Catholic rebel Kueng, 85, considers assisted suicide

By Tom Heneghan

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.

KüngKueng, 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.”

Kueng has championed reform of the Catholic Church since its 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, where he was a young adviser arguing for a decentralized church, married priests and artificial birth control. The Council did not adopt these ideas.

A professor at the German university of Tuebingen since 1960, Kueng was stripped by the Vatican of his license to teach Catholic theology in 1979 after he questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility and ignored Vatican pressure to recant.

The university responded by making him a professor of ecumenical theology, securing him a post from which he wrote dozens of books, some of them best-sellers, and many articles.

NOT LIKE JOHN PAUL OR MUHAMMAD ALI

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?”

Kueng, who repeatedly criticized the now retired Pope Benedict during his papacy, described Pope Francis as “a ray of hope”. He disclosed that the new pontiff had sent him a hand-written note thanking him for books that Kueng sent to Francis after his election in March.

It seems highly unlikely the new pope will include support for assisted suicide among possible Church reforms he was discussing with eight cardinals in Rome on Wednesday.

Speaking in Sardinia in late September, Francis denounced a “throwaway culture” that committed “hidden euthanasia” by neglecting and sidelining old people instead of caring for them.

A spokesman for Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocese, where Tuebingen is located, said Kueng’s views on assisted suicide were not Catholic teaching. “Mr Kueng speaks for himself, not for the Church,” Uwe Renz told Stuttgart radio SWR.

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Culture Wars and the End of Life

“I would like to propose that the end of life be sanctioned as a culture war-free zone.”

Perhaps you were following the heart-wrenching story that’s been coming out of the state of Ohio this summer. (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) It involves the odyssey of John Arthur and his partner of 20 years, Jim Obergefell. John is in hospice care; he is in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neurological disease, which robed him of his ability to walk, talk, and which will very soon kill him. John and Jim wanted to marry before John died, but Ohio prohibits marriage between same-sex people. Their only option was to travel to another state, one that would allow them to marry.

culture_warsWhen the Supreme Court struck down DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) last June, Jim and John knew they had a very brief window of opportunity to codify their relationship in the same way as any loving heterosexual couple might. They chose to travel to the state of Maryland to be married, but getting there and back would be a daunting task. John needed a medical transport plane that could accommodate his stretcher, a trip that would cost some $13,000. Undeterred, they appealed to friends and family for help. Their appeal was met by enormous generosity and, in a matter of days, all the necessary funds were raised.

By mid-July all was ready. Jim and John along with a nurse, two pilots trained in emergency medicine, and John’s aunt, Paulette, an ordained minister, boarded a Lear jet in Cincinnati for the short flight to Baltimore. The marriage ceremony, which took place on the airport tarmac, and in which John and Jim exchanged rings, lasted only seven and a half minutes. A champagne toast followed. And after just 56 minutes on the ground they were headed back to Cincinnati. A triumph of the human spirit, I dare say.

John and Jim’s marriage license could change many things about John’s end of life care and the disposition of his estate after his death. Health insurance, for example might be less of an issue now that they are legally married. Their marriage license might very well open doors to other legal remedies for numerous other thorny problems from Social Security benefits, income and estate tax and probate concerns to the federal Family Medical Leave Act. But none of this has been tested. No one yet knows what federal benefits a same-sex couple might qualify for if they live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage. And what are the implications for a couple, who leaves their state of residence, one that bans same-sex marriage, to marry in another state, one that allows it? It’ll be years before it’s all sorted out.

Within days of this headline-grabbing wedding, a federal judge in Ohio ordered state officials to recognize Jim and John’s marriage. When John dies his death certificate must acknowledge Jim as his spouse, so stated the decree. However, just one day later, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine appealed that judge’s ruling. And so the legal limbo continues. John won’t live to see the end of this and maybe a lot of us won’t either.

I can’t help but think about how this culture war is further complicating John’s already difficult dying. And I’ve had to ask myself: What about the professional people who attend John as he dies? Surely each of them has an opinion as to the morality, and the legality of Jim and John’s marriage. Will they be able to do their job as well as respect Jim and John’s marriage and the privileges it bestows on them without letting their personal prejudices get in the way? A tall order that!culture-wars

Despite all the new marriage equality laws, on both the state and federal level, the issue of compliance remains an open question. Here in the state of Washington, for example, we’ve had marriage equality since late last year. But there have been several high-profile cases lately where wedding venders have refused service to same-sex couples as they plan their ceremony. A florist refused, on religious grounds, to provide flowers to one of her long-time customers, a gay man, when he asked her to supply the arrangements for his wedding. Similarly some wedding officiants, caterers, and venue managers, because of their religious scruples, have also been refusing service to same-sex couples. Even some state registrars wanted an exemption, on religious grounds, from providing same sex couples a marriage license. While these things are disconcerting and bothersome to say the least, they are not a matter of life and death. One can always find another florist or caterer, right? The same cannot be said of palliative and hospice care.

Can a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, social worker, or attendant deny care or respect for the intimate relationship(s) of one of their patients, on religious grounds? Can a parent or other family member interfere with the care of a dying relative, or usurp the rights of a dying person’s spouse simply because the spouse is of the same gender as the person dying? Right now, I believe, the answer is an unqualified, “yes.”

That’s why I would like to propose that the end of life be sanctioned as a culture war-free zone. Dying is hard enough without having to worry about who will be honoring whom and what as we die. I believe that we all ought be offered a refuge from such worries at the end of our lives. If the culture wars must continue, as I know they will, let them rage somewhere other than where our life, or the life of someone we love, is ebbing away.

Longfellow And The Deep Hidden Woods

The stories we read to and tell our children become the basis of their understanding of the world. Stories contribute to their language development as well as their critical thinking, and coping skills. Death and grief are particularly thorny subjects to communicate to children, not because our children are incapable of grasping the message, but because we, the adult storytellers, are often unprepared for, or uncomfortable with, the topics ourselves.

 
 

I am proud to announce the publication of my second children’s book

Longfellow And The Deep Hidden Woods.

 
 

Longfellow, the bravest and noblest wiener dog in the world…

 

As our story begins, Longfellow is a puppy learning how to be a good friend to his human companions, old Henry and Henry’s nurse Miss O’weeza Tuffy. By the end, Longfellow has grown old himself, but he is still ready for one final adventure.

 

What happens in between is an unforgettable and heartwarming tale that throws a tender light on the difficult truths of loss and longing as well as on our greatest hopes.

 
 

Click on the book cover below to buy!

Longfellow cover

 
 

The Longfellow story is perfect for introducing children, ages 4-9, to the concepts of death and bereavement for a family member, friend, or beloved pet. It is up-lifting, life-affirming, and hope-filled.

 
 

I hope you enjoy this sampling of the beautiful illustrations my collaborator, David Cantero, prepared for this book.

We’re the lucky ones!

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
— Richard Dawkins

 

It might be odd to start a column about spirituality at the end of life with a quote from Richard Dawkins the noted atheist, but I believe there are plenty of spiritualties that don’t involve organized religion or even a divine being per se. So maybe he’s not as far off the mark as some traditionalists think.

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphysics lately, because there have been several articles in the press lately that discuss the clinical efficacy of prayer in medical settings. Curiously enough, most researchers in this area of study will admit that it is very difficult to measure such things, but apparently antidotal evidence abounds and thus the continued interest.spirituality

For example, in one study sited by a doctor in her recent Boston Globe article, strangers were instructed to pray for patients undergoing heart surgery. The prayers did not seem to improve the patients’ outcomes. In fact, the study goes on to say, if the patients were told they were being prayed for, they had more postoperative complications. But for every study that finds a dubious connection between prayer and its effectiveness there is another study that suggests just the opposite—prayer as being powerful and transformative.

So I got to thinking; maybe it’s not so much if people pray, but rather what people pray. And maybe, just maybe, it is what we pray for, if we pray at all, that might be the determining factor in whether or not our prayers are answered or even perceived to be answered.

What I know for certain is, much of what passes for spirituality, particularly at the end of life, is fear based—dealing with divine retribution. It never ceases to amaze me that people continue to pray to a God that is abusive. Isn’t that like paying someone to beat you?

Many people embrace a spiritual path that teaches that there is merit in suffering. This, they believe, is a way of atoning for one’s sins. (I’ve always thought that such a philosophy was a no brainer since life is full of suffering and we humans are such flawed creatures.) But if there is virtue in suffering, how can suffering that makes us bitter and angry and at odds with our self and our God be the source of merit?

I reminded of the groundbreaking work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has a lot to do with spirituality, and not always in a good way. For example, consider the bargaining stage. Traditionally this stage involves attempting to bargain with God to miraculously change the course of one’s life—I was dying, but now I’m not.

If one prays for deliverance—that this cancer be cured or this terminal diagnosis be reversed—perhaps the prayer will seem to go unanswered, because we are all mortal. But if the prayer is for serenity, under these same trying circumstances, perhaps that prayer will be answered, because serenity is easier to come by than a cure.

In the end, I think Professor Dawkins is right; we are lucky. Our existence, be it a quirk of cosmic fate or personally designed by the hand of God, makes us special. And regardless if we thank our lucky stars, or thank divine providence, our prayer of thanksgiving will always be answered, because, simply put, giving thanks is its own reward.

It Never Entered My Mind

“Though we may be sick, even sick to death, we don’t stop being human. And our desire for the intimate connections we have with those we love remain intact until we die.”

 

 

This is how the conversation started. She said, “It’s hard to talk about this, but I need to tell you what happened.” I said, “OK! Yes, talking things through is often helpful.”

Rebecca is 68 years old. Her husband of 46 years, Jim, age 72, is in a Midwest hospice. He will die very soon. Rebecca tells me, that she and her husband were blessed with good health throughout their long lives. In fact, the only time either of them was in a hospital was for the births of there three daughters. However, six months ago Jim began to complain of a persistent stomachache. His interest in food evaporated. He began to lose weight and he felt tired and run down most of the time. At first he chalked it up to stomach flu, but the symptoms just wouldn’t let up.

hospice025Fast forward five months, past the initial visit with his family doctor, and the blizzard of tests, and the arrangement to see out-of-state oncologist, and an avalanche of more tests, to Jim and Rebecca’s day of reckoning. “Jim, I’m afraid your cancer is inoperable.” His oncologist tells them. “We could try an intensive campaign of chemotherapy and radiation to slow the growth of your tumors, but that’s about all that is humanly possible.”

The doctor’s verdict hit them both like a semi. They left for home the next day. They wisely decided to forego the chemo and radiation and opted for as much quality of life that divine providence would afford them, which, by all accounts, would no more than a month or two.

“It all happened so fast. There was precious little time for Jim to even say goodbye to our daughters and their families, all of who live out of state.” Rebecca is recounting Jim ’s last few days at home. “Our house is not set up for the kind of care Jim was going to need, so we looked to hospice.” Tears pool in Rebecca’s eyes. “I feel like I’m on a run-away train heading, at top speed, for a derailment. I’m terrified and helpless.”

“Jim and I have always been close. I don’t think we spent more than a few nights apart in 46 years of marriage. And we’ve always been very affectionate with one another, even in public. Our friends used to kid us about behaving like newlyweds. They would joke and say, “Hey, get a room!” I think they were all secretly jealous.”

Rebecca is now spending all her waking hours with Jim at the local hospice, which is basically nothing more than a glorified hospital ward. But she tries to make the best of it. She brings linens and towels from home and family pictures and fresh-cut flowers fill Jim’s room. They hold hands and reminisce when Jim isn’t zonked out on morphine. And when he is out of it, Rebecca still holds his hand while she prays.

“Last week Jim had a real bad spell.” Rebecca continues. “He was uncomfortable and agitated. I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing I could think of. It’s exactly what I would have done if we were home. I kicked off my shoes, took off my sweater, and climbed into bed with Jim. He was lying on his side, so I slid one of my arms under his neck and I draped my other arm over his abdomen. I nuzzled his neck. I could actually smell him, like I remember him smelling before the hospital odors dominated. In a matter of minutes my embrace calmed us both. It was such a beautiful moment, I’ll never forget it.”

Unfortunately, the reason Rebecca won’t forget that final embrace is not because of the tenderness and intimacy she was sharing with her dying husband, but because shortly after she lay down with Jim in his bed, one of the hospice nurses barged into the room.hospitalbed

“The nurse, hands on her hips like some schoolmarm, face aglow with disapproval, glared at me.” “What do you think you are doing? We can’t have this sort of thing in here. I’ll have to ask you to leave that bed immediately.”

“Well you would have thought we were caught in an indecency. I stammered for words to explain, but no words came out only a groan. I was so ashamed. I must have been beet-red with embarrassment. It took me a few moments to untangle myself from Jim and find my footing on the floor. Luckily Jim slept through the whole thing. Bless him.”

Tears are now streaming down Rebecca’s face. “It never entered my mind that cuddling with my dying husband, soothing and comforting him, might be interpreted as something inappropriate. When the nurse finally left the room, I hung my head and wept.”

This is a cautionary tale; though we may be sick, even sick to death, we don’t stop being human. And our desire for the intimate connections we have with those we love remain intact until we die.

So many of us are thoughtless about the intimacy needs of those around us. Is this a sign of our culturally induced unease with sex? Probably. But when our thoughtlessness impacts on the lives of those who, for whatever reason, are incapacitated, that disregard can be devastating. Regardless if our neglect is careless or intentional the injury is the same.

Those of us who care for and attend sick, elder and dying people need to be particularly vigilant to our prejudices and discomfort around sex, sexuality, and intimacy. Jim’s thoughtless nurse compounded Rebecca’s grief and anguish with guilt and shame. This professional woman should have known better. She violated her patient’s privacy and then shamed her patient’s wife for an innocent act of loving care. And for what?

I believe we ought afford all people, especially those who are incapacitated, a modicum of privacy. I believe that personal privacy should be part of every patient’s bill of rights. Curiously enough, the privacy of our medical records takes precedence over our own personal privacy. What a strange world we live in. And I also believe that when we violate the privacy rights of another it’s a form of abuse and harassment.

On Death and Dying

By M.G. Piety

One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

otis-elementary-school-21But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys this sense of connectedness very well. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course the man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

Complete Article HERE!