Lives Lived: Hans Küng

Hans Kung

Theologian, engaged intellectual, proponent of interfaith dialogue, friend. Born on March 19, 1928, in Sursee, Canton of Lucerne, Switzerland; died on April 6, 2021, in Tübingen, Germany, aged 93.

The strength of the InterAction Council is the interplay between men and women who know the ways of power and world class intellectual experts who bring their insights and frameworks into the world of policy analysis. Hans Küng was the exemplar of the ideal of such an engaged public intellectual. Parish priest, professor, author of over 50 books, advisor to presidents, lover of Mozart, Küng is perhaps best remembered as an advocate of reform in the Roman Catholic Church. His disputes with the Vatican hierarchy were certainly long lasting and took an emotional toll on him personally, but he never backed away from his beliefs. Born into a large Swiss family, the eldest of five sisters and a brother, Hans decided to become a priest early on, leaving his girlfriend, he writes in his memoirs, after only one kiss. 

He was ordained as a priest in 1954, saying his first mass in St Peter’s Basilica to the Sunday service of the Swiss Guards, many of whom were from his home canton of Lucerne. Speaking six languages, and a brilliant student of philosophy, Küng received his doctorate in 1957 and, after initially serving as a local priest, he decided on the academic life, joining the faculty of theology in Tübingen University in 1960. Despite later controversies with the Vatican, Hans never left the priesthood though he developed a distinctive style of his own, favouring well cut suits rather than the vestments, driving a sports car and enjoying a glass of wine at the receptions of the Council.

The 1960s were a heady age of reform and Pope John the XXIII appointed Küng as the youngest expert advisor to the Second Vatican Council where he enthusiastically joined debates within the Roman Catholic church, advocating, for example, that contraception should be a personal choice. In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy invited Hans to the White House with the introduction: “this is what I would call a new frontier man of the Catholic church.” In 1971, however, Küng questioned the notion of papal infallibility and the Vatican revoked his position as an official Catholic theologian. 

These theological disputes gave Küng prominence, but I saw a very different side of his personality. I met him in 1996 when Helmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor of Germany, organized a series of interfaith dialogues for the InterAction Council around the theme of “No Peace Among Nations Until Peace Among Religions,” a famous public lecture by Küng. Years before 9/11 and the Clash of Civilizations thesis so prominent in the decades after that tragic event, guided by the insights of Küng, the InterAction Council took up the task of examining and promoting the notion that what unites us ethically from different faith traditions is far more important than what divides us. The result was the Council’s “A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,” now translated into 40 languages and designed to be a companion piece to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Curious, learned, sensitive and rigorous, Küng  was the perfect interlocutor between the representatives of the various faiths; he was delighted to cite, for example, that the Golden Rule of the New Testament “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” was in every faith tradition and would quote effortlessly Confucius, Hillel, Buddha, the Koran and others, making the explicit point that ethics is part of the natural order in all parts of the world.

In recent years illness prevented Hans from travelling but he still was alive with ideas and was often in contact about the agenda of the Council. The media may have portrayed Hans as a Catholic “rebel” but Council members, during his active years, knew him as a “connector” bringing together different traditions and finding common ground. Former US President Jimmy Carter once attended a plenary meeting of the Council for the explicit reason that he learned that a paper by Hans was on the agenda.

Hans Küng believed in the moral force of example and his own life is an example of how public intellectuals can use their gifts to enlighten, engage and bring about understanding. The InterAction Council cherishes his contributions and grieves that he is no longer with us.

Thomas S Axworthy is Secretary General of the InterAction Council.