How we deal with deteriorating health is a matter of faith

Hans Küng pictured in his office in Tübingen (CNS)

I was struck by a recent item on LifeSiteNews, stating that Professor Hans Kung, well-known Swiss theologian of progressive views – he had his licence to teach as a Catholic theology professor at Tubingen University removed because of his heterodox opinions – and a clerical contemporary of Benedict XVI, has written that he is “considering committing suicide because of his age and his fears of illness.” It seems that, writing in the third volume of his memoirs (some theologians, like some politicians, obviously have the urge to “put the record straight”) he has written that “Parkinson’s and macular degeneration, a prelude to loss of vision, has prompted him to consider suicide.”

Kung adds, “I don’t want to continue to exist as a shadow of myself. I also don’t want to be sent off to as nursing home.” The report says that “he is considering ending his life with the help of the Swiss Dignitas euthanasia facility.” It continues: “No person is obligated to suffer the unbearable as something sent from God. People can decide this for themselves and no priest, doctor or judge can stop them.”

The report reveals that this is not a new development of Kung’s thinking; in 1998 he published “Dying with Dignity”, an apologetic for assisted suicide, which he claims is in keeping with Christianity.

This is all very sad news. No-one wants to be faced with a prognosis of blindness and increasing immobility and however strong your faith, we might all wobble at such a moment. Nursing homes? Mental deterioration? “Sans everything”, as Shakespeare put it so graphically? None of us would anticipate such a prospect with eagerness. But, as the cliché has it, at the end of the day (or in this case, one’s life) what is faith about if it is not about trust in God, especially at the darkest moments of earthly existence? God does not condemn us to “unbearable” suffering as Kung seems to imply. Life is full of suffering, as a matter of experience and observation – it is written into its DNA; it is how we face it that divides people of faith from those without it. Compare the way Blessed John Paul II faced the infirmity of old age with Kung’s brisk and bleak secular approach and you see the difference.

Kung, like many people, has put his trust in his own mental powers and his bodily health. These are waning and the prospect is terrifying. Instead of entering into the dark night of spiritual purgation (the Christian approach to suffering) he wants to remain in control of his destiny while he still feels in control of it. Reading the news of this latest twist in his life, I am not surprised. If, as the report states, Kung became celebrated for “his persistent and vocal denial of certain key Catholic doctrines, including those on abortion, contraception, homosexuality and papal infallibility and the inadmissibility of female ordination to the priesthood”, this last action is the final and logical step in a life full of small steps away from the Church – and thus from Christ, her founder.

I read this news at the same time as noting another account of dissent in Fr Dwight Longenecker’s blog. He reports that Frida Berrigan, the niece of the famous US dissident Jesuit Fr Daniel Berrigan SJ, has written an article about “a kind of radical left wing Catholicism that soon ceases to be Catholicism.” Her memories of her childhood include no mention of the Rosary, a Eucharist of watered down wine and old bread, shared in a circle and “consecrated by whoever was ‘up’ that week and shared by agnostics, atheists, Jews and even some Catholics”. Frida Berrigan recalls that it was all “pretty informal”; one woman even shared the Eucharist with her dog. “On the rare occasions we went to church, we mumbled along with the prayers and tried to stand and sit when everyone else did.” It sounds shambolic.

The moral of all this is that when we try to remake the Faith in our own image we are destined to fail. Spare a prayer for Professor Kung. Whether you are an aged hippy priest or an aged dissident theologian, the future can look a little threadbare.