“What I have said is that if I cannot say another prayer, if I cannot give or get another hug, and if I cannot have another martini — then let me go. ” This comes from Monsignor Charles Fahey, a Catholic priest who chairs the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit service and advocacy group. Fahey was speaking about health care reform and the controversy over end-of-life care.
Unfortunately his view is not the view of his church. For all his touted gifts and charisma, John Paul II turned the Catholic Church into a single social doctrine: respect for life from conception to natural death. His legacy is an endless debate over what constitutes “natural” death in a culture that values physician assisted prolongation of suffering but finds physician assisted end-of-life care abhorrent. What we remember of that legacy is the image of Terri Schiavo, her cognitive faculties shattered, and a depleted John Paul himself, one not clinging to life but having life imposed by a machine, the other clinging to power as a symbol of the martyrdom of suffering.
No one bothered to tell them that the Christian martyrs didn’t die that way, and had no access to the extraordinary benefits of technology and life-prolonging medicines. There was nobility in neither death. Whatever lesson was being taught was being promoted by false analogy.
Entirely missing from this shouting match (which will forever undo the quaint reputation of the town hall meeting as an organ of democratic society) is intelligence. Not all of the shouters are Catholic, of course, not all are “seniors.” But many are both.
But I am puzzled at their theology. My own instincts are decidedly but unofficially Buddhist. I believe that a life worth living is a worthwhile life. That includes, as it does for Monsignor Fahey, a good conversation, a drink or two, the facility to share ideas. I know that my 10K running days are behind me at last, alas, courtesy of a bad knee. I know that as I age fewer delights will be available to me. While I have will, strength and heart, however, I intend to enjoy life, and then (again to quote Father Fahey), Let me Go. And I mean it. I have no desire to chalk up my grand-children’s birthdays, or my own, or ride around the mall in a motorized chair if I am too ill to enjoy the things that give life real meaning.
The Catholics of my youth used to believe something similar, prior to Catholic theology being occluded by a new and vicious emphasis on Life Hereunder. Is the world no longer a “vale of tears,” as it was in countless prayers to the Virgin? Do Catholics no longer believe that life on earth is “exile” from the paradise with God, as it used to be intoned in a famous prayer to St Michael (the archangel)? Or has all that been swept away with belief in saints and archangels? Is heaven no longer the destiny for which man is intended? Is it the whirr and buzz of hospital beds and equipment to which we all should look forward?
If this has changed, it’s fine with me. But please: make the announcement. Otherwise, a theological system that preaches the consolation of an afterlife but is visibly, obsessively committed to the prolongation of suffering for its own sake–not life, but biological endurance–begins to look shallow and cynical. Above all, please stop shouting at those of us who think you are being untrue to your own religious faith by the denial of life’s end and the pleasures that await the just thereafter.
Maybe, just maybe, this anger comes from not knowing what to believe, not believing it strongly enough, or the incoherence of Christian doctrine in the modern age. Maybe it comes from a native sense that a God who creates life must be all good, but a God who takes it away should be held at the door. All of these explanations are perfectly understandable–but they seriously weaken the religious objection to end of life care, hospice, and even more active methods of dealing with issues of pain, disease and aging. Maybe the anger stems from a certain envy of those who are unencumbered by a belief system that asks them to embrace the God of Life and the God of Death and Pain as the same God, though this is an envy that could never be acknowledged openly. I don’t know. It is hard to know, for all the shouting.
Thank God for priests like Monsignor Fahey.