Controversial Theologian Hans Kung: "I Don't Cling to This Life"
By Markus Grill
December 16, 2013
Hans Kung fought his whole life for the reforms being weighed by the Vatican today. In a SPIEGEL interview, the elderly Swiss theologian discusses Pope Francis' chances to revolutionize the church, why John Paul II shouldn't be canonized and what he hopes to learn in heaven.
Swiss theologian Hans Kung 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 Kung, will you go to heaven?
Kung: I certainly hope so.
SPIEGEL: Some would say you're going to hell because you are a heretic in the eyes of the church.
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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.
Kung: That would be the worst thing, no longer being able to read.
SPIEGEL: You were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a year ago.
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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. Kung 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?
Kung: 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.
Kung: I'm a Swiss citizen.
SPIEGEL: How exactly does it work? Do you call up and say: 'I'm on my way'?
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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.
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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?
Kung: That's possible, of course.
SPIEGEL: Do you cling to life?
Kung: 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."
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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?
Kung: 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."
Kung: Because it expresses that my life has not perished but has been completed. It's something to be happy about, isn't it?
SPIEGEL: What is currently happening at the Vatican is what you spent your life fighting for: a liberalization and reform of the church. This is happening at a time when you are becoming old and feeble. Is it an irony of history?
Kung: The irony is more applicable to my former colleague (Joseph) Ratzinger than to me. I did not expect to see a radical shift in the Catholic Church in my lifetime. I had always assumed -- and had come to accept -- that Kung would depart and Ratzinger would remain. That's why I was so surprised to see Benedict go and Pope Francis assume office on March 19, 2013, my birthday and Ratzinger's name day.
SPIEGEL: How could it happen that a college of cardinals made up of conservative and generally backward-looking men elected a revolutionary to be the next pope?
Kung: First of all, they didn't even know how revolutionary he is. But aside from the hard core of the Curia, many cardinals knew that the church is in a deep crisis, which is epitomized by corruption in the Vatican, the cover-up of abuse cases and the Vatileaks scandal. The cardinals were often confronted with tough criticism by their home congregations.
SPIEGEL: Can one person even revolutionize an institution like the Catholic Church?
Kung: Yes, if he receives good advice as pope and has a capable staff. Legally speaking, the pope has more power than the president of the United States.
SPIEGEL: But only within the church, because, for example, his decisions are not subject to the approval of a legislative body.
Kung: There is also no supreme court. If he wanted to, the pope could immediately abolish the celibacy law introduced in the 12th century.
SPIEGEL: Could the Arab Spring be followed by a Catholic Spring?
Kung: It's already here, but there is the same risk of setbacks and counter-movements as there have been with the Arab Spring. There are powerful groups in the Vatican and the church around the world that would like to turn back the clock. They're worried about their privileges.
SPIEGEL: Does it bother you that you can no longer get involved in these debates?
Kung: I take it calmly. It's more important to me that the pope reads what I send him than that he invites me to Rome.
SPIEGEL: He recently wrote to you that he likes reading the two books you sent him, and that he remains "at your disposal."
Kung: I have already received two handwritten and very friendly letters from him. The return addresses on the envelopes simply read "F., Domus Sanctae Marthae, Vaticano," and he signed the letters "with brotherly greetings." Even that is a new style. In 27 years, John Paul II didn't deem me worthy of a single response.
SPIEGEL: With whom can Francis be compared?
Kung: Probably John XXIII, but he lacks one of his weaknesses. John XXIII made reforms in passing and without an agenda. He made serious administrative mistakes.
SPIEGEL: The question is whether Francis only impresses people with gestures, or whether there is more behind it than that.
Kung: The simpler clothing, the changes to the protocol and the completely different tone of voice -- these aren't just superficial things. He has introduced a paradigm shift. With this pope, we see the service character of the papal office emerging once again. He wants priests to get out of the church and encounter people. He recently sent a survey to the bishops to obtain the views of laypeople on family subjects. His first trip took him to the refugees on Lampedusa. All of this is a departure from the way in which Benedict interpreted the office. The call for a poor church also leads to a different way of thinking. Under Benedict, the extravagant bishop of Limburg would probably still be in office.
SPIEGEL: But Francis has also reconfirmed Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, a hard-liner, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's watchdog and enforcer on issues of accepted doctrine.
Kung: I could imagine that Benedict strongly campaigned for keeping Muller in the position. But the litmus test will be whether the new pope continues to allow him to play overseer of the faith and grand inquisitor.
SPIEGEL: Francis has announced the canonization of John Paul II, a restorative pope who strengthened controversial groups such as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ.
Kung: I cannot understand why this pope is to be canonized. He was the most contradictory pope of the 20th century. He venerated the Virgin Mary, and yet he denied women offices in the church. He preached against mass poverty, and yet he barred contraception. I discussed 11 of these massive contradictions at length in the last volume of my memoirs. His words constantly diverged from his actions. For instance, he considered the priest Marcial Maciel, one of the worst molesters of boys and the founder of the Legion of Christ, to be his personal friend and defended him against all criticism.
SPIEGEL: And yet you forgive Francis for this canonization?
Kung: Benedict expedited Wojtyla's canonization, ignoring all required waiting periods. Stopping the process now would not only be an affront to Benedict, but also to many Poles. I can understand that Francis doesn't want to do that. At least he also announced the canonization of reformist Pope John XXIII. We should also think about whether canonizations, which are an invention of the Middle Ages, still make sense today.
SPIEGEL: Is there anything in your life that you would like to undo?
Kung: I was sometimes too polemical, and I wish I hadn't said a few things. But my most drastic experience was the revocation of my license to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian in 1979. It was devastating to me, both emotionally and physically. There was one day when I was lying on this yellow sofa here and couldn't bring myself to go the scheduled faculty meeting to discuss my case.
SPIEGEL: You were depressed?
Kung: Not depressed, but exhausted. Of course, I wondered whether I should have given in. All they wanted was that I keep quiet. They said the people in Rome didn't care about my personal beliefs. You can believe what you wish, they told me. Some people say that if I had backed down at the time, I would have been made a cardinal long ago. But that was precisely not my goal.
SPIEGEL: At the time, you were hoping for a professorship in the United States. Did you want to leave Germany?
Kung: I was enthusiastic about America. I knew President (John F.) Kennedy, one of his sisters and other family members, and many universities in the United States invited me to give lectures there. Yes, it was a dream: a professorship in Los Angeles, for instance, with a house on the Pacific. But it was unrealistic. I never really wanted to leave Tubingen.
SPIEGEL: Do you expect to be rehabilitated during your lifetime?
Kung: No. The German Bishops' Conference could begin the process, and Rome would only have to agree to it. But I no longer anticipate or expect it. Pope Francis shouldn't jeopardize other important tasks by rehabilitating me and becoming too close to me.
SPIEGEL: You were accused of vanity your entire life. There is even an entire chapter about it in your memoirs.
Kung: But I'm probably no vainer than the average person.
SPIEGEL: You write that other theologians were jealous of you for being invited to appear on TV shows more often, because you valued being in good physical shape and wore appropriate clothing, including a tie.
Kung: It actually reads: "occasionally a tie."
SPIEGEL: Here's another quote: "I rarely overestimated my abilities."
Kung: If you take it out of context, it actually does sound vain. But you can read on the same page that I have an aversion to illusorily overestimated characteristics. I know my limits. I detest posturing and pomposity. But if I hadn't had any self-confidence in the dispute with Rome, I would have been lost. To this day, my books are ignored by the hierarchy and by scholastic theology. Perhaps that's why I repeatedly mentioned the names of those in academia, politics and the media who quote me approvingly.
SPIEGEL: You, the son of a shoe salesman, became a professor of theology in the German university town of Tubingen at 32 and an adviser to the Second Vatican Council at 34. And then, in 1979, came the serious blow, when your license to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian was revoked.
Kung: A major media campaign was waged against me at the time, and in the end, a pastoral letter was read against me in every church in Germany. You have to imagine that.
SPIEGEL: Part of the reason your license to teach was revoked is that you questioned whether priests should have to be celibate. Do you believe that the celibacy rules might be changed under Francis?
Kung: I can't really imagine that this issue will continue to be deferred seeing that there are fewer and fewer parish priests every day. I don't know how the church will be able to provide pastoral care in the next generation. The question has been relevant for some time, and churchgoers are largely supportive of this reform.
SPIEGEL: Do you live in celibacy?
Kung: I am not married, and I have neither a wife nor children.
SPIEGEL: There is a woman in the book whom you refer to as "my ideal companion in life."
Kung: Yes, in the sense of an ideal traveling companion. We have separate estates, live on separate floors and have separate apartments. I described all of this in my memoirs, and I stand behind it. I have nothing else to say about it.
SPIEGEL: Professor Kung, thank you for this interview.