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Issue Date:  September 3, 2004

Hopeful realist Hans Küng points pathway to global ethic


Hans Küng will mark 50 years as a priest Oct. 10. Although he has been off the church’s official radar for a quarter century -- since being stripped of his canonical license to operate as a Catholic theologian -- he has never abandoned his quest to reform the Roman Catholic church.

These days he is devoting much of his effort to global ethics and world peace and to preparing the second volume of his memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom (NCR, Sept. 12, 2003). Almost two-thirds of the first volume deals with Küng’s reform agenda.

While the Swiss priest and scholar may no longer find a hearing in Rome, heads of state, corporate executives and world leaders are paying increasing attention to him.

Case in point: On Dec. 12, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke at Tübingen University, the German academy where Küng spent 30 years as a theologian and directed its Institute for Ecumenical Research, retiring as professor emeritus in 1996.

Tübingen is not exactly en route to London or Paris. Not even Brussels. But the busy Annan came after Küng handed him a note in Berlin 18 months earlier, asking him to lecture as a birthday gift to Küng on the occasion of the theologian’s 75th birthday.

Annan had to reschedule his initial talk because of the Iraq debate at the United Nations. “I cannot really think of this lecture as a gift from me to you,” the U.N. chief told Küng as he began his address. “It is you who do me a great honor, by asking me to speak on your home turf, on a subject -- global ethics -- about which you have thought as profoundly as anyone in our time.”

In 2002 Küng invited former Irish president and the then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to Tübingen. In her talk Robinson noted that Küng had introduced her to the concept of a global ethic. A year earlier Küng drew British Premier Tony Blair to his university where Blair delivered the first annual lecture of the Global Ethic Foundation, which Küng heads.

That Küng has gained a hearing far beyond Tübingen for his decade-long drive on behalf of universal ethical norms owes much to the four books he has authored on the topic and his ability to attract experts across the professions. If the good fairy could grant him any wish, he would ask for a set of moral guidelines that could cross political, economic and religious lines, yet be morally acceptable to all -- even nonbelievers.

In the new century he has taken his campaign to academics in China, government and religious leaders in Iran, politicians across Europe and most recently to entrepreneurs, deans of business schools and top managers in the United States.

NCR caught up with Küng recently in Pittsburgh where he was the featured speaker at the Carnegie Bosch Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and where his ideas on a global ethic were the subject of a workshop and lecture attended by some 200 business and academic leaders.

On the eve of his talk, at a dinner in the Duquesne Club -- where Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon had dined a century earlier and now looked down from oil portraits onto today’s business leaders -- Küng introduced NCR to German directors of the Bosch corporation and of DaimlerChrysler, who were attending the institute.

“When I had my troubles,” it was people at Bosch -- headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany -- “who supported me. They took care of me and I was very grateful,” Küng said. Bosch sponsored his studies of Judaism and Christianity that resulted in two books in the 1990s. It also underwrote his research for a third book on Islam.

Küng’s “troubles” came in 1979 when the Vatican banned him from teaching as a Catholic theologian, largely because he had opposed the doctrine of papal infallibility. It was a period of humiliation, heartache and depression for him, but a time when he began to turn his gaze onto questions of death, eternal life and toward the other great religions.

Küng has known firsthand what he calls “the dark sides of the religions.” He encountered it personally during his jousts with the Vatican and has seen it in the treatment Christianity and other religions have meted out to their critics. He had only to open a newspaper to see religion’s “disastrous effects” on conflicts in Ireland, Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Nigeria, India and Pakistan, he said.

But Küng, who describes himself as “always hopeful” and yet “a realist,” has also beheld the bright side of what religions can do for people. As doctrines and ways of salvation and liberation, “they can make sense.” They can promote peace and reconciliation and they can “still give men and women ethical standards and personal guidelines,” he said.

Küng did more than immerse himself in the sacred texts of these creeds. He went to several nations where Sikhs, Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians and Taoists live and keep their traditions.

Ethics in common

During his visits he experienced how little people of all religious know about one another or about what their ethical traditions hold in common. His studies and travels have emboldened him to believe that world peace is possible in his lifetime. Now 76, he hopes his remaining work can point a pathway toward universal peace.

For Küng, the road toward nonviolence does not start with disarmament, but rather with observing ethical principles in one’s private life and in the marketplace. In Pittsburgh, Küng acknowledged the “heavy responsibility” of addressing an audience of experts about economics, globalization and a global ethic. But recent scandals at Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Global Crossing and Halliburton had simplified his task.

So too had the resignation last year of Richard Grasso, former head of the New York Stock Exchange. Grasso’s appointment of cronies who saw nothing wrong with the chairman’s amassing a $187 million pay and pension packet was “not illegal,” Küng said, but “it certainly went against morality.”

Five years earlier Grasso had been Küng’s neighbor at a roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at which Küng had addressed the International Federation of Stock Exchanges concerning ethical standards for international financial transactions.

At that gathering Grasso did not disagree with Küng’s critique of the excessive self-interest, greed, bribery and corruption often associated with international commercial transactions. Nor did he take issue with Küng’s assessment of inadequate banking, finance and accounting systems that can sometimes be the nesting ground for slackness, opportunism and lack of discipline.

All this has lead Küng to conclude that ethics are not just “the icing on the cake. They’re not marginal … in shaping the global market economy,” he told the Pittsburgh meeting. In a financial world rife with fraud, lacking in loyalty and the spirit of compromise, what’s needed, he said, is a moral framework that is both “interdependent and interactive” with the economic functioning of markets, governments, civil society and multinational organizations.

Without such moral moorings, the developed world will continue to feel the effects of corporate scandals in lost jobs and pensions, and higher prices. The massive power outages that darkened North America and Italy last year demonstrate “an entirely new set of risks emerging from global capitalism” and threaten “an energy crisis of Third-World dimensions,” Küng said. Rather than sharing responsibility for the breakdowns and the scandals, economists and politicians engage in a game of mutual recrimination, he said.

Beyond these economic hazards, there is the larger dimension of recent worldwide protests against globalization seen in Seattle; Genoa, Italy; Cancun, Mexico; and Davos, Switzerland. In Küng’s view the demonstrations show that the ethical framework on which the world economy is based is highly questionable.

“I strongly believe that in the long run, the global market economy will only be accepted if it is socially acceptable,” he said. But how do entrepreneurs and business schools create a global consensus for a moral framework that can influence the behavior and decisions of managers and workers alike? The job appears as daunting as reconstructing the Ten Commandments.

U.N. Global Compact

But it need not be, Küng argued. Under Annan’s leadership the United Nations initiated in 1999 a U.N. Global Compact that respects human rights, supports the elimination of all forms of forced or child labor and promotes a response to ecological challenges. Already some 700 corporations worldwide have signed on.

The contents of the compact are in line with ideas expressed in the 1993 Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, which Küng drafted for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. In studying the Torah, Quran, the Bhagavad-Gita, Sermon on the Mount, the discourses of the Buddha and the sayings of Confucius, Küng found that compassion, love, equality and honesty are common threads embedded in the world’s religions.

All of the world’s main creeds sanction the humane treatment of each person and the observance of the Golden Rule. From these two principles stem core standards and values, which, if followed, will deliver the peace and justice the world dreams of and avoid the clash of civilizations that thinkers less optimistic than Küng have predicted.

These two sweeping ethical norms are “not utopian. They are a realistic vision of hope,” he told NCR. They play themselves out as injunctions and commitments:

  • Not to murder, torture, torment or wound, but to commit oneself to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life;
  • Not to lie, deceive, forge, manipulate, but to speak truthfully and act tolerantly;
  • Not to steal, exploit, bribe or corrupt but to work toward a culture of fairness and a just economic order;
  • Not to abuse sexuality, cheat, humiliate or dishonor, but to commit to a culture of partnership and equal dignity for men and women.

Humankind’s darker side -- what some call “the nature of the beast”-- has made many skeptical that the harmonious behavior proposed by Küng and enshrined in the world’s belief systems is remotely possible.

Küng disagrees. Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he finds himself “no longer a voice crying in the dessert.” He said his message has found greater acceptability and a wider audience since 9/11 and since Annan appointed him to a Group of Eminent Persons charged with promoting a universal dialogue among civilizations.

“What now seems clear to all is that problems of global terrorism, international crime, ecology, nuclear technology and genetic engineering threaten to overwhelm the world.”

Küng insists all the more that the globalization of the world economy, technology and communications must be supported by global ethics if the planet is to escape peril. This should not be an additional burden but the basis of a support for human beings, for civil society, he said.

In an interview with NCR in his hotel lobby, he returned to the mantra he delivered more than a decade ago in Chicago and scores of times since:

  • No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.
  • No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.
  • No dialogue between the religions without common ethical standards.
  • No survival of our planet in peace and justice without a global ethic.

Patricia Lefevere, a longtime contributor to NCR, lives in New Jersey.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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