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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Failure to Affirm Life

Bishop Robert Francis Vasa

John Donne includes as a portion of his famous "Meditation 17" from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, the following words: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

I had given serious consideration to asking every church in my diocese to toll the funeral bells of the church 33 times on Sunday, January 22, at 3PM local time in remembrance of the 33 years during which abortion has been permissively allowed and even promoted in our land. In light of the January 17 Supreme Court ruling relating to Oregon's assisted-suicide law, I now see an expanding reason for such an action. My hope in future years is to call upon all who receive this to recommend to bishops and pastors that they toll the bells in January on the Sunday afternoon between these two discouraging decisions. When those bells toll and someone asks, "Why?" you will have the opportunity to witness to life and tell them why the bells toll and for whom they toll. They toll for all of us.

The death of every person diminishes, in some small way, all of humanity. When that death occurs as a result of one person imposing his or her will on another, as in the case of murder, we should all grieve. Further, when a person chooses death for another by abortion because she or he is "not ready for the responsibility" or "cannot afford a baby now" or because of concerns that "a baby would cause a change in life" or "the mother is not mature enough" or "wants to avoid single parenthood" (cumulatively these reasons account for 81 percent of all abortions), then there is additional reason for grief because these are all legally permissible.

These deaths are chosen, and "we the people" often fail to grieve or even to notice. Now, when life is deemed too harsh, too difficult or too hopeless, those distressed by life are granted expanded freedom to seek out a physician to exercise his or her healing profession by healing them of life itself. Somehow being "cured of life" will never sound the same as being cured of cancer.

When I heard the Supreme Court decision, I immediately thought of Victor Frankl, who endured the horrors of a concentration camp, and how he found meaning to life even there. If he could find meaning to his life, a reason to live, in that dark and hopeless situation, how is it that suffering and dying persons in our land of plenty, surrounded by the best of medical care and a loving family, fail to discover meaning and succumb to dark despair?

In his book The Will to Meaning, Dr. Frankl writes:

Ever more patients complain of a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness, which seems to me to derive from two facts. Unlike an animal, man is not told by his instincts what he must do. And unlike man in former times, he is no longer told by traditions what he should do. Often he does not even know what he basically wishes to do. Instead, either he wishes to do what other people do (conformism), or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).
Victor Frankl was a proponent of what I would call "meaning therapy."

He writes:
Even the tragic and negative aspects of life, such as unavoidable suffering, can be turned into a human achievement by an attitude which a man adopts toward his predicament.
The Supreme Court Decision of January 17, 2006, allows Oregon to send the opposite message. By allowing a means to accomplish Oregon's right-to-die legislation, it implicitly teaches that man is indeed the victim of fate and has no interior ability to rise above his situation, however dire. The Court institutionalizes, condones and ratifies hopelessness and despair as legitimate human responses to human tragedy. Thus, instead of focusing our energies on the "treatment of a patient's attitude toward his unchangeable fate," we now focus on affirming a patient's sense of hopelessness. Remember for whom the bell tolls.

Dr. Frankl recounts an incident in which he received a call from a suicidal person at three in the morning. He talked to her for half an hour, giving her all the right and logical reasons why her resolution to take her life was flawed. She finally agreed that she would wait until after she saw him later in the day. Then he recounts: When she visited me, "it turned out that not one of the arguments I offered had impressed her. The only reason she had decided not to commit suicide was the fact that, rather than growing angry because of having been disturbed in my sleep in the middle of the night, I had patiently listened to her and talked with her for half an hour, and a world — she found — in which this can happen, must be a world worth living in."

For the victims of Oregon's assisted-suicide law the world has become a place that they feel is not worth living in. In the past, we would have seen this as a desperate cry for help, a sign of depression, a sign that the person needs help not to die but to live better. The Oregon solution, however, removes any glimmer of hope and assures the person that his or her feelings of hopelessness, perhaps uselessness, feelings of being a burden, are all exactly right.

So when the depressed person says, "I don't feel like I have any reason to continue living," Oregon says, "You know, you're right! There really is no reason for you to continue living." What a horrible thing to do to depressed, distressed, suffering and even terminally ill persons. The human spirit seeks meaning, grasps at hope, and Oregon takes these away. Clearly, sick and suffering people feel that their lives are meaningless. We can either affirm or deny meaning for them. One leads to life; the other to suicide. Life is meaningful and valuable. Suicide affirms hopelessness.

In the past when someone complained of the intolerable burdens of life, someone might propose calling the doctor. Now if someone complains of the intolerable burdens of life, someone might propose that if they truly feel that way then maybe they should call the "Doctor." Instead of affirming the person's worth and value as a person, as a family member, as a member of the human family, the feelings of despair are ratified as valid and acceptable. Then there is no genuine attempt to treat and terminate "the patient's attitude toward his unchangeable fate" but rather a termination of the patient.

I often tell people in distress, "Trust what you know, not what you feel." The terminally ill patients need assurances of what they know from experience. They need to know that their lives are valuable and worth living. They need to know that they are loved and esteemed and even needed. Every suicide, and especially an assisted suicide, represents a failure of the human community to affirm the meaning of a person's life. Ask not for whom the bells toll.

  • Bishop Vasa is the bishop of the Diocese of Baker, Oregon.

    This article originally appeared in The Catholic Sentinel, the newspaper for the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland and the Diocese of Baker, Oregon.

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