Pope John Paul, and also Pope Benedict, have referred to Western Culture as a “culture of death.” Fundamentally what this means is that, when confronted with human difficulties, the offered solution is increasingly, the death or non-existence of the person with the problem.
To illustrate this, I was recently talking with teenagers on the sin of abortion. One of the students said that she supported abortion because babies born to young mothers are more likely to have birth defects or diseases, and many of them will live in poverty. Thus it is best if they are aborted. I responded,
“Don’t you think that death is a strange therapy? What if you went to the doctor and he said to you, ‘You are obviously alive now, but someday, in the future you might loose a limb, or get sick, or you might loose your job and have to go on welfare, so I am going to kill you right now, here in my office.’ What do you think of this? Isn’t death a horrible and strange therapy? You would probably respond that you would like to live and take your chances.”
The young student silently reflected on the application I had made of her theoretically “compassionate” reason for abortion. I chose not to press her on it and we moved on with the discussion, but I think all in the room got the main point that death is a strange and horrifying therapy, even if it masquerades as compassion.
Yet our culture increasingly proposes death as the solution for many problems. If the infant in the womb is deformed, diagnosed with an inclination to disease, down syndrome or any poor prenatal diagnosis, the solution for many is to kill the child. Currently 90% of children in the womb who show a likelihood of Down Syndrome are aborted.
At the other end of life too, death, masquerading as compassion, is also evident. Euthanasia, or physician assisted suicide is more and more being considered a credible kind of compassion. But here too, death is a very strange and horrifying therapy. Really it is no therapy at all.
The Catholic Bishops of the United States just issued a policy statement on the question of physician assisted suicide entitled, To Live Each Day With Dignity. I want to present just a few excerpts here for our consideration.
The bishops begin by exposing the strange results of this false compassion:
The idea that assisting a suicide shows compassion and eliminates suffering is…misguided. It eliminates the person….
Pretty clear. You will know false compassion by it’s fruit: death, by the fact that it does not really eliminate suffering, it really eliminates the person. Death is not therapy. The bishops go on to say,
True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem. [Emphasis mine].
The false compassion of the culture of death in which we live also strips certain human beings of dignity (though it claims the opposite), since in effect it declares that their life is not worth living. Here again the Bishops say it very well:
By rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, the government implicitly communicates the message….that they may be better off dead. Thus the bias of too many able-bodied people against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is embodied in official policy. This biased judgment is fueled by the excessively high premium our culture places on productivity and autonomy, which tends to discount the lives of those who have a disability or are dependent on others. If these persons say they want to die, others may be tempted to regard this not as a call for help but as the reasonable response to what they agree is a meaningless life. Those who choose to live may then be seen as selfish or irrational, as a needless burden on others, and even be encouraged to view themselves that way.
This could not be better said. The claim of the “Right to Die” Movement that it is all about dignity is once again shown to result in precisely the opposite. For, in order to attribute this supposed dignity to some, it strips many more of the dignity they have. The poor, the disabled, the chronically and terminally ill (we are all terminal), are said, increasingly, to have lives not worth living. It would be better for them (us?) to be dead. Really, says who? Does it really bestow dignity on them for us to speak in this manner. And if some DO suffer anxiety or depression over their state, is killing them really to be considered a legitimate or credible therapy? Is this dignity?
The Bishops go on to beautifully remind us that the dying process may well be one of the most important and fruitful times in our life if we face it with faith. I have surely learned this in working with the dying. I experienced it most powerfully with my father, as he lay dying. Some very important things happened for him (and me) during those months. The dying process is often a gift in a strange package, and it is anything but meaningless. In fact, it is one of the most meaningful times of life. To short-circuit this by suicidal notions, or false compassion, is a terrible misunderstanding of the truth and grace available to the dying and those who care for them. The bishops say,
Respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome. Nor does it mean we should deprive suffering patients of needed pain medications….with the laudable purpose of simply addressing that pain (CCC, no. 2279).
[E]ffective palliative care can enhance the length as well as the quality of a person’s life. It can even alleviate the fears and problems that lead some patients to the desperation of considering suicide. Effective palliative care also allows patients to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves.
No one should dismiss this time as useless or meaningless. Learning how to face this last stage of our earthly lives is one of the most important and meaningful things each of us will do, and caregivers who help people through this process are also doing enormously important work.
Killing by assisted suicide is no therapy at all, it is killing. It is snatching from God’s hands the authority that is rightfully His. It is making arbitrary, and often self-serving, judgements about whose life is worth living, and whose life really “matters.” This is not dignity, it is not legitimate therapy, and it is not compassion to kill the patient.
It IS compassion to love the patient, alleviate pain, assist with comfort, show patience and understanding, listen and console.
The Bishops conclude well:
Jewish and Christian moral traditions have long rejected the idea of assisting in another’s suicide. Catholic teaching views suicide as a grave offense against love of self, one that also breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with family, friends, and God (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 2281). To assist another’s suicide is to take part in “an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, no. 66). Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, know that suicide is a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent. They realize that allowing doctors to prescribe the means for their patients to kill themselves is a corruption of the healing art. It even violates the Hippocratic Oath that has guided physicians for millennia: “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan.”
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Photo Credit: Screen from the video by Romereports.com