Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Euthanasia, dignity and ‘spirituality lite’

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings in your inbox on Mondays and Thursdays.

Those (of us) who value the ethical but are not ethicists have good reason to pay attention to those philosophers, theologians, and, yes, ethicists, whose vocation dignity, and “spirituality lite” it is to deal with values, whether these have to do with ordinary problems and dilemmas or with extraordinary ones, such as matters of life and death. These are not, and cannot be, right all the time, or in agreement with each other much of the time, but they gain credibility in the eyes and minds of ordinary and extraordinary people when they follow their vocation and subject themselves and each other to criticism.

Few problems or issues are more troubling than those code-named “euthanasia.” When The New York Times (May 25) placed a story about euthanasia on page one and followed through on more pages, there were many reasons for the public to take special note. The story, “At His Own Wake: Celebrating Life and the Gift of Death” by Catherine Porter, was attention-getting enough, for it followed the career toward death of a particularly engrossing candidate for euthanasia, John Shields, a former Roman Catholic priest who, in the language of the church, “left the faith.” Among those who read the story of the end of his trail was Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso and Notre Dame universities. From their fields in Indiana, this professor has figuratively walked with people in “the valley of the shadow of death” and reflected on its realms.

He did not think much of the Times piece, and said so in an important response in Commonweal (June 30). Assuming that fewer people read that Roman Catholic magazine than read the Times, we’ll commend both articles to all but concentrate on the little-magazine response. For the title of his article on Porter’s account of Shields’s end, Meilaender came up with “Pathos, Bathos, and Euthanasia”: “Clearly intended to elicit pathos… the account is, by my lights, drowning in bathos.” He does not admire the euthanized John Shields nor those who chose “to orchestrate and choreograph the homemade rituals, drawn from countless different (and incompatible) cultural and religious traditions…”

Meilaender scores Porter and the Times for seeking sympathy for Mr. Shields, but sees the article as a “puff piece aimed at evoking support for one side of a complicated moral argument.” Not humble, Shields became a “spiritual cosmologist,” who announced, “I come forth at this precise moment to contribute my unique gifts to the great unfolding.” Not quite Hegelian, thinks Meilaender, who may be sympathetic to Shields, but not to his way of coping with always terminal amyloidosis, as he profited from Canada’s newly legalized “medical assistance in dying.”

The whole scheme of the Canadian law, the self-advertising of Shields, and the awe-full account by Porter and the colleagues whom she quotes, is based on a concept of “self-determination,” which Meilaender effectively critiques. For this critic the virtue of compassion, which motivates support for euthanasia, “has a shape and has limits”: “the imperative that governs this virtue is not ‘minimize suffering,’ but ‘maximize care.’” The self-invented rituals patched together by Shields and executed after his death lead Porter to create traditions which are not likely long to survive; this sort of “spirituality lite” cannot “sustain us in the face of death.”

Meilaender ends with a particular and particularized Christian affirmation and response, arguing that “in the face of a culture intent on teaching that to experience decline and loss of capacities is to lose dignity, we need to insist that each of us, whatever our capacities, is equidistant from eternity, and that no one for whom Christ was content to die can lack human dignity.” Christianity is not the only anti-bathos-faith, but it is representative of values unlikely to be surrendered by those in any community or tradition who celebrate dignity more than advertised self-affirmation. One suspects.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

12 Comments

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  • In this great battle of what is right and what is wrong, most do not understand that they are being fed a sob story (of which I am usually a sucker for myself). If religion, ethics, morality are to be utilized on such subjects as euthanasia, they must themselves use this same technique, the sob story, to get their point across.

    The whole entire subject of euthanasia is fraught with emotions, of suffering, of loss, some wondering is there life after death, the fears involved with those who are terminal. Start telling of the experiences of those who do not want to take their own lives to be “less of a burden” on family. This is the perfect time to get the message out on how those who care for their terminal relative/friend can bring more comfort and love than a pill that ends it all. Show the caregivers the dignity and grace that is suffering and how it changes people for the betterment of all.

    Don’t just make euthanasia a choice between sin or not sinning, because people will always choose sin, that is our nature if it is easier. Counter articles like the Times with articles of people, families, who have walked with their loved one through their pain and suffering and death and how while difficult there is tremendous solace in knowing caregivers where there at each step guided by love.

  • absolutely Give. How are you feeling? (edit)
    Give, you know that you are a person of value and worth, eh? Please don’t let anyone let you think otherwise.

  • Brilliant, and lack of self-esteem has never been a problem! Hope you’re doing OK.

    Do you accept that giving something means an unconditional reallocation of ownership?
    As in ” Freely transfer the possession of (something) to (someone)”.

  • I believe Christ made us to have a relationship with us. I believe that we wilfully chose to sin and broke that relationship. I believe that Jesus died for us to restore us to that relationship. I believe there is no better relationship to be had – no matter how much the world tries to sell it down the drain.
    I’m glad your self esteem is good. That relieves me actually. I wondered what you were contemplating due to the article. God bless you Give.

  • Thanks for your concern – it’s certainly something I may consider in a few years if nothing unexpected gets me first.

    Since you accept that my life was a gift (actually it wasn’t – more of an unsought imposition) it is clearly, as with any gift (wanted or not), now mine to dispose of where, when and how I will.

    As to your beliefs –

    1 – if we were made the maker did a very shoddy job. (even octopi have better eyes than us!).

    2 – I didn’t choose to sin so punishing me for someone else’s action would mean the judge is immoral.

    3 – Causing me to be born knowing that I would sin puts the responsibility back on the one who imposed life without my consent – that makes the god careless at best and evil at worst.

    4 – Punishing Adam & Eve would have been grossly unfair since they had (allegedly) no concept of right and wrong until after the deed they’re supposed to have been punished for.

    5 – A flashy temporary suicide is not much of an apology.

    6 – The basic requirement for contentment is to be at peace with oneself. If that requires the belief that one is in a fantasy relationship it may bring peace to the fantasist – my concern is with the baleful effect that such dreamers tend to have on others and on society as a whole.

    I appreciate, having been there, that the protective bubble of your beliefs will enable you to disregard my comments – others who are not yet absorbed in the fantasy may perhaps see them and be persuaded to weigh the arguments for themselves. If nothing else you have a little insight into the view from outside the bubble.

  • Well, my apologies about the laughter, but I wasn’t certain you were serious.
    Christ came to Earth for us because of our sin. His entire purpose was to die for our sins to reconcile us with God.
    Not only was He scourged – which is a whip with glass and nails at the end that strips one of their skin when done properly, he was punched, slapped in the face, had his beard pulled out, was ridiculed, and then had his hands nailed to a wooden cross, and his feet nailed to a wooden cross – a rough wooden cross against His skin torn off back. He then had to fight for every breathe – pushing up on the nail through His feet, so that He could breath. Are you getting the picture? This man is God in the flesh. He felt the hurt that we do. He felt the pain that we do.
    And He did nothing wrong. No sin.
    He took on your and my sins while bleeding naked on the cross so that God would not hold them against us and we have fellowship with us, again.
    Now, He offers you life eternal with Him in return for faith in Him and a relationship with You.
    Rather than focusing on what He hasn’t done for someone, or yourself, and how He hasn’t lived up to what you want of Him, perhaps your focus should be on what He has done for you.
    I also have pity parties, but, the Lord is making it known to you with this illness that you are not going to live forever without Him – the One who loves you the most, and you can spend your life finding fault with Him, or, you can accept His gift and spend eternity in His love.
    I don’t need to defend Him. He can defend Himself much better if it is necessary. It isn’t necessary, as you don’t have His mind, or know what He is doing, but I do know that He wants good for us and not harm and that He loves you.
    So, as you are trying to find fault with Him, look at what He went through for you, and what have you done for Him?

  • Sandi – I don’t doubt the sincerity of your belief.

    My disagreement is based on the total lack of either evidence or need for your belief.

    You think, because you are inside the belief-bubble, that I’m trying to “find fault with Him”. I’m doing nothing of the sort – I’m actually testing my thinking – risking having to acknowledge that I’m wrong, risking having to accept that I’ve uncovered a reason for thinking that you may be right. But when I take that risk I encounter rational, logical and morally unshakeable reasons for why I’m going to fail.

    I may not agree with Martin Luther about much but I can’t fault his oft-repeated words to the effect that one cannot be a Christian unless one first plucks out the eye of reason. Ask yourself why a god would have given us the ability to reason if it is the means by which we, as he knew we would, fail to recognise him.

    As to eternal life – think about it. I mean – really think about it. Your choices for surviving Heaven whittle down to either eternal boredom or a frontal lobotomy – no thanks and no thanks.

  • He does give us the ability to reason, Give. He gave us that so we are not bamboozled by the ones who come along and try to divert us from His way. Sometime that requires a lot of memory work and reason. God bless.

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