Hans Kung is planning to take his life. Or so he said in an interview last week in the British Catholic weekly,The Tablet. Kung is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration, and polyarthritis in his hands. Determined not to go gentle into that good night, he has apparently decided that he will at some point travel to Switzerland in order to be assisted in committing suicide. His reasoning is threefold: he does not wish to live when there is no quality of life; his life is a gift from God and he intends to give it back to God; and death, like birth, is “our own responsibility.”
It is perhaps no surprise that someone who has spent a lifetime opposing the teaching of his own church on so many different issues (to the complete confusion of Protestants such as myself, I hasten to add) should choose to end his life in breaking one last church taboo. It is surprising, though, that his reasoning seems so weak. The analogy between birth and death seems entirely inappropriate to the case Kung is trying to make. His birth, after all, was no more his responsibility than my birth was mine. That is not just basic Christian teaching; it is a really rather obvious fact of life.
It would appear, therefore, that his own analogy should mean that his death is not his responsibility either, that there are much wider issues at play. And the language of responsibility and gift seems rather plastic as well: if life is a gift, if it comes to me from another, then my responsibility is not simply to myself, as Kung seems to assume. Indeed, to talk of having responsibility simply to myself is specious anyway. Such is really no responsibility at all, merely egoism scantily clad in the rhetoric of a hollow morality. Responsible only to myself, I am simply going to do exactly what suits me at any given point in time. Kung the radical libertarian: Who would have thought it would come to this?
Still, Kung does indicate that he might drink the necessary ingredient, rather than inject it. “I can do it like Socrates” was his precise comment, as recorded in The Tablet. One hopes that that is merely intended as a reference to the method of his departure, not his perception of its (and his) historic significance. Readers of his autobiography (only two volumes in English so far, and those only just reaching the 1980s in over 1,000 pages) have good cause to fear that it might well be the latter.