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Friday, March 25, 2005

Good Friday in Florida

I don't really have anything to say about the Terri Schiavo case that hasn't been said already--by Kathleen Parker, for instance, in two excellent recent articles in the Orlando Sentinel. For that matter, President Bush has summed up the core of the matter--we should always err on the side of life. Schiavo is being killed slowly by a legal system so dedicated to privacy and self-determination that it allows a husband now living with another woman to end the life of his wife against the protests of her parents. A case like this shows that something is rotten with our approach to questions of life and death.

I don't know if Schiavo's parents are right in thinking that she may recover. I don't know if there are any brain cells left in her cerebral cortex. I don't know if her apparent interaction with visitors is an illusion. I don't even (as many supporters of Schiavo claim to do) know what kind of a person Michael Schiavo is, or what his motives are. I don't know if she really expressed a desire not to be kept alive or not. But even a slight shadow of doubt on any of these issues is enough to make the withdrawal of her feeding tube a damnable act of murder.

Suppose all the things claimed by Michael Schiavo and the judges who have sided with him are true. Suppose Schiavo really isn't "in there" any more. What horrendous evil is being committed? A human body is being kept in some sort of functioning biological state even though (in traditional religious/philosophical terms) the soul has fled. If this were true, it would be a waste of money, and it would hinder Michael Schiavo's plans for the rest of his life. But neither of these things is the end of the world.

Killing an innocent human being, however, is the end of the world--for that person at least. (Hence the Jewish maxim that saving one life is equivalent to saving the whole human race, with its corollary that killing one person is equivalent to wiping out the human race. Life and death are not subject to arithmetic.) There's a kind of Pascal's wager here. If Terri is still a living human being (however disabled) then what is being done to her is murder. If she is not, then keeping her body "alive" is foolish but hardly wicked.

This is very similar to the logic that leads me to oppose the death penalty. I don't think that it is wrong to execute someone who has deliberately killed another human being. But neither do I believe that society has a moral duty to do so. Therefore, given the fact that it's almost impossible to be absolutely sure whether an accused murderer is guilty, I see no moral justification for imposing the death penalty unless leaving the murderer alive would put innocent people in imminent danger. Again, we should always err on the side of life.

It is often claimed that pro-life people are inconsistent if they don't oppose the death penalty. I don't think this is true (although I oppose both abortion and the death penalty), because the distinction between innocent human life and the life of a murderer is a consistent one, even if you don't agree with it. But the reverse _is_ true, in Schiavo's case as with regard to abortion. If the danger of executing an innocent person is a powerful reason for opposing the death penalty (as it surely is), then all those who use this argument or rely on this as a reason for their anti-death-penalty stance should be lining up in support of Schiavo. That many of them are not doing so is a witness to just how far _they_ (rather than Schiavo's supporters) are the ones motivated by political considerations.

I'm particularly disappointed with Jim Wallis of _Sojourners_. I agree with his position as often as not, and was very impressed with his open letter to Chuck Colson a few weeks ago. But the most recent _Sojourners_ email newsletter contains two articles which contrast sadly with each other. One of them praises (rightly) the U.S. Catholic bishops for a new statement against the death penalty. The other takes a rather mealy-mouthed stance with regard to the Schiavo case, saying that we should indeed be particularly careful to protect the rights of vulnerable people like Schiavo, but at the same time claiming that issues regarding withdrawal of life support are difficult ones and there are no clear-cut answers. I applauded Wallis when he claimed (against Colson) to be the supporter of a consistent ethic of life, challenging both the major parties wherever they depart from this ethic. But this most recent newsletter confirms my suspicions that Wallis does not live up to his claims in practice. He is far more concerned with the ways political conservatives support the culture of death than with the ways liberals do.

On this Good Friday, we are reminded that we are a people whose King reigns from the Cross. The answer that the Church has to give our conflicted and confused society does not lie in the use of power, even though power has its legitimate uses to defend the innocent. It is our calling as Christians to take our stand on the Cross with our Lord and with all those throughout history who have suffered at the hands of the powerful. It is not our job to make compromises in order to get things done. It is not our job to choose the lesser evil to avoid the greater. We are called not to side with the winners in the political game, but with the victims for whom the game has a deadly seriousness. We should indeed call on those in power to use that power on behalf of Schiavo and those like her, and we should hold them accountable if they do not. But we should not be surprised when they let us down (and more importantly, let the Terri Schiavos of the world down, and Christ in them). We must speak out on behalf of all the victims, not just those whom our favored political party chooses to champion. We must suffer with them, weep with them, and if necessary die with them. God knows that I have done little in this regard. I am far more concerned with ecclesiology and liturgy and history (important as all these things are) than with the sufferings of Christ in those whose humanity He shares. May God forgive me. May God forgive us all, and as Easter morning dawns, may our victorious Lord grant us the strength to do better.

And may God grant deliverance to Terri Schiavo, unjustly condemned to death--and if not, then may He grant rest to her soul, and repentance and forgiveness to those who are killing her.