No Catholic can responsibly take a ‘pro-choice’ stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life. But a couple of supposedly “good” Catholics seem blissfully unaware that the Gospel of Life must be implemented by certain forms of social activity and commitment in the political field as a way of defending and promoting the value of life in our ever more complex and pluralistic societies.
During the election campaign at St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in Barrie, Ontario, Prime Minister Chrétien said: “For me, I’m a Roman Catholic. Personally, I don’t have to, you know, I’m not at the age anymore to have my wife have abortion, but the reality ... is that it is the choice of not the husband to decide in my judgment, it is the judgment of the woman according to the value that this person have.”
Joe Clark, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, on a Calgary radio program stated that he is ‘pro-choice’ and supports a ‘woman’s right to choose.’ “It is simply unacceptable that there should be a suggestion that 400,000 men in the country could force a referendum, on a woman’s right to choose.”
The conduct of both men is scandalous. Civil leaders have a duty, says Pope John Paul II, “to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures ... No one can ever renounce this responsibility, especially when he or she has a legislative or decision-making mandate which calls that person to answer to God, to his or her own conscience and to the whole of society for choices which may be contrary to the common good.” [E.V. 90]
For citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: we must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill or collude in killing of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate the life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in his image.
The church-state separation complex has been invoked time and time again in the abortion debate, especially by government officials and candidates who are Catholic. Seeking to imply adherence to church teaching but inability or unwillingness to allow their personal moral convictions to influence their behaviour, they have repeatedly resorted to “I’m opposed to abortion but I cannot force my morality on others.” Such statements are inherently problematic. It’s like saying “I’m opposed to child abuse, but I cannot force my morality on others.” That’s utter nonsense!
Furthermore, if on one issue the voice of conscience is stifled for political expediency, how can we be sure that this will not happen time and again?
Another ploy is for a candidate to claim that he or she is in agreement with the church, at least for the moment, on a wide range of other issues but not on the life issues. Some have sought to find refuge for this in the consistent ethic of life, though in fact their claim is an open contradiction. The consistent ethic of life is founded on the sanctity and value of human life and our responsibility to sustain, enhance and protect human life at every stage and in every circumstance from conception to natural death.
Every politician and would-be politician would do well to reflect on the unity of life of St. Thomas More. In him, there was no sign of a split between faith and culture, between timeless principles and daily life but rather a convergence of political commitment and moral conviction.
Italian Senator and former President Francesco Cossiga recently noted that in the humanistic activity which found More roaming from English to Latin and to Greek, and from political philosophy to theology, he united study with piety, culture with ascetical life, and the thirst for truth with the quest for virtue through a strict but joyful interior struggle.
As a lawyer and judge, he established the interpretation and formulation of laws which safeguard true social justice and build peace between individuals and nations. More eager to eliminate the causes of injustice than to repress it, he did not separate his passionate but prudent advocacy of the common good from the practice of charity: his fellow citizens called him the ‘patron of the poor.’ An unconditional and benevolent dedication to justice with regard to the human person and liberty was the guiding rule of his conduct as a magistrate. While serving all, St. Thomas More knew well how to serve his king, that is the state, but wanted above all to serve God.
Absolutely faithful to his civic duties, he exposed himself to extreme risks for the service of his own nation. He managed to become a perfect servant of the state because he struggled to be a perfect Christian. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but unto God the things that are God’s.” He understood that these words of Christ, while affirming the relative autonomy of the temporal from the spiritual sphere, call upon the Christian conscience to bring the values of the Gospel to the civil sphere, rejecting any compromise, even if this means martyrdom faced with profound humility.
Politics was not, for him, a matter of personal advantage, but rather a difficult form of service, for which he had prepared himself not only through the study of the history, laws, and culture of his own country, but also and especially through the examination of human nature, its grandeur and weaknesses, and of the ever-imperfect conditions of social life.
Politics was the overflow of a tremendous comprehension and he was able to show the proper hierarchy of ends to be pursued by government, in the light of the primacy of Truth over power and Goodness over utility. He always acted from the perspective of final ends, those which the shifting sands of historical circumstance can never nullify.
St. Thomas More, pray for Chrétien and Clark, and for all of us!
☩ Frederick Henry
One of my best reads of the year was Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. The book is a delightful thought-provoking chronicle of a relationship between a young seeker and his mentor who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative illness of the neurological system.
Mitch writes that in all the time he was sick, Morrie never held out hope that he would be cured. He was realistic to a fault. One time, he asked Morrie if someone were to wave a magic wand and make him all better, would he become the man he was before?
Morrie shook his head. “No way I could go back; I am a different self now. I’m different in my attitudes. I’m different appreciating my body, which I didn’t do before. I’m different in terms of trying to grapple with the big questions, the ultimate answers, the ones that won’t go away...”
And which are the important questions?
“As I see it, they have to do with love, responsibility, spirituality, awareness. And if I were healthy today, those would still be my issues. They should have been all along.”
At some time, in some way, we must all face the end of life. If you were suffering from a debilitating disease and only had a year to live, where would you like to spend your last months, in a hospital or at home?
- 96% of Canadians agree that it is important for terminally ill patients to be able to spend their final days in comfort and familiar surroundings
- currently 80% of Canadians want to die at home but 70% die in hospital due to lack of home care service availability
- 96% of Canadians agree that health care for the terminally ill should include social and emotional support, as well as medical care
- over 70% of Canadians strongly believe that providing non-medical care for a terminally ill loved one is too much for most families to handle without outside support
- nearly one in ten Canadians are caring for someone with a long-term illness.
Most of us share a common hope, i.e. to face death surrounded by those we love—feeling safe, comfortable, peaceful and free of pain.
A good death, regardless of the circumstances, means putting medical care in proper perspective and not allowing it to dominate. That is why thinking about the trajectory of illness is important. In sudden catastrophes, the role of the doctor and the health care team is to attempt to save lives. But when the outcome is less clear or the condition incurable, medicine needs to focus on palliation.
The word palliative comes from the Latin “pallium,” meaning a shelter or a cloak. Palliative care seeks to shelter the individuals from the distress of illness, relieve symptoms and maintain function and comfort. It provides physical, psychological, social, spiritual and practical support to people with life-threatening illnesses, and their loved ones.
We are used to recognizing that individuals with advanced cancer will die and that we can shift our therapy and planning to focus on comfort and quality. However, with other illnesses, the pattern of sudden crises resolved by medical technology interspersed with period of slow decline make us neglect the need to face the fact that death is the inevitable outcome. As a consequence, a lot of effort goes into acute rescue rather than planning for decline and working hard on symptom relief.
It was recently revealed that only 17 of the 69 people who committed suicide in Michigan, with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian between 1990 and 1998, were terminally ill and were likely to have lived less than six months. In the remaining 52 cases, the wish to die may be explained by the fact that 72% of the patients had experienced a recent decline in health status. Autopsies were unable to confirm the presence of any physical disease in 5 of the 69.
Overwhelmingly, Kevorkian attracted a group of people who were desperate and depressed and didn’t have the support systems to deal with their illnesses.
Frightened by the propaganda of death-seeking advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia, many feel that dying is an inherently awful process. Dying is not easy. There will always be existential distress and suffering for anyone conscious of decline and the loss of the good things in life.
I know that I will be very sad over the end of my golfing days, the loss of the hugs of family and friends in my life, a fine glass of wine, and the awesome beauty of so much of life. But I also know that there is no reason for me to be in severe pain, uncomfortable from shortness of breath, or desperate for relief from nausea and vomiting.
Regrettably, many good people are in favour of assisted suicide because they have witnessed deaths that are bad, filled with pain and marred by needless suffering. These have occurred because physicians, health care institutions, and governments have on the whole not made expert care of the dying a priority.
Given the expressed will of Canadians in polls, the idyllic days of government budgetary surpluses, tax cuts and rebates, it’s amazing that palliative care in Canada isn’t considered as an integral component of our current health care system.
We should work to change this state of affairs as we also attend to the important issues and questions identified by Morrie—love, responsibility, spirituality, awareness.
☩ Frederick Henry