A Dignified Debate about Dying

by Fr Anthony Egan SJ

The hostility with which some religious conservatives attacked Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s views on assisted dying is saddening. Whether one agrees with the Arch or not, Tutu has put the important question back on the agenda.

Tutu is not alone in this. In Britain, as proposed assisted dying legislation goes before Parliament, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has – like Tutu – weighed in on the side of ‘liberals’. And Carey is a more conservative Anglican than Tutu. In a survey conducted among churchgoers in Britain, the majority – including Catholics – are overwhelmingly in favour of accepting the possibility of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Have our two retired Anglican primates gone ‘soft’ on liberal modernity? Have Christians in Britain also been ‘contaminated’ by secularism? Have British Catholics not been properly catechised? Or is something else happening?

A careful reading of traditional Catholic moral theology might clarify things. It is true that the Church strongly opposes the direct killing of the innocent. This would seem to rule out the possibility of euthanasia.  The Church also opposes suicide, including all forms of assisted suicide.  They are supported by the law in almost all countries, as well as the World Medical Association.

However, it is also Catholic teaching that no extraordinary means are required to keep someone alive who is terminally ill with no hope of recovery. Defining extraordinary means is hard because it is scientifically and context dependent. What was 150 years ago a radical treatment, e.g. blood transfusion, is now quite ordinary. It is also context dependent: a modern, technologically sophisticated health service is available in some places, but not everywhere. It is conceivable that what is ordinary in some hospitals is extraordinary in others. In a perfect world everyone would have access to all the care they need. It is something we should aspire to – but we don’t live in this perfect world. Not yet.

It is also morally permissible for a patient to request the withholding of treatment in situations where it might delay the inevitable. Many countries accept ‘living wills’ and advanced directives of a patient where she might stipulate the point at which she considers further treatment with no hope of success futile and excessive. This it seems fits well with the Catholic principle of ‘no extraordinary means’ and with the teaching that we should take seriously the opinions of medical professionals in medical scientific matters.

Drawing on the classic moral doctrine of double effect, it is also conceivable that a terminally ill patient might be given painkiller medication even if it risks shortening his life, so long as the intention is to relieve pain and not to kill. Administering painkillers is morally neutral and in this case a good; the intention to relieve pain is good; if a person dies as a result, this is not direct killing but a side effect of these actions. These teachings come from Pope Pius XII in the 1950s – not a misguided radical theologian.

Desmond Tutu and George Carey have done the Church a service in challenging us to think more clearly about death and dying with dignity. They deserve at the very least a dignified and reasoned response.

Sex Abuse: Facing our Failures

Facing our failures

Russell Pollitt SJ

The sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Catholic Church worldwide has been one of the most disillusioning things I have had to face as a priest. It is a source of shame, anger and frustration for many Catholics who love the church. Since the crisis erupted in the USA in 2001 the church has, for many, failed to respond adequately. Protocols were put in place in an attempt to prevent such scandalous behaviour recurring. While these have been widely welcomed, many people feel that the church has not taken responsibility for what happened. Some church leaders have been accused of covering up abuse cases and others, after allegations were made, did not deal with offenders but moved them into other positions and so the cycle of abuse was perpetuated.

This week Pope Francis took an unprecedented leap forward. He not only apologised and expressed his own “deep pain and suffering” at what happened but admitted that for too long abuse has been “hidden, camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained…” He calls this scourge a “crime and grave sin” and says that these “despicable actions” are like a “sacrilegious cult.” He pledged a zero tolerance approach to the abuse of minors by clerics and lay people in the church. These are the strongest words that have ever been used by a pope to address the devastation caused by sex abuse in the church. There was mixed reaction to the pope’s hard words. Some abuse victims labelled this a “publicity stunt” and others feel that it still does not go far enough for justice to be done.

I understand the hesitancy with which some victims of abuse have reacted; abuse is evil and has destroyed lives and families. On the other hand I was encouraged by what Pope Francis said and did this week. This was his first direct meeting with victims of abuse but he setup a Commission for the Protection of Minors in December. He appointed Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, to head the commission. Boston was at the epicentre of the crisis in the USA and O’Malley was made archbishop and led the diocese during a very difficult time. He is one of few bishops who faced the crisis head on. By appointing O’Malley, Pope Francis gives a clear message: He wants someone who experienced and knows the destruction caused by abuse to work on this for the Universal Church. O’Malley is also a bishop in a diocese and not a curia cardinal, so he sees things from the ground.

Another reason for hope is the direct and strong language the pope used. A fellow priest remarked that this is the first time a pope has not just admitted abuse took place and apologised. Pope Francis admitted that there were cover-ups (a long standing complaint of many victims, some even labelling the cover-ups a “second” abuse).

For a long time the Catholic Church will have to live with this scourge and its aftermath which has lead to inconceivable pain for victims and their families. It has also cost the church huge financial payouts, damaged the image of the priesthood and eroded our moral authority. I hope the events in Rome this week are a strong signal to us all: Strive for transparency and take responsibility – even when it’s painful.

You can follow Russell Pollitt SJ on Twitter @rpollittsj

(#CatholicMEDIAexpo – 26 Jul 2014! All welcome, come and join us! 4 info: @JesuitInstitute)

If you want a weekly article like this for your parish bulletin click here and we will send it to you earlier in the week in time for publication. For more Jesuit Institute perspective go to www.jesuitinstitute.org.za

The Broken Body

by John Moffat SJ

‘When I was a stranger you made me welcome’.

This year at the end of Refugee week we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.  All around the Catholic world, parishes honour the real and life-giving presence of the risen and glorified body of Christ in our midst.  But the feast and the liturgies are not just a chance to bask in the warm glow of the glorious future to which we are called.  That glorious future is rooted in the realities of a beautiful, but fallen world, a world stamped by love and generosity but also by cruelty, fear and rejection.

The glorious body of Christ is the same body that was brutally nailed to the cross outside the walls of the holy city.  The words of loving self-gift spoken at the last supper are the prelude to a day of torture, rejection and death.   This is what it means for the God of love to enter fully into our world.  God enters into the heart of our darkness, becomes one, not with the rich and attractive, but with those who are objects of hatred, derision and rejection.  Only thus can all creation be restored.  The Son of God must break through our fatal, human capacities to fear, hate and wound what we do not understand with the power of an undying love.

So we cannot truly celebrate the real presence of Christ in the sacrament without committing ourselves to that other real presence of the Lord on our streets and in our prisons, those without food, clothes and shelter, the prisoners, the sick and, especially this week, the stranger in our midst.  Jesus words are as clear as his words ‘this is my body’ from the heart of the Mass:  whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.

So we cannot raise our eyes and venerate the Eucharist with integrity, unless we also open our eyes to the poor and the strangers in our midst.  We need a new vision: brothers and sisters, not foreigners; fellow human beings, sharing the good things of the earth, not economic competitors; an enrichment to our growing community, not a threat to our way of life.  We need to hear Jesus’ invitation to do things differently, to think differently, to find new, creative, more human ways to deal with the suffering humanity on our streets and in our townships.

The Eucharist also reminds us that to belong to the Body of Christ has a cost.  The pathway of love leads us to the fulfillment of the resurrection, but it leads through the cross.  Opening to the ‘outsider’ means a change of heart that can disrupt other relationships.  It can bring misunderstanding and rejection upon us too.  If we eat with public outcasts, we risk being treated like public outcasts.   But this is where the Lord went, and he asks us to follow him.   Here is the heart of our Eucharist.

If you want a weekly article like this for your parish bulletin click here and we will send it to you earlier in the week in time for publication. For more Jesuit Institute perspective go to www.jesuitinstitute.org.za