On November 29, 1981, a story in the Chicago Tribune proclaimed: “Hans Küng, one of the world’s most important religious figures, is hero for some and heretic to others.” Mr. Küng received coverage in the Trib because he had been invited to guest-teach at the University of Chicago Divinity School, two years after the Vatican has stripped him of his missio canonica, the license necessary to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian.
As a Professor for Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen, Mr. Küng was selected by Pope John XXIII to provide theological support to the members of the reforming Second Vatican Council. A decade later, however, Küng published sharp critiques of the Catholic tradition, publicly airing his doubts about the infallibility of the Pope.
Mr. Küng recently celebrated his 86th birthday. A year ago, he announced that he may choose when and how to bring his life to an end. This “announcement,” in the form of one short sentence in his 730-page memoir, sparked much discussion in Germany, especially since it touches on ongoing debates about “euthanasia.” Once more, Mr. Küng is a hero for some and a heretic for others.
Currently, German law recognizes two categories of euthanasia. The first category, medically-assisted suicide, is illegal. Any action that qualifies as direct assistance falls in this category — for example, administering a lethal drug overdose, or fatally shooting a terminally-ill person. The other category, indirect euthanasia, is not illegal. Any action that qualifies as indirect assistance falls in this category — for example, purchasing the drug or handgun that a terminally-ill person uses to end his or her life.
In January, 2014, however, the German Minister of Health, Hermann Gröhe (Christian Democratic Union), pressed for a new law making every kind of assisted suicide — direct or indirect — illegal. The Bundestag will decide by year’s end whether to ratify this law. In the meantime, public debate continues.
The debate is quite polarized. One side focuses on the risks. Former Vice-Chancellor Franz Müntefering (Social Democratic Party), published an article in which he discussed the “dangerous melody” of statements in favor of legally-assisted suicide. Mr. Müntefering worries that the terminally ill will feel pressured to end their lives due to the high medical costs of keeping them alive. He argues for more palliative care institutions and hospices where the dying can find assistance. Also, some Germans point to Germany’s World War II history and warn against any tendency to devalue human life.
The other side of the debate focuses on individual choice. Proponents raise questions about who has the right to choose death and they argue for laws granting physicians the option of helping people who wish to die but are unable to do so on their own.
For individual-choice proponents, Mr. Küng is a hero. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has problems using his hands. He struggles with occasional hearing loss and macular degeneration. Though he is still able to exercise, he fears losing the cognitive abilities that once characterized his work as an academic theologian.
Mr. Küng also witnessed the ten-year long decline into dementia of his beloved friend and neighbor, Walter Jens, who died in June, 2013. Since Mr. Jens’ death, Mr. Küng asks: “How long should I live?” In an interview, Mr. Küng explained how important it is to him to die in his own home with dignity. He does not wish to “become a shadow of himself” nor to have his life prolonged by enteral-tube feeding.
From a theological perspective, Mr. Küng’s statements are challenging because he argues out of his deeply-held Christian faith. He is convinced that God is a merciful God who does not enjoy people living in a hell of pain. In asserting that life is a gift from God, he starts from the same position as those who argue against euthanasia. But he insists that we are allowed to return God’s gift. In other words, we have no duty to live.
The debate over Mr. Küng’s position shows that there is a need for deeper engagement and greater honesty when talking about the realities of death and dying. Deeper theological reflection can help sharpen our awareness of the painful and frightening sides of finitude. Christian theology and society is faced with an ethical challenge: we must weigh the person’s individual circumstances and the social dimensions of the debate.
A hero and heretic to the last, Mr. Küng defends his “heretical” interpretation of the Christian tradition that considers life to be a gift from God which we may return, and a “hero” for pointing out that, when it comes to death and dying, there are only difficult answers to difficult questions.