death be not proud

The last few days feel like madness. I am thoroughly disgusted at the Passion Play that unfolded before my eyes at a time so close to Easter. It is highly ironic and utterly dispiriting that this Play inverts so many of the key motifs of the other, older play. The dynamic Son of Man who must die becomes the vegetative woman who must live on in near death to save us from our sins. Judas becomes a mother and father who seem deeply in denial, both about their daughter’s true state and the teachings of the Church that they belong to. The Sanhedrin becomes the chief governing body of the land… again meeting late into the night in order to decide the fate of an innocent. I wonder where our Pilate will be found… is he Dubya or some actor yet waiting in the wings?

The only solace that I’ve been able to find in the coverage of this debacle comes courtesy of Salon.com in an interview with Rev. John Paris, S. J., the Walsh Professor of bioethics at Boston College. In particular, I was very taken with this passage:

As a priest, how do you resolve questions in which the “sanctity of life” is involved?

The sanctity of life? This has nothing to do with the sanctity of life. The Roman Catholic Church has a consistent 400-year-old tradition that I’m sure you are familiar with. It says nobody is obliged to undergo extraordinary means to preserve life.

This is Holy Week, this is when the Catholic community is saying, “We understand that life is not an absolute good and death is not an absolute defeat.” The whole story of Easter is about the triumph of eternal life over death. Catholics have never believed that biological life is an end in and of itself. We’ve been created as a gift from God and are ultimately destined to go back to God. And we’ve been destined in this life to be involved in relationships. And when the capacity for that life is exhausted, there is no obligation to make officious efforts to sustain it.

This is not new doctrine. Back in 1950, Gerald Kelly, the leading Catholic moral theologian at the time, wrote a marvelous article on the obligation to use artificial means to sustain life. He published it in Theological Studies, the leading Catholic journal. He wrote, “I’m often asked whether you have to use IV feeding to sustain somebody who is in a terminal coma.” And he said, “Not only do I believe there is no obligation to do it, I believe that imposing those treatments on that class of patients is wrong. There is no benefit to the patient, there is great expense to the community, and there is enormous tension on the family.”

How do you square that with the Pope’s comments last year, which seemed to indicate that people in Schiavo’s situation should be kept alive?

The bishops of Florida did it very nicely when they said, “There is a presumption to use nutritional fluid, unless the continued use of it would be burdensome to the patient.” So it’s not an absolute. That statement is a recognition that the Vatican is inhabited by the same cross section of people that inhabit the United States

What do you mean?

I mean there are some radical right-to-lifers there, and they got that statement out. But it has to be seen in the context of the pope’s 1980 declaration on euthanasia, and the pope’s encyclical on death and dying, in which he repeats the long-standing tradition that I just gave you. His comment last year wasn’t doctrinal statement, it wasn’t encyclical, it wasn’t a papal pronouncement. It was a speech at a meeting of right-to-lifers.

Again, this issue is not new. Every court, every jurisdiction that has heard it, agrees. So you’d think this issue would have ended. I thought it ended when we took it to the Supreme Court in 1990. But I hadn’t anticipated the power of the Christian right. They elected him [George Bush]. And now he dances.

Of course, the man is a Jesuit and therefore already three quarters heretic in the eyes of some even in the Church. Still, Mrs. Geek asked me this morning “does wanting to have a living will make me a bad Catholic?” It is very calming and re-assuring to have an answer that says “no” with some authority.

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