Hans Küng, influential Catholic dissident, confronts his own mortality

In November 2012, on assignment for GlobalPost and National Catholic Reporter, I traveled to the University of Tübingen in Germany to interview Professor Hans Küng about the Vatican investigation of the main leadership group of American nuns.

Küng, along with Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), are the most renowned Catholic theologians of the last half-century. Their conflicts, which date back several decades, mirror a divided church.

In the early 1960s, when the shy, bookish Ratzinger taught at Tübingen, he had no driver’s license, and bicycled up steep hills of the medieval town. Küng drove a convertible and sometimes gave him rides. Both priests were liberal advisors at the reform-driven Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In 1968, when student protestors disrupted Ratzinger’s class, he began a steady move to the right. In 1979, as a Vatican cardinal, he revoked Küng’s license to teach theology for challenging papal infallibility.

Küng, with tenure, shifted his teaching focus but escalated his criticism of a monarchical papacy; he accused John Paul of reducing bishops to yes-men, undercutting Vatican II reforms. Later, he called Ratzinger “the Grand Inquisitor” after the cardinal who scorns Jesus, while persecuting heretics in The Brothers Karamazov.

With a ceaseless tide of books, speeches and interviews, Küng became an international figure, and as founder of Global Ethic Foundation, has drawn international leaders into dialogue on ethical norms for peaceful world development.

Küng had announced his retirement when we met.

At 85, seated by a window, framed in blue twilight, he called the crackdown on nuns “a new Inquisition” under Benedict. “You cannot deny that Joseph Ratzinger has faith. But he is absolutely against freedom. He wants obedience.”

What changes in 13 months!

After a butler leaked his correspondence to a journalist, a beleaguered Benedict, swamped by scandals, became the first pope to resign in 600 years. Vatican control of nuns is in question. The papal delegate, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, and Leadership Conference of Women Religious, are in a holding pattern under Pope Francis.

The new pope (Time Magazine’s Man of the Year), is restoring the Vatican II agenda. He sent Küng a note of thanks for a book the theologian sent him on church reform, and signed it, “Fraternamente, Francesco” — Fraternally, Francis.

In the coldest of ironies, as the arc of history seems to be bending his way, Küng has announced that he has Parkinson’s disease and joined a Swiss organization that assists in suicide for the terminally ill.

As a native of Switzerland, which allows voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill (Germany does not) Küng was able to join the Swiss group Exit International. According to its website: “Swiss law states that the ‘permissibility of altruistic assisted suicide cannot be overridden by a duty to save life.’ This safeguards those assisting in the suicide, as long as the motivation is altruistic.”

A Reuters dispatch quotes from the newly published third volume of his memoir, in German: “I do not want to live on as a shadow of myself.”

I remember Küng’s stiffened walk that November evening, his polite gesture in taking my overcoat from the hanger and holding it for me to extend arms into sleeves, in the doorway, as the cab arrived. 

With cities the world over lighting up for Christmas this month, I wondered how a theologian of such energy could face his final chapter.

I sent an email asking for a telephone interview. He replied in 48 hours, setting a time, asking that I “edit very carefully.”

Meanwhile, I called Rev. Charles Curran, a moral theologian whose teaching license Cardinal Ratzinger revoked in the 1980s for opposing the Vatican stance on birth control. Curran left Catholic University of America; as University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Curran is a prolific writer on moral issues.

“Don’t we all have to live with our diminishments as we get older?” Curran remarked. “Isn’t that what life is all about?”

Curran said he “could never back” euthanasia, or mercy killing, which is illegal in America and many countries, “because of the dangers that might arise if we accepted it. If you can do it when you are terminally ill, why cannot you do it even before. Voluntary could become involuntary. I worry about the concept of autonomy often used to justify it.”

The issue of a dignified death has shadowed Küng since his 1954 ordination as a priest in Rome. His 22-year-old brother fainted that day, was hospitalized three weeks in Italy, and finally diagnosed in Zurich with an inoperable brain tumor.

“One limb after another, one organ after another, ceased to function,” Küng wrote in a 1997 anthology Dying With Dignity, “all the time he was clearly conscious… almost a year.”

On the telephone, Küng’s voice was noticeably weaker than last year, but not shaky. He asked if I was taping; I said no, offering to read back lines to ensure clarity and did so several times in the 45-minute talk, here, slightly edited, for space.

Jason Berry: How long have you known that you had Parkinson’s?

Hans Küng: More or less two years ago I received the diagnosis, at age 83. I have another diagnosis for the eyes, macular degeneration. I also have polyarthritis in the fingers, a stiffening of fingers. All of this comes together to make my situation not easier than before.

I am still working very intensely on a great deal of correspondence, but I have had enough time to write all the books I wanted to write.

JB: Isn’t there an example in Job, who suffered in proving his love for God?

HK: Human life is a gift of God, but according to divine guidance there is a responsibility of being human. The last stage of dying is like giving support to the living. There are those who say every man must live to the end – no one has a right to terminate at a time of his own choosing. But nowhere has the good God of creation demanded that human life be reduced to pure biological function. If a person decides to end his life because he has no quality of life, this may or may not be justified. Death is not always the enemy of man.

I am basically in a waiting pattern, but I’ve prepared myself for all possible options. I cannot say how my life will be in half a year. I wanted to prepare for everything.

I am a human being until the end of life and therefore entitled to a humane death, not pity, in having to endure.

The passion of Christ is abused in a way that we are expected to endure everything. I think we are responsible to see what we can endure, and if we can’t, find a solution, this is an answer for those in suffering who want to have a dignified death. They may reflect on what I say, but I do not consider my answer as obligatory on everyone — not at all.

[Küng mentions his brother, whose death he wrote about in the 1997 book.]

He had so much pain. I said, “I shall not endure that.”

Parkinson’s at the beginning, is not related to pain; but the last period of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is terrible, like the last period of life for my brother. We have to be careful and make our own preparation.

JB: But isn’t bearing the final illness a form of dignity?

HK: Not at all. I don’t want to judge Muhammad Ali; but I have pity on him when he’s shown in a miserable form, not speaking, not talking. I do not want to be presented in such a way. I would not like to be celebrated as John Paul II was [referring to the pope’s final years, with advanced Parkinson’s, enfeebled, bloated, slurring his words].

Some found it heroic, others found it irresponsible that he left so much to his Polish secretary [Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, now a cardinal].

I admired my former colleague, Joseph Ratzinger, who said, in effect, ‘When I’m not able to govern, I shall resign.’ He has done it and I think it was a great courageous act to help the church rather than give us long-suffering in a leader. We have our own responsibilities and it is not a sign of non-belief, but belief, to make other decisions when we are not any more capable.

JB: These are sobering thoughts at Christmas, a season of hope, are they not?

HK: I think Christmas shows the love of God and human beings for his child, Jesus. It is a precise indication for our concept of God. I do not believe in a cruel God, one who is waiting and looking at our suffering. We have a period of life given not by God but by medicine, pharmaceuticals, that allows us to reflect on death in a different way, to have faith and hope in a god who is understanding of our situation in a way expressed in this child, Jesus, who gives us the message of His father who understands our position and does not condemn us to suffering.

I am afraid of dementia.

I think it is not the will of God that we suffer a hell on earth. Some people have a concept of God that is punishing and justifies cruel things. Jesus showed us another God. He was condemned to die and it was not His own will. His way is unique; we have to trust our own way. Everyone has his or her own cross to bear.

JB: Camus wrote against suicide. Dostoyevsky wanted meaning in life. Do you wrestle with what they wrote?

HK: I’m not reading much. I see the position of Camus and Dostoyevsky. What is more important for me is to read what goes on in the world today. I see progress in medicine, and palliative care, which I would like to have. On the other hand, we see dementia as more and more a world problem, like AIDS. More than 40 million people have dementia. The number will double in a fairly short time.

[Editor’s Note: In April 2012, the World Health Organization estimated 35.6 million people with dementia, projected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050.]

How do we confront this with private care when we no longer have families to look after people? It is very difficult in China where people have only one child. What are we doing with millions of people who suffer dementia? I think there’s only one position: we cannot endure dementia. I think a lot of people would agree with me… For people who can no longer recognize anybody, it becomes terrible.

I do not want to provoke church authorities. I think it would be stupid to protest against the church with one’s own dying; but it is a serious question for me.

I want to provoke a serious discussion of this problem. Here in Germany, since the catastrophe of Nazism, it is a taboo topic. I have a lot of letters from people in Germany who say they are happy I have spoken out. It is not one solution imposed on everything. I only want to have legislation with clearer indications on what the doctors are allowed to do. I am not under this pressure, having been a Swiss boy [with a Swiss citizen’s right to end his life, under certain provisions, by terms of his own choosing].

I am not a materialist, nor a nihilist. I do not believe that we are dying into nothingness, but dying into this ultimate and first reality we call God. Dying has a religious aspect. A person wants to do so out of confidence in God, not because of a belief in nothingness. I think the churches have to help not only with last rites but to help us die in a dignified way.