The enigma of pain and death, which outside the Gospel crushes us, is illuminated through Christ and in Christ.
These are words of Pope John Paul II, from his Apostolic Letter on the Christian Meaning of Suffering, Salvifici Doloris (that is, salvific or redemptive suffering), and they adorn the cover page of a booklet from the Catholic Organisation for Life and the Family (which you can download here).
Despite knowing this, however — that is, that, outside the gospel, suffering can crush us – the Catholic Organisation for Life and the Family (like the Catholic Church as a whole) is vehemently opposed to the legalisation of assisted dying in any form. This booklet is only one of a number that is available for download or in print, glorifying the suffering of Christians and opposing euthanasia and assisted suicide for those whose suffering is crushing, and who wish to escape the pointless misery and indignity of the end. Richard Dawkins says that
When I am dying, I should like my life to be taken out under a general anaesthetic, exactly as if it were a diseased appendix. But I shall not be allowed that privilege, because I have the ill-luck to be born a member of Homo sapiens rather than, for example, Canis familiaris or Felis catus. (The God Delusion, 357)
And why not? Especially if suffering can be as crushing and destructive as the pope tells us. Why not have life taken out like a diseased appendix?
This is a matter of some importance. The church knows, without question, that suffering can be crushing. The pope’s words testify to that, and that is the salient point. In response to such suffering the church offers a stark choice: life in Christ, which is, being interpreted, membership in the church, on the one hand, or crushing suffering, on the other. No other options are so much as entertained, and catholics have a plethora of organisations devoted to guarding the gates of death and forestalling the availability of other options.
Yet they know just how crushing and destructive suffering can be — outside the Gospel. Let’s keep that in mind, because the suggestion is often made, by the same people, that suffering at the end of life is a rare occurrence. Let’s also bear in mind that, in order to defuse demands for legalised assisted dying, the church must present an alternative way of looking at the suffering of the dying. What is suffering and dying for? What’s its purpose? How does it contribute meaning and fulfilment to life?
I’ll stick closely to the Catholic Organisation for Life and the Family’s (COLF) little booklet, which tries to answer precisely these questions. At one point it speaks of “unused suffering.” That’s right, it says: unused. Suffering is for something, and yet so many people leave it there, crushingly oppressive, unused.
Recall that this is a serious problem for the church. Suffering has — with great justice, I think — been called evil, and it has always seemed to people a strong argument against the existence of a god. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived from 342-271 BCE, formulated the problem (in David Hume’s words) thus:
Is he [God] willing but not able [to prevent suffering]? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? [Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X]
The conclusion seems to be inescapable: there is no god, or at least not a loving one. However, the religious are not prepared to let go so easily, and have filled libraries with arguments trying to show that the evil that we experience is compatible with the existence of a benevolent and caring god.
I do not intend to canvas these arguments here, but merely to pick up on one thread that runs through them all. If we suffer and God is good and loving, then God must have intended suffering for our good, and if it is for our good, then it is not evil, after all. That is what the COLF booklet endeavours to show.
So, what is suffering for? How can it be useful? The booklet says that
… the discovery that it can be [useful] allows men and women to face suffering with courage and perseverence, knowing that they are achieving something for the Kingdom of God.
The answers to all our questions, they say, unsurprisingly, are to be found in the Gospel. There we find out that we are not masters, but just stewards of our lives. We also find out about hope in eternal life, which we should share with everyone we meet, because this gives us purpose for our lives. And then it goes on, with theological boilerplate, about God’s love for us, his desire to establish a relationship of friendship with us, along with the stipulation that, at the beginning, humans were free to choose, and that, unfortunately, we chose to pretend that we were gods, a choice by which death entered the world. So we come at the end of a long, long story, that might have been different, but wasn’t, and we are still paying the price for that long ago failure of our ancient progenitors. Yet, even so, we are assured, God could not bear being separated from “his children”, and so he
… conceived the inconceivable: the Creator of the universe took on our human nature! He chose to become one of us to esbalish a new Covenant between Himself and humanity.
He came, as the old old story tells us, as the man Jesus, who showed us that God would “go so far as dying on a cross, to offer his forgiveness and friendship to each of us.” And through this sacrifice
Christ freed us from the evil that prevents us from concretely responding to God’s love. He saved us from the greatest possible evil: eternal death, that is, eternal separation from God.
And this, as we know, includes, according to the present pope, an eternity of suffering. Hell, we are to understand is a real place of endless suffering in eternal fire. But how does all this help us to understand suffering and what it is for? Well, it doesn’t — not really. You see, in the words of John Paul II’s Apostolic letter:
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross!’ Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting him with the Cross of Christ … [he] finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy. … A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering, a feeling that is sometimes very strongly rooted in human suffering. [n. 26, 27]
So, there is no answer! Just an assurance from someone who pretends to know. But these are empty words unless there is a good reason to believe that this feeling of the pointlessness of suffering, deeply rooted as it is in suffering itself, can be somehow overcome by seeing suffering as a participation in the salvation achieved through the suffering of Jesus.
But why should we think this? Perhaps the pope really believed all these things about the redemptive quality of suffering – the question is, saving from what? — but what of those who cannot believe, or find the belief itself repugnant, as Dawkins pointed out in his response to the pope’s Christmas thought for the day. Perhaps those who can think themselves into this belief may believe their sufferings useful, and like a placebo this might help them to bear what they cannot relieve, but what of those who cannot, try as they might? What of those who are not even tempted to try to believe something so bizarre?
You see, it’s all very well for popes to believe these things, and to commend them to others for their belief. It’s a quite different thing to say that, apart from this belief suffering can be absolutely crushing, but it’s either accept this belief or suffer the consequences. But that’s essentially what the pope is saying. Because he and his followers are guarding the gates of death, refusing relief for those who cannot see meaning in their suffering, and who want assistance to die when suffering becomes intolerable. No, they say, we are only stewards of our lives, not masters.
But the COLF booklet itself acknowledges that
When [suffering] lasts too long and intensifies, some would think of ending life, which can appear to be a mere burden. Suicide, euthanasia and assisted suicide can then become attractive exit doors.
But then it goes on to say that Christians maintain that life is a gift from God, and that, after all, suffering is not useless. It has a point and purpose. But by what right does the church presume to claim point and purpose, and then say that, for those who do not see this point or purpose, they must endure their suffering notwithstanding? Christians, or other religious people, may believe what they choose, but they cannot prescribe meaning for suffering, nor should they guard the gates of death so closely for those who do not or cannot share their beliefs.