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Hans Kung: in search of a global ethic
by Diana Holland

Catholic theologian Kung speaks to the need for consensus on the values, standards and basic moral attitudes necessary to save humanity from itself. 


Professor Hans Kung of the University of Tubingen in Germany is a world-famous Catholic theologian and a prolific author who has long campaigned for a more liberal church. His book Infallibility and Inquiry created a great deal of controversy in the late 70s by challenging the doctrine of papal infallibility. His book On being a Christian remained for months on the best-seller list when it was published in 1974 in Germany.

A recent work, Global Responsibility, is the precursor to the drafting of the Declaration of a Global Ethic and its companion document, 'The Principles of a Global Ethic', which were presented at the Parliament of the World's Religions, convened last September in Chicago with 6,000 delegates in attendance. Dr Kung has the ability to capture the imagination of the average person and help him or her thoroughly to engage and ponder the critical questions facing Christianity and ethics today.

"The world is in agony," begins the 'Declaration of a Global Ethic', penned by Catholic theologian Hans Kung in the latest of a lifetime of works on the fundamental questions of ethics and religion in today's world. Against a backdrop of social disarray, marginalization of much of the world's population, tensions between the sexes and generations, religious strife and political collapse, begins the document, the world is experiencing a fundamental crisis. In short, states Kung, global economy, ecology and politics are all stymied by the lack of a grand vision and by mediocre political leadership, with too many old and ineffective answers to the new challenges.

"Never," states Kung, "has there been such a need for a mechanism to counter global distress. Fortunately, a common ethic already exists within all the religious teachings of the world. This can supply the moral foundation for a vision to lead men and women away from despair, and society away from chaos."

Kung defines the Declaration of a Global Ethic as a "minimal consensus concerning binding values, irrevocable standards and fundamental moral attitudes." Its principles can be affirmed by all persons with ethical convictions, whether religiously grounded or not, who oppose all forms of inhumanity. Though we possess today sufficient economic, cultural and spiritual resources to introduce a better global ethic, Dr Kung reasons, this will occur only when the peoples of the world live peacefully together and share responsibility in caring for the Earth. There can be "no new global order without a new global ethic."

So the Declaration of a Global Ethic seeks to go beyond laws and prescriptions and touch the instinct for justice in men and women, and to bring about a change in the inner orientation, the mentality and the hearts of people, so that they find once again their lives' direction, values and meaning.

Without glossing over the serious differences among the individual religions, the document affirms that the ancient wisdom common to all religions can point the way to the future, and it seeks to proclaim publicly those things which we hold in common and jointly affirm, each on the basis of our religious or ethical grounds.

Thus, the old commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' becomes, in positive terms, 'Have respect for life,' and calls for the safety of all minorities, social and political justice, a culture of non-violence, respect for the environment and universal disarmament. The directive 'Thou shalt not steal' becomes 'Deal honestly and fairly,' and decries poverty and the violence and counter-violence which occur in a wealth-polarized society, where theft becomes necessary for sheer survival and hatred and resentment inevitably well up. Just economic institutions need to be created and sanctioned at the highest levels, suggests Dr Kung, and limitless consumption curbed in the developed countries while the market economy is made socially and ecologically conscious. 'Thou shalt not lie' becomes 'Speak and act truthfully,' with particular focus on the media and politicians to become truly representative and accountable.

'Thou shalt not commit sexual immorality' becomes 'Respect and love one another,' calling for an authentic partnership between the genders, and a change in the institutions of marriage and family so that they secure the rights of all members to mutual respect, appreciation and concern.

After consultation in several arenas, the Declaration was presented at a meeting of 250 representatives of the world's great religions held concurrently with the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. Over 90 per cent of them personally endorsed the document as a suitable point of departure for further discussion and refinement. Ultimately, official ratification will be desired, by whatever process and authoritative body is intrinsically recognized by each of the great religions. The World Parliament served as a meeting ground for dialogue and launching rather than as a court of final ratification. Eventually, Dr Kung believes, a new document will be released, based on full consensus.

"There has been a thrust since Chicago, none the less, to get the current document into the consciousness of people," recently stated Father Thomas Baima, one of the trustees of the board of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, who added: "The Declaration has found a hearing and is taking on a life of its own." Indeed, he explains, the document has been republished extensively, not only by the small denominational press, but by major publications such as USA Today, which made it available as a full-page article last December to its 40 million readers.

Several ethics-based and major church organizations have convened special conferences to discuss the document, such as the Association of Professors of Ethics in the USA and the Association of Chicago Theological Schools, which represents the largest body of ecumenical Christians outside Rome. At its annual World Mission Institute in Chicago at the end of April, over 200 scholars representing the five major faiths - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism - discussed the Global Ethic in round-table sessions and in participatory forums.

In a brief interview with Share International during the Parliament, Dr Kung mused about change. On the one hand, he said, much of it happens over a long period, and depends on an infinite number of groups and individuals which are changing fairly slowly themselves. On the other hand, he stated, other changes, though hoped for, occur extremely rapidly, with no one truly expecting them, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the two Germanys. Such changes, he added, do not occur without difficulty. The Federal Republic of Germany experienced immense financial, social and economic problems with reunification, and had to face a double-edged problem with youth. On one side, he explained, were the youth of East Germany, who did not believe in the Communist ideology on which they were raised, and had no real sense of ethics. On the other hand were the youth of West Germany, quite often unemployed, with no sense of meaning in their lives, and prone to consider as enemies those who received subsidies for housing, relocation, etc.

At the beginning, concludes Dr Kung, the politicians did not realize that this dichotomy created a real danger. In the longer run, he believes, solutions need time to evolve, and also charismatic figures to come to the fore. He reiterated that mediocre leadership is one of the major problems the world is now grappling with, but recalled that great figures have emerged onto the world scene at times of crisis, like Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer and John Kennedy.

Citing recent scientific data that damage to the ozone layer is slightly decreasing, and expressing the hope that revolutionary applications will soon be found for the process of nuclear fusion, he stated that he is trying to bring hope to humanity, rather than concentrating on the negative aspects.

He believes that a magazine like Share International can help people not to despair, and concluded by paraphrasing two quotations from the Bible. One was 'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof' (Matthew 6:34), and the other added up to 'Give us light for the next step.' To Hans Kung, when you know what you have to do next, that is already quite a lot.


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005