It has always struck me that the Catholic Church seems to promote two irreconcilable values: the virtue of suffering, and the need to eliminate it by palliative care.
The belief in the redemptive value of suffering, is usually articulated among the clergy and to the flock. They don’t shout it from the rooftops; telling people that suffering is ‘ennobling’ does not go down well with the general public.
But sometimes, somebody momentarily forgets; for example:
Dr. Colin Harte: “Suffering has become a taboo in modern culture, but it is actually the greatest privilege in the world.” (NZ Catholic, December 21, 2018)
Saint Teresa of Calcutta: “Suffering is not a punishment, not a fruit of sin, it is a gift of God.” (From her book No Greater Love)
Yet despite such core beliefs, that same Catholic Church is working flat out to reduce suffering in hospices, by palliative care.
How can this be so? Rather than a case of cognitive dissonance, in which two mutually irreconcilable beliefs are held simultaneously, it’s more likely to be a politically realistic appreciation that the redemptive value of suffering cuts no ice with most of their dying patients.
If I’m right, the Catholic Church has the political awareness to recognise that it can’t foist its beliefs on hospice patients.
So why can’t they be consistent by accepting that most people want the legal right to a peaceful death?
I suspect that the explanation is two-stranded.
First, hospice patients are, at least in principle, free to be taken home by their families.
Second, whereas no amount of misrepresentation can enable suffering to be promoted as a virtue, this is not the case with the campaign against Voluntary Assisted Dying. So far, religious groups have managed to get away largely unchallenged with downright lies, because here in New Zealand, we just don’t seem to be able to stiffen our spines to say so.
In Australia, they are much more willing to call a spade a shovel. In the debate in the New South Wales Parliament on the Second Reading of the Rights Of The Terminally Ill Bill on May 9, 2013, Dr. John Kaye spoke bluntly about a letter by Cardinal George Pell on behalf of the Catholic bishops of New South Wales:
“The letter contains four substantial lies. It is a deliberate attempt by the cardinal to mislead the people of New South Wales and, in particular, to mislead his flock.”
The four lies to which Dr Kaye was referring, followed by his rebuttals were:
- “Despite talk of ‘dignified death’, dignity is not served by telling the old and dying, through our laws, that they would be better off dead and we would be better off if they were dead.”
It is simply a lie to say that this bill tells anyone they would be better off dead. Granting people autonomy over their lives is not telling them that they would be better off dead. I remind Cardinal Pell of the eighth commandment—and for those who are Protestant the ninth commandment—which has a strict injunction against telling lies. In this case it is a sensationalist lie designed to create hysteria and not a reasoned response. It ill becomes a clerical and social leader in our society to go forth and promulgate lies which will mislead people about the intent of this bill.
- “Despite talk of ‘compassionate death’, compassion is not expressed by killing those who are suffering.”
It is a deeply misleading statement about this bill. The bill is not about killing people; it is about autonomy and the right of individuals to receive assistance when they have chosen to die. The cardinal and his bishops deliberately transform assisted self-termination into forced euthanasia. It is unfair, misleading and it is a lie.
- “Despite talk of ‘patient autonomy’, legal euthanasia would bring pressure to bear upon vulnerable people to ‘volunteer’ for early death.”
That is untrue. No such pressure is brought to bear. The cardinal is well aware of, but chooses to ignore, that individuals who would have access to the provisions of this bill must be terminally ill. There is no such thing as early death in this bill; it is about people who would die anyway.
- “Depressed and vulnerable people would be more vulnerable under such laws.”
That is simply not true. Under the legislation a psychiatrist is required to assess depression so people who are depressed would be presumed to be unable to make that judgment. Cardinal Pell has not read this legislation or he is lying. I suggest he is lying to the people of New South Wales and he is lying to his flock. I remind Cardinal Pell of his obligations, particularly under James 1:26 not to tell a lie. In fact, he should reflect on James 1:26 very carefully, withdraw this missive, apologise and put out a correction.
It seems that the Aussies are not afraid to call a lie a lie, rather than a ‘distortion’ or ‘misrepresentation’.
As a tailpiece, my mother always tried to instill in me the ‘golden rule’ of ‘do as you would be done by’. Though I have no religious belief, treating others as one would like to be treated is the tried and tested social tool for living together in harmony.
That’s why the Catholic attitude to suffering seems so alien to the 97 percent who don’t regularly attend Mass. In some mysterious way suffering is supposed to be ‘ennobling’; a ‘gift from God’, as Saint Teresa of Calcutta so charmingly put it.
Of course, in campaigning against David Seymour’s End of Life Choice bill, the Catholic hierarchy is politically savvy enough to keep quiet about the virtues of suffering.
But sometimes religious fervour gets the better of political caution. The Dec 21 issue of New Zealand Catholic details a talk by Dr. Colin Harte in which he said that “suffering is not only a privilege, but it is the greatest privilege in this world”.
This is fine for those masochists who believe that sort of nonsense, but to those of us on the receiving end, opposition to David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill is little short of sadism.