Hans Kueng and the Grace of a Good Death

Hans Kueng and the Grace of a Good Death October 4, 2013


Saw this Reuters story, Catholic rebel Kueng, 85, considers assisted suicide, today courtesy of my Patheos neighbor Frank Weathers, who’s painting pillars and has no time to comment on those who like to pull them down.

Hans Kueng, Roman Catholicism’s best known rebel theologian, is considering capping a life of challenges to the Vatican with a final act of dissent – assisted suicide.

Kueng, now 85 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, writes in final volume of his memoirs that people have a right to “surrender” their lives to God voluntarily if illness, pain or dementia make further living unbearable.

The Catholic Church rejects assisted suicide, which is allowed in Kueng’s native Switzerland as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and four states in the United States.

“I do not want to live on as a shadow of myself,” the Swiss-born priest explained in the book published this week. “I also don’t want to be sent off to a nursing home … If I have to decide myself, please abide by my wish.”

According to the article, Kueng seeks to justify his decision theologically.

In the third and final volume of his German-language memoirs, Erlebte Menschlichkeit (Experienced Humanity), Kueng wrote that a sudden death would suit him, since he would not have to decide to take his life.

But if he does have to decide, he said, he does not want to go to a “sad and bleak” assisted suicide center but rather be surrounded by his closest colleagues at his house in Tuebingen or in his Swiss home town of Sursee.

“No person is obligated to suffer the unbearable as something sent from God,” he wrote. “People can decide this for themselves and no priest, doctor or judge can stop them.”

Such a freely chosen death is not a murder, he argued, but a “surrendering of life” or a “return of life to the hands of the Creator.”

Kueng, who writes openly about his Parkinson’s and other medical problems in old age, said this death was compatible with his Christian faith because he believed it led to the eternal life promised by Jesus.

He cited the late Pope John Paul’s public struggle with Parkinson’s and the silent suffering of boxer Muhammed Ali, also afflicted with the disease, as models he did not want to follow.

“How much longer will my life be liveable in dignity?” asked Kueng, who said he still swims daily but is losing his eyesight and his ability to write his books by hand as usual. “A scholar who can no longer read and write – what’s next?”  Read it all.

I don’t have a lot to say. I understand the fear. None of us wants to die alone, in “sad and bleak” surroundings, or to linger in suffering, or to have our gifts crippled, the things that mean most to us taken away. I do not want that, for myself or for anyone.

Even with that understanding, though, I utterly reject the attempts at justification. For the Christian, nothing in this world, from our coming hither to our going hence, is about What I Want. We do the will of the One who gives us life, or we don’t. The opposite of “Thy will be done” is not dissent, but Non serviam, the oldest sin of pride. To see Professor Kueng, with 85 years of life dedicated to the study of God (theology), flunk this final is very, very sad. Sadder than dying alone in a suicide center. Sadder than not being able to read or write—as utterly terrifying as that state would be.

I learned a lot from this dissident, bright, stubborn man, who is still too devoted to a Church made in his own image to recognize how the best things he wished for are coming into being—and always would have, because they are God’s will. If I had a chance to answer his question—“A scholar who can no longer read and write, what’s next?”—I would like to remind him that there is always prayer, Professor. Intercessory prayer and redemptive suffering, Father, for which one needs neither eyes nor steady hands. There is the witness of brilliance dissolved in the acid of suffering yet still giving light, like that of Muhammed Ali and Blessed John Paul II, models Kueng “doesn’t want to follow.” I would do that reminding humbly, knowing how far I am from the courage to make the faithful choice.

Maybe, like many another of Kueng’s unguided missiles, this is one more cheeky shot over the bow of Peter’s barque, hoping to provoke a response. Here’s mine:

St Joseph, Patron of the Dying, grant to God’s unruly servant Hans the grace of a happy death, which it’s never too late for him to ask for. And grant that peace and consolation, this day and every day, to the millions all over the world who live and die in in pain more excruciating than the loss of their intellectual faculties, who accept the unbearable, endure the insufferable, who die alone in bleak and sad and horrific places. Alone, that is, except for God, who gathers them in to eternal life.

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  • Barbara Bowman

    I have watched my grandson, who is twelve years old and suffering from leukemia, go with courage, and humility, to the place where Kueng chooses not to go. As his body fails, he has had to suffer the indignity of having his most basic needs met by his parents and nurses, but has never surrendered to self-pity. It takes a humble heart to be accepting of such care. He has suffered pain that is sometimes unbearable. As I watch this unfold, I can’t help but compare his suffering to Jesus’ Passion. I hope that when my time comes, I am able to be half the person my grandson is.

    • joannemcportland

      He and your family are in my prayers. The whole family stands at Calvary at these terrible moments.

      • Barbara Bowman

        Thank you, and it is true about Calvary.

  • Gail Finke

    Wonderful post. Many many people don’t want this:

    “I do not want to live on as a shadow of myself,” the Swiss-born priest explained in the book published this week. “I also don’t want to be sent off to a nursing home … If I have to decide myself, please abide by my wish.”

    But we don’t ever get to choose. We don’t get to choose our illnesses, the accidents that befall us, the natural disaster that hits us, even the people who move in next door. This is no different. It is hard to be humble and take what comes, especially when it is (in the words of someone whose name I forget, but whose phrasing I will never forget) is a “custom-built cross” — exactly the thing you hate and fear most, or the thing most likely to undo you. It may be excruciating. But we don’t kill anyone, especially the weak and despairing.

  • Carmen

    By St. Francis De Sales
    The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity
    the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart.
    This cross He now sends you
    He has considered with His all-knowing eyes,
    understood with His Divine mind,
    tested with His wise justice,
    warmed with loving arms
    and weighed with His own hands
    to see that it be not one inch too large
    and not one ounce too heavy for you.
    He has blessed it with His holy Name,
    anointed it with His consolation,
    taken one last glance at you and your courage,
    and then sent it to you from heaven,
    a special greeting from God to you,
    an alms of the all-merciful love of God.

  • Will Duquette

    It’s hard. It’s very hard. And yet so many manage it.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Prayer doesn’t change diapers. I have been the person at more than one death bed. The usual scenario is that there are few willing to sit silently watching another die while waiting for the next dirty diaper, especially when that diaper is on an adult. All the flowery language about life in the universe doesn’t bring people to rock unwanted babies or hold the hands of a diapered man.

    • Joanne Ciocys

      u r right. Prayer doesn’t change diapers. But prayer reveals to the diaper changer the blessing of changing diapers, the honor of rocking unwanted babies, the transforming power of holding the hand of a diapered man. For most of us, the beginning and end of life involve a temporary vocation of allowing ourselves to be cared for at our most vulnerable and thus participating in the conversion of our brothers and sisters.Blessed be God!

      • Y. A. Warren

        Unfortunately, there are few who are in a position to live on blessings. Most vulnerable people in our hurried modern society are warehoused in hospitals, nursing homes, and day care facilities where diaper changing and caring for other basic needs are minimum wage jobs, not an honored vocation.

        • Joanne Ciocys

          Many volunteers are needed to supplement the efforts of the hospital and nursing home workers. No doubt about that. Certainly i know many a good-hearted nurse or cna who had to leave nursing employment b/c they were broken by witnessing needs they were unable to fill due to short-handedness etc. Any solution that doesn’t respect the life of the person in need is not a solution though. We need to feed the poor, care for the young, and tend to the ill and elderly, not kill them or help them to kill themselves.

    • TheWhiteLilyBlog

      Man, it’s not the end of the world to wear a diaper.

  • Matthew Levering

    Joanne, this is a wonderful reflection!! Let us pray that Jesus will enable us to bear our cross today, by carrying it partly for us!
    You and Michael V. should come visit Mundelein — an amazingly beautiful place. Probably not as beautiful as California, though!

    • joannemcportland

      Thank you, Matthew! I miss you and Joy and your family, and I’m so glad you’re in a place of beauty and (I trust) spiritual peace. You’re in my prayers.

  • Katherine

    It seems to me he has forgotten a fundamental truth: our dignity resides not on what we do but in recognition of our creation in the image of God and that inherent dignity is not ours to disregard or throw away. Dying with dignity is to accept with humility the means by which God calls us to Himself trusting that He knows best.

  • MichaelNewsham

    “If I had a chance to answer his question—”A scholar who can no longer
    read and write, what’s next?”—I would like to remind him that there is
    always prayer, Professor. Intercessory prayer and redemptive suffering,
    Father, for which one needs neither eyes nor steady hands.”

    Well, you could quote “They also serve who only stand and wait”, but given the source,it might not be appropriate for a Catholic site.

  • Johnny Vo

    So we are required to suffer as much as possible as we near our end in solidarity with all of our Christian brothers and sisters who have, are and will also suffer unto death? If that is your choice and belief, then that is indeed what you should do, no one should stop you. If others choose another way, so be it. Everybody must die. We can all agree to that. There is no right way to die. No right time to die. If a person wants to make a choice in his/her dying, they should be accommodated.

  • TheWhiteLilyBlog

    Yes. Good prayer. Good concept, that suffering counts. I had a heart attack a couple of years ago, and then went for the catheterization to put a stent in my arteries as needed, but it wasn’t possible, they immediately found that all five of my arteries were completely blocked and the surgeon spoke to me right there on the table about plan B going into effect in the morning, a complete re-build of my heart. So they took me back to the ‘staging area’ where everyone who had gone for a catheterization waited to be taken back to their regular room. While I was waiting they brought in another man to the cubicle right next to mine. He was sobbing. I overheard his cries to the nurse, understood that he had HIV, understood that his family had abandoned him because of his lifestyle, and apparently he had gotten the same news as I got, that his heart was shot, but I could tell they did not recommend Plan B, perhaps because his health was so poor anyway, since it’s a really rough surgery, as I was about to find out. He was so distraught that the nurse went to get help (maybe a calming shot). He was still crying and it was a heart-breaking sound. I got my nerve up and whispered hello to him and asked if I could say something to him, and he said Yes so faintly. So I said that if he knew Jesus Christ, that the terrible suffering he was facing now could be used to help save the world, just like Jesus’ suffering had. All he had to do was be sorry for his sins, really sorry, not making excuses but just admitting he’d been a sinner and he was sorry, all he had to do was ask for God’s mercy, and ask to join his suffering with Jesus’ on the cross, and God would accept it in the same spirit, and use it to help the rest of us sinners get to heaven. I ended by saying suffering was valuable and powerful and he probably was the richest man in the hospital, and then I paused, and said last, Did I say it clearly enough? Do you understand what I’m trying to say? You should go to a Catholic church if you can, they can say it better and baptize you if you’re not. And after a second, he stopped crying, and said, Yes,I understand, I understand, and put his hand up against the curtain on the other side, and I put my hand up to his, and then they came and got me to go back to my room, and I prayed for him the rest of the day. I did not get to find out what happened to him. The point to me was, Holy God, our Faith is powerful. Our Faith is useful! Because push comes to shove at such moments (for me, too, the next day). How lucky are those of us who know this truth. How armed we are against the very loss of dignity that Kung now fears, and must fear, since he apparently lost the sense of it. That suffering counts, that suffering is useful, that suffering can save the world. That we are not only objects of pity, left blind and suffering at the end, but engines of salvation. All who know this are lucky beyond our wildest dreams. You will know it well when it’s your turn.