Casuistry is the process of making bad things look good. You just have to tinker with the rules until you get the answer you want. The problem with cauistry is that it makes you look insincere. You lay down the rules, and then you try to find ways to break them.
Abortion is forbidden by Roman Catholic ethics. The pope has said so, and that makes it infallible. But then he says that, no, that’s not quite right, what he opposes is direct abortion, and that if you can find a way to make an abortion look indirect, then perhaps it would be alright. Otherwise, it’s a mortal sin, and you’ll go straight to hell.
I’m going to go out on a limb by beginning with the suggestion that St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix was not correct in its moral analysis of the situation in which, to save the life of a pregnant woman, the woman’s foetus was killed and an abortion performed. I believe that, though the compassionate option, the abortion cannot be justified on the grounds of Catholic morality.
Before I am finished I hope my reasons for believing this will become clear. But first, I want to refer you to two documents: first, M.Therese Lysaught’s analysis of the circumstances in which she seeks to justify the act on the ground of Catholic morality (thanks to Griffin for the reference); and second, the National Catholic Bioethics Center’s Commentary on the “Phoenix Case”. These two documents, in addition to documents already referenced in my earlier post, “Catholic Madness,” give us a privileged glimpse into the shadow world of Catholic moral decision-making. What we see in this shadow world is, I believe, deeply troubling.
As the subtitle of this Blog points out, my purpose is mainly to argue for the right to die, and to oppose the religious obstruction of this right. Christians argue, however, that had it not been for the Christian belief that God is love, we would not be speaking about rights at all. In his book, Atheist Delusions, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart argues that “‘memes’ like ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ may not indefinitely continue replicating themselves once the Christian ‘infinite value of every life’ meme has died out.” (Kindle ed., Loc. 3311)
Is this true? Does the meme for human rights have a religious origin? And, were religion to disappear, would human rights disappear along with it? Do human rights depend upon the idea of the infinite value of every life? What, if it comes to that, does it mean to speak of every life as infinitely valuable? What practical consequences follow from the idea that every life has infinite value?
Most people read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as a sentimental story about Christmas, and people watch the familiar versions of it on TV every Christmas with a kind of rapt attention, because they think it is all about the religious importance of Christmas. But it’s not about religion at all! It’s all about being — or at least becoming – human. Some people would like you to think that this is what Christianity is all about, but Dickens had his doubts.
Take the very beginning of the story. “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” And then he goes on to say: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”
Die Leere von Weihnachten, or The Emptiness of Christmas. Why write it in German? Because my wife Elizabeth was helped to die in a country where all about her were speaking German, and because I am deeply grateful, as I know Elizabeth was, for the generosity and humanity of the Swiss who made this possible. She died there mainly because Christians in Canada continue to obstruct change in the law which would enable people to ask for assistance in dying here in Canada. And she died much earlier than she would have, had the opportunity been available here for her to die in a way of her own choosing.
So, when I read something like Ian Hunter’s empty claim that without Christianity (or some other equally inane set of religious beliefs) we are left without meaning, purpose, goals, direction or hope — and after I had managed to keep my breakfast down – I got angry. I got angry at the lazy assumption that religion is about meaning, purpose, goals, direction and hope. It isn’t. It’s about control, power, intrusion in and interference with the lives of others, in order to give oneself some sense of meaning, purpose, goals, direction and hope.
It is important to cut through sanctimonious crap, and stop pretending that religious institutions have privileged access to the truth about morality. The case of St. Joseph’s Hospital vs. The Bishop of Phoenix is an especially good example of the kind of madness that occurs when it is imagined that they do.
In order to understand this story, it is important to read documents related to the case. The ones that I have been able to gather together (with the help of Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels, and the commenter — at B&W — Mark Jones) I have included in a pdf file called Phoenix Madness which is available for download by clicking on the title. The file includes a letter from the American Civil Liberties Association, a letter from the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmstead, to the president of Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), and a theological analysis of an earlier moral analysis of the situation, by the Catholic ethicist M. Therese Lysaught, by Robert L. Conte, Jr., who bills himself as a Roman Catholic Theologian and Bible Translator. M. Therese Lysaught’s analysis does not appear to be available on the net.
Christmas is bad news for the dying. Not only because it is a day when there is a kind of false light-heartedness in the air, because it’s a day for family gatherings and generosity. Of course, any joy can cut across the trajectory that dying people are on. The world simply goes on. That’s the hardest part of dealing with the loss of someone deeply loved.
But that’s not all. No, there’s a special bad news for the dying. If you were, like me, someone who spent years celebrating Christmas from behind the altar, recollecting, even on the day that we celebrated the birth of Jesus, Jesus’ suffering and death, you’d know that there’s another side to this story.
In general, I would not choose to spotlight the ideas of people who seem unable to see much beyond the tips of their own noses, but one of the most telling features of the public ‘conversation’ about assisted dying, and mercy at the end of life, is the inability of some of people to deal with complex ideas. Call it the ‘black and white’ syndrome. Everything is either black or white for them; there are no shades of grey, no nuances, no tragic dilemmas or uncertainties, no moral ambiguity, no room, therefore, for compassion for individuals caught in inescapable moral conflict.
Strangely, these people are very often Christians, even though Jesus, in the story of the woman caught in adultery, is said to have asked the ferocious onlookers to consider their own lives before they condemned her. (Most biblical scholars agree that this story is a later addition to the Jesus myth, but let’s imagine that it is a true account of things.) Had they never done wrong themselves, knowing it to be wrong? Had they never been in a situation where the options were unclear, where whatever they did seemed wrong, yet where the choice was forced? Let that man throw the first stone.
In his review of Karen Armstrong’s new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Richard Holloway (Episcopal [Anglican] Bishop of Edinburgh 1986-2000) raises issues of some importance for the way that religions like Christianity and Islam bear on important moral questions such as the social approval of homosexuality and the right to die. Though he does not mention the right to die in this review, he raises an issue which is vital to understanding the traditional Christian response to suicide and assisted dying.
Both Christianity and Islam, Holloway explains, are redemption religions:
Christianity and Islam are redemption religions, not wisdom religions. They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.
In a statement of almost unparalleled cynicism, Pope Benedict tells us that, while the church must take some responsibility for the child abuse scandal of his church, “he also blamed a secular society in which he said the mistreatment of children was frighteningly common.” (Associated Press report here)
This is deeply cynical. Not only does it try to shift the blame for the church’s failure, but in the process blames the one thing that, more than anything, brought this failure to light. For, without a doubt, it is secular society, its openness and concern for justice, that did more than anything else to help focus attention on things long hidden under the brittle surface of gentility and the guise of sanctity.
The secular outlook is not relativistic – a slander frequently on the pope’s lips. While the secular outlook recognises no basis for absolute moral permissions or prohibitions, it does condemn anything that unnecessarily interferes with the possibility of human flourishing, and it has been very clear that the abuse of children, women, and homosexuals is morally unacceptable behaviour. Secularism, not religion, led to the condemnation of racism, ethnocentrism, even of cruelty to animals, and environmental depredation. This heightened moral sensitivity has made it more difficult to hide the abuse of children from the searchlight of public attention and criticism, and it is largely due to the secular understanding of these things that the church has been increasingly unable to keep secret abuses which the church itself failed to recognise as matters of serious moral concern.