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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