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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

The Schiavo Case: What's So Wrong with Dying?

The Schiavo Case: What's So Wrong with Dying?

by Robert Corin Morris

"Christ is risen," Christians say. "Death is the gateway to eternal life."

So, one track of my own personal Holy Week and Easter pondering as a Christian was this: why is the radical religious right so adamant about preserving Mrs. Schiavo's bodily life, for decades if need be, when they believe eternity is but a breath away?

Forget, for a moment, the fact that they've been whipped into a frenzy by cynical politicians on the warpath against "judicial activism." Forget that the running-dogs-of-demagogery major news media have obediently pushed the rest of the news into a corner to concentrate on this side-show to world history. Why would people who just celebrated, along with the rest of the Christian world, that Christ has "trampled down death by dying, and made the grave a portal of life everlasting" be so fanatical in their opposition to letting this poor woman go through that portal to "go home to Jesus" (as many American fundamentalists put it)? After all, Mrs. Schiavo is a baptized Christian. She was given Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. Only the most extreme, die-hard Protestant fundamentalist, these days, would think she was headed straight to hell.

Protestant Fundamentalists hold that if a believer dies, she'll either go into the peaceful sleep that precedes the final resurrection or go straight to heaven; conservative Catholics believe that she'll get on with the great journey through God's purifying love, called Purgatory, on her way to the beatific vision of God in heaven. So why the religious dither to keep her alive? Even if she were, in some theoretical way, capable of coming back from what a great many medical examiners have declared to be a persistent vegetative state, why prolong her dying agony? Whatever happened to "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away: blessed be the Name of the Lord?"

I can understand conservative Christian opposition to abortion; I get why most conservative Christians are against gay marriage; I can even comprehend why the Pope opposes artificial birth control; but, having racked my own ex-fundamentalist and still slightly traditionalist brain more than once, I haven't been able to fathom this opposition to letting a severly compromised person with little chance of recovery die in peace—

—except from one angle, and that is this: we are witnessing a significant aberration in ultra-conservative religion as it tries to cope with a rapidly changing world. In this case the change has to do with the power of medical technology to prolong life "unnaturally."

Principles, Values and Prudence

Carol Gilligan, among other commentators, has noted that there are two main ways human beings tend to make moral decisions: 1) by reasoning from principles and 2) by weighing values as they impact the reality of relationships. Gilligan feels that more males tend to use the first method and more females tend to use the second. Whether that gender-based assertion is true or not, the human family clearly uses both methods. In the Christian tradition both methods are used: moral principles are applied to specific cases by using the virtue of Prudence or Wisdom—which is one of the four "cardinal" virtues meant to guide human life: courage, temperance, justice, prudence. Prudence, here, is the equivalent of Gilligans "values in relationship." (Interestingly enough, the virtue of Prudence is traditionally pictured as feminine, but both men and women are called to use it in the tradition, as it is part of the image of God in us all.)

There's also another traditional Christian notion: any virtue carried to excess (applied without prudence) becomes a vice: excessive courage becomes foolhardiness; excessive temperance or self-control becomes compulsivity; excessive justice (without mercy) becomes inhuman and inhumane; excessive faith, credulity; excessive hope, denial; excessive love, idolatry.

I'm not talking about modern "situation ethics" — the notion that there is no absolute set of principles. This tradition of principle and prudence has its roots in the ancient world, Greek and Hebrew, and is the backbone of Catholic and, to some extent, classical, Reformed Protestant moral reasoning. Preserve life, yes; but when, where, and exactly how — and to what extent in extenuating circumstances? Which principles do we apply to which circumstances, and when? Choose life, yes; but in what way in this circumstance? Jesus didn't, after all, seem to be "choosing life" when he willingly risked his life by going to Jerusalem when he knew his arrest and martyrdom were likely. As St. Thomas says in the gospel of John, with what one imagines is despair, "Let us go (to Jerusalem) with him, that we may die with him." (Imagine the unsightly spectacle of the disciples going to court to keep their Master from death, all in the name of his "right to life" instead of call to martyrdom.) Situations always and everywhere call for astute prudence to apply principle wisely.

What we are seeing here is a fanatical overplus of Principle (the "right to life") and a seemingly willful refusal to apply any Prudence ("what's actually going on here, and how is it affecting real people?"). Protestant fundamentalism is especially vulnerable to this kind of imbalance, as it studiously ignores, or even rejects, the ancient and road-tested moral tradition I've referred to above, preferring, in its selective Biblical literalism, to pound life with naked, untempered principles: right/wrong; black/white; either/or. Catholics should know better, but these days, the Catholic right is as legalistic as its Protestant allies. In the name of principle, and principle alone, abortion, the "right to live" of brain-dead folk, and, for some, capital punishment are being lumped together helter-skelter, imprudently. If we let one Terri Shiavo die, then godless euthanasia is just around the corner! (The right of soldiers to be preserved from dying in war would seem a logical extension of the argument, but is, of course, missing. The death of helpless children due to war is inadmissable to the discussion.)

Brave new world—beyond the "natural

The situation is further complicated, as most everyone not holding a "right to life" sign knows, by the fact that modern medicine has taken us far beyond what traditional Christian ethics knew as "natural."

Mrs. Schiavo would have been long since dead without the intervention of modern medicine. In spite of the Pope's opinion that intravenous feeding is not an "extraordinary" means of keeping her alive, much American Catholic teaching (and hospital practice) recognizes that in the state of "nature" she wouldn't be sufficiently feedable by mouth to be kept alive. So she would die "naturally," and her dying would have been traditionally considered "in the hands of God." The very application of an IV, from this pre-modern standpoint, would have been an interference in the Divinely-appointed moment of death. Modern medicine, from antibiotics to IVs, from surgery to vaccinations, throws this old view of "natural" into a cocked hat.

A Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or whatever) ethic which believes in firm principles but knows that prudence is always the necessary handmaiden of principle at least has some chance of navigating the increasingly chaotic waters of medical advance, which will become even more challenging. (Shall we use mind-enhancers? to what extent shall be build bionic people? Can we push neo-natal care back beyond mere premies to early fetushood, blastocytes, zygotes? What about test-tube babies? What about life-extension for those who can afford it? Why not live to 120? Or beyond? What about abolishing death? If you think these are sci-fi fantasies, you are simply not acquainted with the serious questions—and researches—going on. It's going to be an interesting, exciting, and frightening ride.)

The emotional hysteria we are seeing, so cynically manipulated by the politicians, is coming from religious folk driven into a frightened and adamant stand on principle in the face of what they know, in their guts, is the yawning chasm of this medical "advance." So far it has only shipwrecked the evening news. God forbid that it be used (as the politicians seem to be plotting) to wreck the courts.

Meanwhile, my Eastertide prayer for Mrs. Schiavo is what Catholics used to pray for a lot, and may still do: "a happy death" in a peaceful, natural way. May she "go home to Jesus" by whatever is the best route for her.

And another prayer—may we all find our way through this Brave New World with as few shipwrecks as possible.

"Don't be afraid to talk politics and religion. The future of democracy depends on it."

Robert Corin Morris
422 Clark St
South Orange, NJ 07079

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