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Human responsibility the basis for human rights, Küng says

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

It’s not that Hans Küng is too big for the Catholic church, or the church too confining for his scholarship. It’s rather that the Swiss theologian has gradually turned his attention to a broader arena -- the world -- since the Vatican sacked him as a Catholic theologian in 1979.

In the nearly two decades since Rome withdrew his missio canonica, or license to teach Catholic theology, Küng has expanded his vision beyond change in the church and toward what he terms “a realistic vision of the future.” In his latest book in English, and his fourth on the subject since 1991 -- A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (Oxford University Press, 1998) -- he places a tall order: universal ethical standards and a vision of peace among nations.

The latter won’t occur without peace first among the religions, he says. And Küng has spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s studying and writing about the world’s religions.

Filming a Jewish wedding

NCR spoke with Küng, now professor emeritus at the University of Tübingen, Germany, during a recent visit to New York. He came to film a Jewish wedding -- part of a seven-hour television series he’s developing to present the major world religions and their contribution to global ethics and world peace.

It’s a project that is taking him to El Salvador, India, China, Japan, Australia, Zimbabwe and Israel, and one that he hopes to see aired on networks around the world next fall. The series is sponsored by the Global Ethic Foundation, which Küng heads in Germany and Switzerland. The foundation is underwritten by a 5 million Deutschemark grant from its founders, Count and Countess van der Groeben of Germany.

Since becoming its president in 1995, Küng has met with bankers, heads of corporations, government and faith leaders, presenting the case for establishing universal norms that cross political, economic and religious lines, but are morally acceptable to all -- even nonbelievers.

“The reason why human rights are not realized in many nations is because there is no moral impetus behind them,” Küng said. Without moral energy, politicians and statesmen will merely do what is “opportunistic, comfortable or politically expedient,” not what is right and necessary.

He points to Bosnia and argues that had the United States, Germany, France and Britain agreed that they would not tolerate war in former Yugoslavia, but would intervene, the bloodbath and ensuing loss of human rights could have been averted. What the Western powers lacked was a clear ethic and the will to abide by it, he said.

Küng also finds moral decay in global economic trends. In June of 1997, he and German President Roman Herzog stood atop the tallest skyscraper in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, surveying the landscape of one of the prominent Asian “tigers.” Within days, Thailand was forced to devalue its currency, the baht, and soon after Asian economies from Jakarta to Tokyo fell into disarray.

The Indonesian situation, with its beating of Chinese shopkeepers, looting of businesses, rape of women and run on the banks “showed clearly that the crisis was not just economic, but also moral,” he said. On the economic side, widespread cronyism, nepotism and corruption were all activities that Western leaders and firms knew about and even encouraged, he said.

Küng criticized both former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s fishing expedition with Indonesian President Suharto while Suharto was in office, and President Clinton’s starting his China trip in Tiananmen Square. “As heads of state they have to visit, but they should also show they disagree with these violators of human rights,” he told NCR.

Küng is convinced that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights will not be heeded without first a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility. The United Nations has been working on such a proposal. Several nongovernmental organizations -- including church groups represented at the United Nations -- discussed the idea in “values” caucuses that preceded the 1995 conferences on social development and on women.

If one were to view the Human Rights charter as a chair, its four legs would be the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, the founding of the Red Cross in 1864, the League of Nations in 1920 and the United Nations in 1945, Küng said. Each of these compacts was designed to grant liberties, mitigate suffering, resolve disputes, protect human rights and keep peace.

Shared obligations

But the existence of the Human Rights declaration has not outlawed human rights abuses in China, Tibet, Myanmar, Indonesia, Israel, Palestine, Bosnia and elsewhere. While every right implies obligations, there are certain responsibilities that have yet to be included in human rights, Küng said, even though an acknowledgment of these principles is fundamental to the assurance of human rights.

Küng advocated a universal document that would set forth concrete human responsibilities associated with human rights. It would state that all people share an obligation to:

  • contribute to the common good;
  • consider the impact of their actions on the security and welfare of others;
  • promote equity, including gender equity;
  • safeguard the interests of future generations by pursuing sustainable development and protecting the global commons;
  • preserve humanity’s cultural and intellectual heritage;
  • be active participants in governance; and
  • work to eliminate corruption.

The principles of human responsibility were expounded by the 25-nation Commission on Global Governance that met in Oxford in 1995. The commission stems from an initiative by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who established it in 1992 with the backing of the then U.N. Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous Ghali.

Küng said there is support for such a charter from many quarters, including the Inter-Action Council, which consists of ex-heads of state led by another former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. Others on board are Jimmy Carter, Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias Sanchez, Mexico’s Miguel de la Madrid, Canada’s Pierre Trudeau, France’s Valery Giscard D’Estaing, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Japan’s Kiichi Miyazawa and Australia’s Malcolm Fraser.

Küng met with the group in Vancouver on May 22, 1996, when the former heads of state approved a report titled, “In Search of Global Ethical Standards.” The report draws heavily on the 1993 Chicago Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which Küng drafted.

That much-debated statement has served as a working document on global ethics at several subsequent gatherings. Widely published, it has sold 40,000 copies in Germany alone. In March 1996 Küng, along with Austrian Cardinal Franz König, met in Vienna with leading Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Shinto leaders and with some former heads of state. The group’s endorsement of the report on global ethical standards helped to affirm the statement made by the former presidents and premiers in Vancouver.

The ex-heads of state noted that what the United Nations proclaimed in its Human Rights charter is “confirmed and deepened” by the parliament’s declaration “from the perspective of human responsibility.” The statesmen are also convinced that “there will be no better global order without a global ethic,” Küng said.

Despite what he called “limited successes” among world political and religious figures, Küng believes that enormous work remains to “alter the consciousness of humanity.” He is convinced that such change can occur, adding that “millions realize that politicians must act, not only talk.”

Just how likely are the world’s elder statesmen and Bretton Woods executives to heed the advice of a theologian? Küng deflects the charge of political naiveté or moral arrogance by pointing to a half-century of study and 60 years of reading daily papers. Neither a pessimist nor an optimist, he calls himself “a realist.”

Attitudes are changing

Küng said he finds hope in what he has observed over the past two decades: changes in attitudes toward war and disarmament, toward the economy and ecology, and new partnerships between men and women.

What prompts people to be concerned for the fate of the earth and the future is less important than their taking shared responsibility for peace, justice, the preservation of creation and a renewed ethic, Küng said. He credits his own engagement in these questions to “a kind of hidden hand” that has been guiding him since Rome censored him and changed his job title 19 years ago.

“Even in my darkest time when I didn’t see any future, the way forward kept opening up with possibilities for new adventures. I was always challenged by new opportunities,” he said. He finds a parallel in the gospel where John speaks of Christ as “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

In A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, Küng says that he could not have survived so long “in the face of so much darkness in the world and the church without this light.” But for him the light of Christ is no mere consolation in a future world, but “a basis for commitment, protest and resistance against unjust conditions here and today ... strengthened by hope in God’s kingdom.”

At 70, Küng mused: “I’m ready to stop whenever it’s time, though I would prefer to die on duty.”

To read the U.N. declaration on human rights, click the Documents button on the NCR Online page, then click The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998