Swiss theologian Hans Küng has been a voice for reform in the Catholic Church for decades on issues such as papal infallibility, the celibacy of priests and euthanasia. His advocacy cost him his license to teach Catholic theology and has led many to brand him a heretic. As the 85-year-old suffers from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, he watches the church under Pope Francis contemplate many of the reforms he has long championed. He recently sat down with SPIEGEL for a wide-ranging conversation about his life and hopes for the future of the church.
SPIEGEL: Professor Küng, will you go to heaven?Küng: I certainly hope so.
SPIEGEL: Some would say you’re going to hell because you are a heretic in the eyes of the church.
Küng: I’m not a heretic, but a critical reform theologian who, unlike many of his critics, uses the gospel instead of medieval theology, liturgy and church law as his benchmark.
SPIEGEL: Does hell even exist?
Küng: Alluding to hell is a warning that a person can completely neglect his purpose in life. I don’t believe in an eternal hell.
SPIEGEL: If hell means losing one’s purpose in life, it must be a pretty secularist notion.
Küng: Sartre says that hell is other people. People create their own hell — in wars like the one in Syria, for example, as well as with unbridled capitalism.
SPIEGEL: In his essay “Fragment on the Subject of Religion,” Thomas Mann admitted that he thought about death almost every day of his life. Do you?
Küng: Actually, I expected that I would die at an early age because I thought that, given the wild life I live, I wouldn’t make it to my 50th birthday. Now I’m surprised to be 85 and still alive.
SPIEGEL: You went skiing for the last time in 2008. How does it feel to know that you’re doing something for the last time?
Küng: It certainly makes me feel a little melancholy to think about that last time, when I standing up there in Lech, up in the Arlberg range. I love the clear, cold air in the Alps. It’s where I used to air out my often tortured brain. But I accept my fate. In fact, I’m happy that I was still able to go skiing at 80.
SPIEGEL: You are an elderly, sick man. You have acute hearing loss, osteoarthritis and macular degeneration, which will destroy your ability to read.
Küng: That would be the worst thing, no longer being able to read.
SPIEGEL: You were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a year ago.
Küng: Nevertheless, I still work very hard every day. And yet I interpret all of these things as warning signs of my impending death. My handwriting is getting small and often illegible, almost as if it were disappearing. My fingers are failing. It’s a fact that my general condition has deteriorated, and yet I also fight it.
Küng: I swim a quarter of an hour every day here in the building, and I do physiotherapy exercises on the floor, as well as voice exercises and finger exercises, and I focus on new tasks. Besides, I take various pills every day.
SPIEGEL: You have written more than 60 books, and you were always a highly productive man who liked getting into arguments. In your memoirs, you ponder whether you will soon be nothing but a shadow of yourself.
Küng: Of course, the diagnoses and prognoses of doctors are imprecise. My vision, for example, is deteriorating more slowly than predicted. Two years ago, my doctor said that I would only be able to read for another two years. And now I can still read! But I’m living on short notice and am prepared to say goodbye at any time.
SPIEGEL: Your Parkinson’s disease will progress.
Küng: Muhammad Ali, who also has Parkinson’s, appeared at the opening ceremony of the Olympics in London last year. He was paraded before the entire world, vacant and silent. It was appalling. I think it’s a horrible notion.
SPIEGEL: Your friend, the writer and intellectual Walter Jens fell into a rapidly deteriorating state of dementia nine years ago. He died this year.
Küng: I visited him several times, including a visit shortly before his death. Up until a few years ago, his face would still light up when I came to see him. But, in recent years, he could no longer remember whether I had visited him the day before or a month ago. In the end, he no longer recognized me. It was depressing to think that Jens, one of the most important intellectuals of the postwar era, had fallen back into a childhood of sorts.
SPIEGEL: Was the dementia hard on Jens, too, or just on his relatives and friends?
Küng: At the beginning of his illness, when you asked him how he felt, he almost always said “terrible” or “bad.” At the same time, he became appreciative of small things, such as children, animals and sweets. I used to bring him chocolate. At first, he would eat it by himself, but later on I had to put it in his mouth for him. We can’t possibly know what Jens experienced at the end. But I can’t be expected to accept being in a condition like that.
SPIEGEL: In 1995, you and Jens co-wrote the book “Dying with Dignity.” As a Christian, are you allowed to put an end to your own life?
Küng: I feel that life is a gift from God. But God has made me responsible for this gift. The same applies to the last phase of life: dying. The God of the Bible is a god of compassion and not a cruel despot who wants to see people spend as much time as possible in a hell of their own pain. In other words, assisted suicide can be the ultimate, final form of helping in life.
SPIEGEL: The Catholic Church considers euthanasia a sin, an encroachment on the sovereignty of the Creator.
Küng: I didn’t appreciate it when the spokesman for the bishop of Rottenburg promptly declared that what I had written represented the teachings of Mr. Küng and not the teachings of the church. A church hierarchy that has been so wrong on birth control, the pill and artificial insemination shouldn’t make the same mistakes now on issues relating to the end of life. After all, our situation has changed fundamentally in the 21st century. The average life expectancy 100 years ago was 45, and most people died an early death. I’m 85 now, but that’s an artificial extension of my lifetime — thanks to those 10 pills I take a day, and thanks to advances in hygiene and medicine.
SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of a long, lingering illness?
Küng: Well, I have written a carefully worded advance directive, and I recently joined an assisted suicide organization. This doesn’t mean that I aim to commit suicide. But, in the event that my illness worsens, I want to have a guarantee that I can die in a dignified manner. Nowhere in the bible does it say that a person has to stick it out to the decreed end. No one tells us what “decreed” means.
SPIEGEL: You have to go to a different country to have access to assisted suicide.
Küng: I’m a Swiss citizen.
SPIEGEL: How exactly does it work? Do you call up and say: ‘I’m on my way’?
Küng: I don’t have a roadmap yet. But I did write my own personal dying liturgy in the last volume of my memoirs.
SPIEGEL: A priest won’t be allowed to administer the last rites to you.
Küng: I will have a friend with me who is a priest and one of my students.
SPIEGEL: In Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the protagonist kills himself for love. The book ends with the sentence: “No priest attended.” That’s the position of the church.
Küng: I’ve always objected to my position on dying being seen as a protest against church authority. I don’t want to provide any general rules, and I can only decide for myself. It would be ridiculous to stage one’s death as a protest against the church’s authority. What I do want to achieve, however, is that the issue is discussed openly and amiably. The subject of “active euthanasia” has been taboo in Germany since the Nazis’ mass killings of the handicapped.
SPIEGEL: But what person with an incurable disease will want to impose a burden on his relatives once assisted suicide has become socially accepted?
Küng: Of course there is the risk that you describe. But, today, assisted suicide takes place in a gray zone because it’s banned. Many doctors increase the morphine dose when the time is right, and in doing so, they run the risk of being convicted of a crime. There are some patients who, when they cannot find such doctors, jump out of hospital windows. That’s intolerable! We can’t leave this issue up to the discretion of each doctor. We need a legal regulation, in part to protect doctors.
SPIEGEL: Don’t we cling to life too much at the end, so that we miss the right moment?
Küng: That’s possible, of course.
SPIEGEL: Do you cling to life?
Küng: I don’t cling to earthly life because I believe in eternal life. That’s the big distinction between my point of view and a purely secular position.
SPIEGEL: You write in your memoirs: “My heart aches when I consider all the things I am supposed to give up.”
Küng: That’s true. I’m not saying goodbye to life because I’m a misanthropist or disdain this life, but because, for other reasons, it’s time to move on. I am firmly convinced that there is life after death, not in a primitive sense but as the entry of my completely finite person into God’s infinity, as a transition into another reality beyond the dimension of space and time that pure reason can neither affirm nor deny. It’s a question of reasonable trust. I have no mathematic and scientific evidence of this, but I have good reasons to trust in the message of the Bible, and I believe in being taken in by a merciful God.
SPIEGEL: Do you have a concept of heaven?
Küng: Most ways of speaking about heaven are pure images that cannot be taken literally. We are far removed from the notions of heaven in the period before Copernicus. In heaven, however, I hope to learn the answers to the world’s great mysteries, to questions such as: Why is something something and not nothing? Where do the Big Bang and physical constants come from? In other words, the question that neither astrophysics nor philosophy has answers for. At any rate, I’m talking about a state of eternal peace and eternal happiness.
SPIEGEL: Today, physics can explain the dark cosmos, with its billions of stars, much better than it could in the past. Has this shaken your faith?
Küng: When we consider how enormous and dark the universe is, it certainly doesn’t make things easier for faith. When he wrote his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven could still hope that “above the canopy of stars must dwell a loving father.” We, however, must accept how little we ultimately know. Ninety-five percent of the universe is unknown to us, and we know nothing about the 27 percent of dark matter or the 68 percent of dark energy. Physics is getting closer and closer to the origin, and yet it cannot explain the origin itself.
SPIEGEL: You want your funeral to end with the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Küng: Because it expresses that my life has not perished but has been completed. It’s something to be happy about, isn’t it?