April 8, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Terri Schiavo reminds us that only God
is the Lord of life

Wasn’t it ironic that as we were observing Holy Week and Easter 2005, Terri Schiavo’s family was fighting for her life? Terri died on March 31.

It appears that the federal courts may now have determined which helpless people should be allowed to live and which should be killed. The decision to remove the feeding and hydration tubes was a decision to starve Terri and to let her die of thirst. In our day, nutrition and hydration by medical procedure is not an extraordinary means of care.

A local radio station conducted a poll during the height of the judicial proceedings. “Would you favor keeping the feeding tubes in Terri Schiavo or would you let her die a natural death?” Natural death?

Starvation and dehydration are not “natural” causes of death. Later, the newscaster remarked that folks must not have understood the question. Apparently he was surprised that 78 percent of the respondents said the tubes should remain. The newscaster couldn’t understand why some folks objected to the way the question was framed.

Other stories about this notorious case framed the issue in terms of a person’s “right to die.” It seems to me that the real issue is the right to live! Terri Schiavo’s vital signs were positive. Who knows what might have been going on in her mind? Family members gave poignant descriptions of her vitality. Because she could not voice her own desires, she became a victim of an arbitrary decision.

One often hears her kind of condition described as being a “vegetative state.” The language is prejudicial in that it demeans human life as if it degenerates to the state of a vegetable. The living being is still human despite the debilitated condition. Terri did not cease to be human.

Some people said if they were in her condition, they would not want to live. I don’t think that hypothetical assertion is persuasive. We don’t know what we might want in that condition and, besides, choosing to end our life is not an option. That kind of thinking finds itself on a slippery slope. How would one make the decision about the quality of life?

At what point does the lack of quality justify destroying life—as if it does? On a call-in radio show, one man had it right. He said that one can expect that the Schiavo decision of 2005 will have set in motion the possibility that for financial reasons or because of inconvenience or overcrowding of nursing homes, arbitrary decisions can be made to rid our society of the disabled elderly folks or other ­persons unable to care for themselves.

In his landmark encyclical on The Gospel of Life (“Evangelium Vitae”), Pope John Paul II wrote: “The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity.” [The Holy Father then quotes a Declaration on Euthanasia issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1980.] ‘Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action’ ” (The Gospel of Life, #57).

Earlier in his encyclical on life, the pope quoted another citation from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, The Gift of Life, “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves ‘the creative action of God,’ and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being” (#53).

God himself is the Lord of life, all human life. Every human being is formed in God’s image and likeness. That very fact means human life is given a sacred and inviolable character. It is not appropriate for judicial leaders and others to take upon themselves the prerogative of the Creator of life.

It is tragic that Terri Schiavo is neither the first nor the last victim of such arrogance. †

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