Not long ago, in a book review of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., I offered a reading selection that featured an exchange between the abbot of a monastery thousands of years in the future and a young mother who is going to euthanize her baby to end prolonging a death from exposure to radiation. It is a stark confrontation: on the one side the Church and on the other a perfect case for euthanasia. And yet the Abbot achieves something here that needs to be repeated again and again in the Church’s confrontation with the culture of death and its false gods of expedient mercy.
The Authority Of A Simple Direct Command
“I had a cat once, when I was a boy,” the abbot murmured slowly. “He was a big gray tomcat with shoulders like a small bulldog and a head and neck to match, and that sort of slouchy insolence that makes some of them look like the Devil’s own. He was pure cat. Do you know cats?”
“ A little.”
“Cat lovers don’t know cats. You can’t love all cats if you know cats, and the ones you can love if you know them are the ones that cat lovers don’t even like. Zeke was that kind of cat.
“This has a moral, of course?” She was watching him suspiciously.
“Only that I killed him.”
“Stop. Whatever you’re about to say, stop.”
“A truck hit him, crushed his back legs. He dragged himself under the house. Once in awhile he’d make a noise like a cat fight and thrash around a little, but mostly he just lay quietly and waited. ‘He ought to be destroyed,’ they kept telling me. After a few hours he dragged himself out from under the house crying for help. ‘He ought to be destroyed,’ they said. I wouldn’t let them do it. They said it was cruel to let him live. So finally I said I’d do it myself, if it had to be done. I got a gun and a shovel and took him to the edge of the woods, I stretched him out on the ground while I dug a hole, Then I shot him through the head. It was a small bore rifle. Zeke thrashed a couple of times, then got up and started dragging himself toward some bushes, I shot him again. It knocked him flat, so I thought he was dead, and put him in the hole. After a couple shovels of dirt, Zeke got up and pulled himself out of the hole and started for the bushes again.
I was crying louder than the cat. I had to kill him with the shovel. I had to put him back in the hole and use the blade of the shovel like a cleaver, and while I was chopping with it, Zeke was still thrashing around. They told me later it was just a spinal reflex, but I didn’t believe it. I knew that cat. He wanted to get to those bushes and just lie there and wait. I wished to God that I had only let him get to those bushes and die the way a cat would if you just let it alone – with dignity. I never felt right about it. Zeke was only a cat, but —
“Shut up!” she whispered.
“ – but even the ancient pagans noticed that Nature imposes nothing on you that nature doesn’t prepare you to bear. If that is true of a cat, then is it not more perfectly true of a creature with rational intellect and will – whatever you may believe of Heaven?”
“Shut up. Damn you, shut up!” she hissed.
If I’m being a little brutal,” said the priest, “then it is to you, not the baby. The baby, as you say, can’t understand. And you, as you say, are not complaining. Therefore — ”
“Therefore you are asking me to let her die slowly and –”
“No! I’m not asking you. As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to a false god of expedient mercy. I do not advise you. I adjure and command you in the name of Christ the King. Is that clear?”
Dom Zerchi had never spoken with such a voice before, and the ease with which the words came to his lips surprised even the priest. As he continued to look at her, her eyes fell. For an instant he had feared that the girl would laugh in his face. When Holy Church occasionally hinted that she still considered her authority to be supreme over all nations and superior to the authority of states, men in these times tended to snicker. And yet the authority of the command could still be sensed by a bitter girl with a dying child. It had been brutal to reason with her, and he regretted it. A simple direct command might accomplish what persuasion could not. She needed the voice of authority now, more than she needed persuasion. He could see it by the way she had wilted, although he had spoken the command as gently as his voice could manage.
I thought of this passage when I read Sally Thomas’ gripping account of a modern day euthanasia episode in Amsterdam. Ms. Thomas had lived there years ago and one day had been befriended by a neighbor. Upon her return to the states a long occasional exchange of letters and Christmas cards had taken place over the years. One Christmas a self-published, spiral-bound, personal memoir of sorts had tumbled out of a manila envelope and she picked it up and started reading it. I’ll let her pick up the story from there:
I received in the mail a slender book, …its cover illustrated with a photograph of an ornate Art Nouveau door. The title, Life With and Without My Mother, answered the question before I could ask. Taking the book for a tribute to a long life well lived, my heart full for my friend, I sat down and began to read.
At ninety-six, still on her own, this vibrant and stubborn woman was beginning to fail. Always possessed of great physical beauty and vitality, with each visit she appeared more unkempt, more listless. Instead of proclaiming her independence, she began to demand help. This was difficult, and she was difficult about it. She was petulant in the manner of the very old, becoming childish again in her inability to know or to say what it was that she wanted. She complained of pain, which nothing seemed to make better.
Though her son visited from America as often as he could, it wasn’t enough. By his own admission, he found the invasion of his privacy and the interruption of his affairs difficult to bear. He felt haunted, too, by twin specters: the mother he had once known, whom hindsight’s clarity had revealed as overbearing and repressive; and the mother he knew now, overbearing, repressive, and infinitely needy.
I knew that in 2002 the Netherlands had led the way in legalizing euthanasia. I knew that, as early as 1972, the Dutch Reformed Church had affirmed voluntary euthanasia “under certain conditions” as a humane response to suffering. It is one thing to know that such things go on in the world. It is another to be privy to the thoughts of someone as he sits in a cafe with his journal, writing, “I feel that the doctors need to give her the helping hand she deserves. Why let her suffer? Really, the fun for her is over.”
The fun is over? I set the book down on my knees. So much, I thought, for Saint Paul’s quaint admonition that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Here we have no suffering. Never mind the millions who endured the atrocities and privations of the Second World War and felt their lives were still worth clinging to. We don’t think that way any more.
If a third world war began tomorrow, it would not be entirely, derangedly unreasonable to suppose that a population this wed to euthanasia would be the first to die. They would die not from bombs or bullets or anthrax mail but from despair. It would not be entirely, derangedly unreasonable to extrapolate the suicide of an entire culture from that picture of a man in a cafe, musing on his aged mother whose fun is at an end.
Advocates for euthanasia, like abortion advocates, don’t talk in terms of culture, preferring always the person of the moment — the particular individual who has decided, on the basis of “unacceptable suffering,” to renounce the gift of life. They opt for such words as release, as from a prison. They speak in terms of mercy and love. In her 2006 essay “At Death’s Window,” Anne Lamott describes a man who “gave his wife an overdose, and then sealed her upper body in a plastic trash bag with duct tape. Then he had done this to himself, and they died holding hands.” “What love!” Lamott declares.
Apparently, in my friend’s view, love meant listening to an old woman plan her deliberate exit from this life and never once saying, “Are you out of your mind?” It was this revelation, page after page, that gave me emotional whiplash. She had filed — with the death bureaucracy, an entity that still seems incredible to me — one official euthanasia request form after another. She had discussed this option routinely with her doctor, who had put her off, smiling, “Your time hasn’t come yet.” But as the months passed, she remained fixed on the idea. She would ring her son, at home in America, to declare her intent to move to some assisted-care facility, but always, always, the needle in her mind swung back to the point of simply checking out. And as her apparent suffering worsened, her son said nothing except, “Why not?”
Paging through my friend’s memoir, generously illustrated with his own photographs, I was struck by the unassuming loveliness of the placid canals, the winter trees, the brittle blue sky, the orderliness of bicycles chained to a railing. Like his mother he has an eye for beauty and form, and I could easily imagine him seeking refuge in long walks with his camera.
But once I understood where the story was heading, these quiet scenes began to seem not beautiful but sinister. The bicycles, all facing the same direction like a clump of grazing cattle, seemed to whisper of a darker consensus. So did other images, in which anonymous people walked along the canals, sat over coffee in the cafes, came and went from elegant Dutch buildings, all of them consenting to participate in this orderly culture in which, on the very same page, an aged woman’s aging child sat with a doctor, in a routine consultation, to decide that “continuing her life would serve no purpose to her or anyone else.”
As I read, I could picture the man I remembered, wearing a raveled purple sweater, glasses at the end of his nose, reading his mail on the front steps. I could hear him whistling on the other side of the kitchen wall. I could see, in the front yard of our apartment house, the walnut sapling he and his son planted in a moment of faith — or maybe of denial: Who plants a tree in a rented yard? I prayed, with each turn of the page, that my friend would wake the next morning in Amsterdam and find his mother already flown.
This prayer was not granted. On a wintry Saturday morning, my friend breakfasted on yogurt and granola, let in the cheery housekeeper, and made small talk with the relatives who had assembled, one by one, outside the bedroom. At 10:30 the doctor came. The family gathered at the bedside. His mother, my friend observed, appeared “barely visible” amid the bedclothes. She seemed to have shrunk overnight. The doctor explained the procedure — the “process implementation” — for a final time. Goodbyes were exchanged. “You were a dear,” his mother told her son. The doctor asked the mother once more whether “the euthanasia way” continued to be her wish. She responded emphatically that it was, adding, “This probably won’t work.” “Oh, yes, it will,” said the doctor firmly. And it did. There were no photographs of this moment, I noticed.
An argument for euthanasia was put forth by a reader of the piece: “I was once given a tour of a large state hospital for children in California. We were shown ward upon ward of micro- and micra-cephalic infants who would never know a parent or a home. To say that these people were created in the “image of God” begs the question. At the existential moment between life and death, is it not sufficient for us, the living, to commend these lives to God? What else can we do? Thomas offers few specifics.
The old argument still runs that only God has the right to decide the terminus of any life. But God is no longer the only one determining how long men and women live. Man himself is determining that, having extended his average lifespan from the thirties in colonial days to nearly seventy now. Medical advances often prolong the hopeless suffering of those whom Nature, left to herself, would release. Man must shoulder the responsibility thus thrust upon him and must devise some way of mercifully liberating the helplessly ill from needless existence.”
Is it not sufficient for us, the living, to commend these lives to God? What else can we do? Thomas offers few specifics. Later, in another reply, Thomas does in fact offer the example of the experience of a family she knows, “a family of many children and limited means and cramped living space. When the wife’s father, in his nineties, became unable to live alone, the family took him in. They converted their living room into a room for him. The two sons, then fifteen and thirteen, took care of his bodily needs, bathing and dressing him, carrying him to and from the car when the family went out. The daughters kept him company. The priest visited often.
The father died a year ago in May, in his bed, surrounded by family who loved him enough to have gone on caring for him indefinitely, who had not tired of him and his needs, who bore his sufferings with him, who found him even in his infirmity to be good company worth having for as long as he stayed. They still speak of the year he lived and died with them as the best year in their life together, and of the burden of his care as a blessing.”
Well that’s good for them, would go the expected reply, but what about those who have no “resources” like that. You can’t force people to be Christians. And this is true. As it is also true that as Christians we have been chosen to speak the Truth, no matter the cost. We who worship Jesus cannot live in falsehood, because He is the criterion by which true and false are discriminated, the light in which the difference between good and evil is seen. I’m struck many times by the blasé of the atheists who say that they could not reason their way to faith and so have chosen a life of “honest atheism.” And if I stopped them there and said, you realize of course that euthanasia is the logical outcome for anyone who is not living a life of Christian faith, hope, and love. I must confess also that is for the vast majority of the population on this planet — particularly if you count Christians who are failing their vocations in the Church.
You realize, I would say to the Diabolist friends among us, that you are cutting off the one way you have of enduring suffering when earthly life can give you nothing more. The only thing that stands between you and being crushed by that suffering is the redemptive love of Our Lord. Undo that and everything comes cascading downward:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
I think of the miserable story Thomas Merton tells of the death of his father:
“We went into the ward. Father was in his bed, to the left, just as you went in the door.
And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of him living much longer His face was swollen. His eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead.
I said: “How are you, Father?”
He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak. But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything.
But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain. I was crushed by it. The tears sprang to my eyes., Nobody said anything more.
I hid my face in the blanket and cried. And poor father wept, too. The others stood by. It was excruciatingly sad. We were completely helpless. There was nothing anyone could do…
What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal.
We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it.
Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.
Indeed the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.
The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being that is at once the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.
This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.”
This “raw wound” that much of the world bears like “a dumb animal” is the hell Christians speak of: lives spent without faith, lives lived upon whose only solution to suffering in old age or to disabled Veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan is euthanasia — a solution that Christians need to keep reminding our fellow citizens over and over again is an outrage, a scandal and a sin.
Ms Thomas writes: “That the old and ill should feel that they are alone with their demons, that those demons render their lives worthless, and that the only sensible, charitable thing to do is to take themselves and their demons as far out of everyone else’s way as possible is an utter disgrace. It is wrong, plainly and simply wrong, that a culture should arrange itself around such an assumption about the worthlessness of human life. If we fail to be scandalized by this state of affairs, then we run the risk of moral numbness.”
She further reminds us that “We are already surrounded by a culture of death, the easy transformation of any decent, law-abiding citizen into a murderer, a murderer’s willing accomplice. If you build it, they will come, goes the hokey-mystical mantra in the movie Field of Dreams. Similarly, if you legalize it, it will happen. Safe, legal, and rare. Isn’t that how the abortion chant goes?
In reality, as a culture, Americans have allowed abortion to become the standard medical treatment for children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome and a host of other diseases. Ninety percent of such children are aborted: That’s how “heroic” our moral struggle has been. That’s how often a loving mother is persuaded that her only merciful option is to assent to the death of her child: a scandal, a disgrace, an outrage and a sin on all our part. We all take part in that tragedy, we are all “good Germans”, as the expression goes, or has it finally become “good Americans” now. It’s about time, one would think.
It’s a tragic fact of the human mind that, once it begins to entertain a proposition, however outrageous, the proposition becomes not a mere proposition but a sane and rational course of action.” Jim Towey in the Wall Street Journal wrote recently about the “Death Book for Veterans”. Bureaucrats at the VA’s National Center for Ethics in Health Care advocated a 52-page end-of-life planning document, “Your Life, Your Choices.”
It was first published in 1997 and later promoted as the VA’s preferred living will throughout its vast network of hospitals and nursing homes. After the Bush White House took a look at how this document was treating complex health and moral issues, the VA suspended its use.
Unfortunately, under President Obama, the liberal secularists at the VA, those who mutter things about “Death With Dignity,” have now resuscitated “Your Life, Your Choices.” The document presents end-of-life choices in a way aimed at steering users toward predetermined conclusions, much like a political “push poll,” which for all intensive purposes was developed by the same class of people. For example, a worksheet lists various scenarios and asks users to then decide whether their own life would be “not worth living.” Nice.
The circumstances listed include ones common among the elderly and disabled: living in a nursing home or to returning Veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, being in a wheelchair and not being able to “shake the blues.” There is a section which provocatively asks, “Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘If I’m a vegetable, pull the plug’?” There also are guilt-inducing scenarios such as “I can no longer contribute to my family’s well being,” “I am a severe financial burden on my family” and that the vet’s situation “causes severe emotional burden for my family.”
No wonder that when Sarah Palin spoke of “Death Panels” she set off a firestorm. On one level the accusation appeared unfair. Yet on another, cognizant of our dismal record on upholding heroic moral virtue, breathes there a soul who didn’t know on some awful human level of awareness, the unspoken assumptions of “Obama Care?”
Surely a grateful nation can do better by its fallen warriors or help its families with the burdens of looking after their elderly? Perhaps we could begin by simply acknowledging that we are only pretending to be doing the best we can.