Daily Archives: February 8, 2007

Clearing the Deck on Euthanasia

It seems that here and in Italy and just about everywhere the euthanasia “debate” is up and running once again. Here in Australia, Greens Senator Bob Brown has just introduced a bill for euthanasia into the Senate. And in Italy cardinals and politicians are still spatting over the Welby case. It is precisely on issues like this that we need very clear “natural law” argumentation (see my previous blog).

The Australian debate has been amply assisted in the right direction by none other than that infamous rag “The Age” in excellent articles by Juliette Hughes and Odette Spruyt.

In Italy the problem has been exacerbated by Cardinal Martini putting his oar in where it’s neither wanted nor helpful. Cardinal Ruini made the only decision he could in the truly difficult case of Piergiorgio Welby. Welby was on life support. Without this life support he would (and did) die. Too many people (including Cardinal Martini) are confusing the Welby case with the situation where a patient opts to refuse over burdensome extraordinary mechanical treatment, where the treatment is disproportionate to the outcome that can be reasonably expected.

The fact is (as Cardinal Ruini has quite simply and accurately identified) Welby’s desire and intention was not merely to end burdensome treatment, but actually to end his life. Cardinal Ruini refused the request of Welby’s family for a church funeral because “Mr. Welby repeatedly and publicly affirmed his desire to end his life, something that is incompatible with Catholic doctrine”.

This emphasis upon intention is well maintained in an essay just published by Fr Michael Whelan of the Aquinas Academy entitled “Euthanasia: Some Questions and Issues Arising.” In this essay–which is a fine example of arguing completely from the basis of reason and natural law without any reference whatsoever to revealed law–Whelan maintains that:

to withhold extraordinary mechanical means, without which someone will die–for example, when a person is in a vegetative state with no realistic hope of that changing–it may be morally acceptable to turn off the machines that are keeping that person alive; that is not euthanasia;

He appears to be agreeing with Martini at this point, but then he makes a distinction which Martini fails to make, the very distinction upon which Ruini based his decision:

the critical question to ask is, “What is intended?” If you intend to kill the individual that is an essentially different moral act to one in which the intention is not to kill the individual but to ease the individual’s distress or avoid unnecessary and/or undignified processes to eke out a few more months of life. (Needless to say, the intention to kill should not be masked by protestations that what you are doing is simply to ease the person’s distress or carrying out “what Grandma would want”. If you intend to kill you intend to kill, no matter how you disguise it.)

This short paper is worth reading in depth, and would be a good basis for the study of the issue in parishes. Note however that Fr Whelan’s paper can in no sense be called a “Bible study” for the reason I have a ready stated: it doesn’t refer to a single Bible verse. Nevertheless I believe the conclusion it comes to is one which is entirely Godly, entirely virtuous, and entirely Christian. It is the type of clear thinking that Christians have to learn to display in public discourse if we are to head Bob Brown’s euthanasia bill off at the pass.


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Natural Law, Protestants and the Infidel

I picked up a second hand copy of Helmut Thielicke’s 2 volume “Ethics” in St Peter’s Bookroom (East Melbourne) yesterday. And put it down again. (If you would like to purchase it, it’s still sitting there for $20–a bargain). What interested me is his discussion of “orders of creation” and “natural law”. This was done in the context of the “argument with the Roman Catholics”.

I well remember sitting through Pastor Noel Wiess’ classes on Ethics at Luther Seminary and listening to him dismiss almost the totality of Catholic ethics on the basis that “it was natural law”. He instead preferred the “Faith active in Love” model. Of course, that eventually translates as “doing what I think is right on the basis of my warm fuzzy feelings for others”.

An article entitled “Protestants and Natural Law” in First Things by J. Daryl Charles does an excellent job of showing the recent origins of the antipathy to natural law in Protestant theology, stemming from Barth (but obviously also from folk like Thielicke).

In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict bases his entire ethic upon a “grammar of peace” derived from reason and natural law. A point which both Benedict and Charles make is that only the natural law makes it possible for Christians to dialogue on ethical issues with secularists and adherants to other religions. The ethics of radical discipleship to which Barth (and Bonhoeffer) called the churches is essential for Christians to hear–and as Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, “There is no solution to the social question apart from the Gospel”–but unless we wish to wait for the conversion of the entire world before we make any headway on matters like weapons disarmament or ending abortion or feeding the hungry we need a platform from which to discuss the essential dignity and rights of the human being.

Natural Law gives us that starting place. As Christians, we recognise that it has its source in God just as much as the revealed law, but it is not necessary to affirm this to affirm the basic validity of natural law. Human reason alone (an attribute which is common to a majority of human beings–even though it often doesn’t seem that way) is sufficient to establish the basic dictates of the natural law. As Luther wrote in “Against the Sabbatarians” (not in “How Christians Should Regard Moses” as Charles indicates):

If the Ten Commandments are to be regarded as Moses’ law, then Moses came far too late, and he also addressed himself to far too few people, because the Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs. For even if a Moses had never appeared and Abraham had never been born, the Ten Commandments would have had to rule in all men from the very beginning, as they indeed did and still do.

Of course, there are plenty of secular philosophers who have wished to deny the existence of a “natural law” (Kant, Hume, Hobbes, Rousseau), but if anything, the process of interreligious dialogue has proved them wrong on this. There are some things that all human beings who care to put their minds to it can agree upon. (The unfortunate thing is that so few are ever ready to do so.) It is for this reason that I have argued elsewhere that the world’s religions can co-exist peacefully without giving up their claims to absolute Truth or their right to seek converts (the Catholic Church certainly doesn’t) as long as they are agreed on this absolute truth of natural law: the dignity of every human being is sacrosanct and to be respected and protected above all other rights and responsibilities.

We must also learn from this in our political debate. So often we are regarded as “pushing our religious views” when all we are doing is arguing on the basis of natural law. In this, we need to improve our argumentation so that we make it clear that when we defend human life, or institutions upon which the well-being of human life depends, we are arguing upon the basis of natural law, derived not from revelation but from reason (even though we are motivated by Christ’s love to do so).

Unfortunately, most of the secular world today has lost the sense that Luther had, ie. that the 10 Commandments were not something novel exposed upon humanity by a capricious God from outside, but are already written upon the hearts of every human being. As Pope Benedict says, the natural law is as internal to human ethical behaviour as grammar is to language: it is “the grammar of peace”.


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