Scott Paeth is professor of religious studies at DePaul University. His books include The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (2013) and Public Theology for a Global Society: Essays in Honor of Max Stackhouse (2010, co-editor). Paeth holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary.
The news of Hans Küng’s death on April 6, 2021 created the occasion for a multitude of reflections and assessments of his place in the firmament of twentieth and twenty-first century theology. His role as a theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council is widely known, as are his substantial contributions to the development of post-Vatican II theology. It was hard to find a priest’s or theologian’s bookshelf in the 1970s that was not dominated by Küng’s massive tomes, such as Does God Exist and On Being a Christian. And of course, his conflicts with the Vatican, leading ultimately to the revocation of his license to teach Catholic theology, have been well rehearsed. Yet when all these contributions and controversies have been forgotten, what will remain as Küng’s most significant contribution will be his work in the development of the idea of a global ethic.
On the one hand, the idea of a single common human morality, extending across religious and cultural boundaries, was certainly not unique to Küng. Catholic theology grounds its understanding of morality in the principle that there is a “natural law” that undergirds all human experience, and thus a communal moral self-understanding is a dimension of who we are as creatures of God. What Küng offered to the discussion was not a new foundation, but a systematic and sustained analysis of what such a moral self-understanding implies in the context of a religiously and culturally diverse global society, one in which people of differing worldviews and assumptions were no longer separated but were able to interact with one another on a daily basis. What he foresaw was the global reality into which we were only just entering in 1993 when, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, he called for reflection on what a genuinely global ethic would entail.
What Küng offered to the discussion was not a new foundation, but a systematic and sustained analysis of what such a moral self-understanding implies in the context of a religiously and culturally diverse global society.
While general statements about the commonality of moral principles are not uncommon among different faith groups, the concept of a global ethic seeks to go further, demanding an account of the concrete ethical responsibilities that must attend a set of universal moral obligations. Küng pressed for the development of general principles that could guide action amid the real-world challenges of globalization. The erosion of economic boundaries that escalated in the 1990s, now taken for granted in discussions of the global economy, created new problems of political governance and responsibility, which the existing institutions of global politics were inadequate to address.
Thus, Küng called for a set of ethical norms that could speak to these problems. The solutions he sought were those that could create a sustained and sustainable global future in which both political and economic structures were oriented toward the good of all, rather than the interests of a few. As he noted in A Global Ethics for Global Politics and Economics, this requires a fundamental change in the way that we think about ourselves and our world, a new vision, and a new consciousness. That book, written in 1998, offers a set of proposals that seeks to guide institutions toward the integration of a global ethic into their institutional forms. At the time the book was written, much of what that might look like was as yet unclear. And in a time of (relative) global prosperity, it was (relatively) easy to imagine that institutions and polities might indeed be able to reform themselves and conform to such a vision. In 2021, with decades of hindsight, optimism is harder to come by.
The solutions he sought were those that could create a sustained and sustainable global future in which both political and economic structures were oriented toward the good of all, rather than the interests of a few.
In a very real way, we have lived the first two decades of the twenty-first century in the midst of an apocalypse: an unveiling of the limitations and structural faults of the institutions—political, economic, and religious—that we relied upon as guarantors of the possibility of global justice. The attacks of September 11, the July 7 London bombings, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the buffeting waves of repeated economic crises, and now a global pandemic have revealed the fault lines that a heedless globalization chose to ignore. And we have found ourselves ill-suited as a global society to respond in ways that were either moral or effective. One might look at such circumstances and argue that the idea of a global ethic has been shown to be a naïve pipe dream.
However, I would argue that, on the contrary, the past two decades have shown more clearly than ever the importance of precisely the vision of a global ethic to which Küng dedicated himself. It was just because we lacked the collective will to embrace the imperative to a global ethic that our institutions failed to be responsive to the challenges of terrorism, war, economic collapse, and global pandemic. The rise of ethno-nationalism around the globe discloses the degree to which we have failed to cultivate a set of ethical norms grounded in our shared humanity. A truly human future will only be possible to the degree that we are able to embrace a global ethic such as Küng’s and integrate that ethic within institutional forms at all levels of society, from the most local to the truly global.
A truly human future will only be possible to the degree that we are able to embrace a global ethic such as Küng’s and integrate that ethic within institutional forms at all levels of society, from the most local to the truly global.
Thus, as we mourn the death of Hans Küng, we may look forward to the resurrection of his vision for a world society unified in a common moral purpose. This is the vision of which he spoke, which he saw as the work of the new millennium. It is the work that this millennium has thus far failed to undertake. And yet, it is only through the embrace of this vision, and the transformation of our consciousness for the sake of that vision, that there is a realistic future for the world that is not a mere repetition of the past 20 years. Whether the apocalypse we have experienced is the opening of a social and environmental end times or the doorway to a new, better world depends on the degree to which we find it within ourselves, not only individually but collectively, to strive to live according to a genuinely global ethic.