The Rector Writes...
Since the outbreak of the current pandemic, 128,000 deaths have been reported (as at the beginning of last week) in which the virus played a part. Official figures just released for 2020 show that in England 209,917 abortions were recorded. These numbers should fill us with an immense sense of sadness given the sheer volume of pain which they highlight. Statistics can also blind us to the amount of personal suffering attached to each individual situation which is tragic in its own way. Every year our Bishops set aside one Sunday as A Day For Life and they have designated this weekend (19th/20th June) for its 2021 observance. The theme this time is: “caring for the sick and the dying: the respect owed to life”. The Bishops’ choice is timely. We are all aware of the on-going and persistent campaign to try to alter current legislation so that what is now termed “assisted dying” would no longer be a criminal offence. Catholics, in particular, need to understand the Church’s witness to the inalienable worth of every human life, without exception. It is our responsibility to contribute informed and reasonable views to the continuing debate and to be courageous in doing all that we can to protect the most vulnerable among our brothers and sisters.
As in all the ethical dilemmas which face us, we must establish first principles and then try to apply them in particular circumstances. Aidan Nichols reminds us: “the moral teaching of Catholicism is that dimension of its wisdom which states and explores the principles that should govern human behaviour vis-à-vis the final destiny of humankind: the vision of God”. From the outset the bar is set high in the belief that decisions made in this life have eternal consequences. We are also committed to the understanding that we are called to be co-redeemers: guiding, and being guided by, others to live well on this earth as we accompany one another on the journey towards salvation. Underpinning everything should be a sense of shared communion by which we take responsibility for one another as children of the same Father. But, as Saint John Paul II observed: “choices once considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable – broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom”.
Every life has its origin in the imagination of God: each person, we believe, is a an expression of the Divine creative will. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of any individual their existence has in some wonderful way been pre-determined and is “necessary” (Benedict XV1) to the building and completion of God’s kingdom. This understanding of each person’s unique vocation underpins their essential value and dignity and is the basic reason that every life deserves respect and protection. It is only against this holistic understanding of human beings that we can make ethical judgements: although, rightly, the Church in its compassion for the vulnerable must try to defend lives from their beginning to their natural ending, this principle extends to every facet of human existence. The Church’s ethical tradition seeks to hold the balance between care for the individual’s autonomy and the communal environment in which life is received and experienced: the personal and the common good should be seen as servants of each other.
Pope Francis writes: “Jesus is the Good Shepherd who came for the wounded sheep and comforted the sick. He is the Good Samaritan who does not pass by the injured person lying by the roadside, but who, moved to compassion, takes care of and assists him”. For many around us the pain and indignity which can often be associated with the end of life justifies its active termination. While taking care not to impugn the motives of those who embrace different understandings from our own, we cannot do other than reiterate the belief that life is primarily a gift (therefore suicide is a rejection of the givenness of that life and of the Giver himself) and that the living and dying of each of us has a significance and a meaning which, as yet, cannot be fully comprehended.
Of course, we should be pressing for better palliative and hospice provision, and, of course, both Church and state should be offering greater concern for those suffering long-term illnesses both physical and mental – but our faith teaches us to honour the gift of life through all its stages and that those in the final phase of their human journey have so much both to learn and to teach. Instead of trying to hasten them from this life we need to stand alongside them, supportive in every way possible but open, in all humility, to listen to what they have to reveal about the mystery of life and of death itself. “For life is to be with Christ; where Christ is, there is life, there is the kingdom” (Saint Cyprian).