.
The two former university colleagues met for several hours and had a friendly theological discussion, Vatican (search) spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement Monday. He said the two did not discuss the "magisterial" differences that divide Kueng and the Roman Catholic Church.
Kueng was stripped of the right to teach Catholic theology at the University of Tuebingen in Germany in 1979 after challenging Roman Catholic doctrine, most significantly papal infallibility, which holds that the pope can never be mistaken when he makes "infallible" pronouncements.
Kueng has long been a critic of Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Vatican's orthodoxy chief from 1981 until his election on April 19. While Benedict was not at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith at the time Kueng was disciplined, he was reportedly involved in the decision in his role as archbishop of Munich and Freising.
Ratzinger has defended the Vatican's treatment of Kueng, saying in his 1997 book "Salt of the Earth" that he respected the path Kueng had taken but that "he should not then demand the church's seal of approval."
Kueng, for his part, issued a statement after Benedict's election, saying it was "an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral pope," although he gave him 100 days to "learn."
As a result of their differences, the meeting Saturday was very significant, said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian at the University of Notre Dame.
"That the new pope granted him an audience — and such a lengthy and friendly one at that — indicates that he intends to be more of a pontifex (bridge-maker) than was his predecessor, at least insofar as it affects members of the Catholic Church itself," McBrien said in an e-mail. "As we know, John Paul II built many bridges to those outside the Church, but his record was far from illustrious internally."
Just last month, Benedict met with the head of the Society of St. Pius X, the ultraconservative schismatic movement founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated for having consecrated bishops without the pope's consent.
Kueng said the meeting was a "sign of mutual respect" and "a step forward."
He said the two had known each other for decades, but had had a falling out after his 1979 discipline.
"That he dedicated to me so many hours — and this was extraordinary — I am happy that this was possible," Kueng said. "That he talked to me is a very significant event. I asked his predecessor for 25 years to see him," he added.
Kueng and the pope had been colleagues at Tuebingen university, and it was Kueng who had urged the university's theology department to hire the young Ratzinger. The two also attended the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.
In the 2001 book, "The Modern Inquisition: Seven Prominent Catholics and their Struggles with the Vatican," Kueng wrote that he and Ratzinger were known as the "teenage theologians" at Vatican II but that they then took different paths.
He said the two met only once after he was stripped of his license to teach, in Bavaria in 1983 — a "rather tense situation."
"Now I got the impression that he was the same person I knew from the happy Tuebingen years," he said.