Thursday, February 24, 2005

Terri's War

Terri Schindler-Schiavo's husband, Michael, is seeking judgment from the State of Florida to have her feeding tube removed, which will cause her death by slow starvation and dehydration.

Terri is brain damaged, although not in a coma or vegetative state, and does not appear to be in pain or in a state of misery. Her parents are willing to support her, and large numbers of pro-life people are willing to donate money and time to also support her. Her husband wants her dead.

Many Christian and pro-life commentators out on the Web question whether some sort of action could be taken to save her life, even if the court orders Terri's death. A well-known Catholic doctrine says that an unjust law is not a law at all. Early Christians, under the domination of the Roman Empire, had to deal with unjust laws supporting slavery and the death sentence for those unwilling to sacrifice to the gods of the Empire. While patriotism is a moral requirement for Catholics, being a part of virtue of justice, and following the law is a part of that virtue, the Christian conscience is not bound by unjust laws.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (United States Council of Catholic Bishops):

"1902 Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a "moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility"

"A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence." -- St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II, 93, 3, ad 2.

"1903 Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, "authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse."

It appears that Terri has a natural right to live, and that any court ruling to the contrary is unjust and therefore void, at least according to Catholic morality, and to the Natural Law philosophical basis of our Constitution. Also, the Holy See has declared that hydration and food are a basic right and must not be withheld, so any court order for removing her feeding tube would be considered unjust by the Church, and not morally binding on the Christian faithful.

But while a law is unjust, direct opposition to that law may be discouraged for pastoral reasons. For example, the Church has always opposed slavery -- a Papal encyclical on the subject came out even before the discovery of America -- but the Church did not take a firm stand on the subject in the United States. This was for pastoral reasons: Catholics were a small, persecuted, and hated minority in the country and also some Catholics supported slavery, or more precisely, feared what would happen after the slaves were freed. Would the Church be willing to start a civil war over that issue, where its members would most certainly be slaughtered? I assume that this is why most American bishops don't have a strong stand against abortion, since it is a fight that the Church would lose, at least in the short run. Many bishops have been warned by political powers: play ball or we will destroy you.

Terri's local Ordinary, Bishop Robert N. Lynch, made this following statement on October 12th, 2003:

"....If Terri’s feeding tube is removed, it will undoubtedly be followed by her death. If it were to be removed because the nutrition which she receives from it is of no use to her, or because it is unreasonably burdensome for her and her family or her caregivers, it could be seen as permissible. But if it were to be removed simply because she is not dying quickly enough and some believe she would be better off because of her low quality of life, this would be wrong.

"This situation is tragic. I strongly recommend that

"1. in the presence of so much uncertainty and dispute about her actual physical state, all parties pursue a clearer understanding of her actual physical condition;

"2. Terri’s family be allowed to attempt a medical protocol which they feel would improve her condition;

"3. Excessive rhetoric like the use of “murder” or the designation of the trial judge or appellate judges as “murderers” not be used by anyone from our Judeo-Christian tradition. This is a much harder case than those who use facile language might know."

I was unable to find a newer statement by the Bishop on his web site. The full text may be found at the Diocese of Saint Petersburg in Florida. I would think that Catholics are bound by this statement by the local Ordinary of Terri's diocese . The Bishop's recommendations are acceptable, in my opinion.

In the case where Terri's death by starvation and dehydration is ordered by a court, then the Bishop's recommendations would no longer be applicable, since he did not state what a Catholic's duties should be; in that case, one could go back to the old Catholic moral teaching that "an unjust law is not a law at all". Along with sins of commission are also sins of omission. Perhaps Terri's parents, along with well-wishers, could go to Terri's hospice, and inform the staff, very politely and with humility, that they will be taking Terri out of that place. And then do so.

I grew up in the 1960s, where political activists violated the law for reasons of justice. These activists made an excellent case for their action, and now some of those activists are in positions of power in our government. These activists were, in many cases, right; society did not want to change, but knew that it must, and it did. I think that Terri's supporters have the same or greater moral imperative to act in this case. I would think that peaceful action to remove Terri from the hospice to give her loving care is completely justified and moral, and certainly falls within the virtue of charity. Even if force is used to oppose them, a proportional response would still be moral, although it may not be pastoral.

What the Pope calls the "Culture of Death" has gone too far with Terri, and the American Civil Liberties Union is making a mistake supporting Terri's death in this case; the ACLU will be perceived even more as an organization that supports atrocity. This is an innocent woman, who is not dying, nor apparently in great pain and suffering, who may die because one man wants her dead. I am amazed at how the Culture of Death innovates: death was, until recently, given to those who are unwanted, such as a child in an unwanted pregnancy, but now, a woman, wanted by her parents, still must die! I didn't think that this would be possible until recently. It is as I suspected, two decades ago, that the right to die would eventually become the duty to die: this is a big step in that direction.

Those who wish to expand the boundaries of legal death have had tepid opposition until now, since we all just want to get along and not be bothered. However, Terri's case has energized the pro-life community, who are sick of the continual expansion of legalized death. The new attitude is: "A line has been drawn. The Culture of Death shall go no further."

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