When religion and secularism butt heads on public policy - a
regular occurrence these days - religion typically is obliged
to fight with one hand tied behind it. Unfair, you say?
Certainly it is, but that's how the game is played now.
Consider the escalating argument over euthanasia and its
first cousin, assisted suicide. For a religious believer, the
most powerful argument against these practices concerns God's
authority as Lord of life. To a secularist, though, God-talk
is ruled out in the policy debate of a pluralistic secular
This state of affairs is no small matter as the
euthanasia/assisted suicide battle heats up. Just last month,
the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously declared that anyone
with an "irremediable medical condition" is entitled to
choose "termination of life." In the United States, assisted
suicide is permitted, to some extent, in five states, and the
legalization debate currently is getting started in a number
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a definitive
statement on this matter: "It is God who remains the
sovereign Master of life.
We are stewards, not
owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours
to dispose of" (No. 2280).
But to many people today, this language probably sounds like
an archaic survival from the Dark Ages. Conditioned to think
in secular terms, these folks find the idea that God's rights
over the disposition of their lives are superior to their own
is an unwelcome novelty, an infringement on what assisted
suicide advocate Derek Humphry calls "the ultimate personal
and civil liberty" - that is, "freedom to die."
Even semi-secularized Christians have been taught to reason
It's said that no one is obliged to practice assisted
suicide, but it is a matter of personal choice. Not only
that, refusing access to it in the name of religious dogma
violates the fundamental right of individual
self-determination, and that's unacceptable in a pluralistic
Faced with this mindset, someone who enters the policy debate
from a faith perspective must turn to valid but second-tier
arguments. For example: If you legalize assisted suicide
while declaring it voluntary, you can be sure the voluntary
part will sometimes disappear in the hands of over-zealous
medical personnel or family members.
I got my own wake-up call recently in conversation with a
doctor whom I know only slightly. For whatever unstated
reason of his own, he felt moved to make this remark: "If I
knew I was terminally ill, I'd sit down one evening with a
bottle of good wine, turn on music I like, and then drink
something that would put me to sleep knowing I'd never wake
I was too startled to say much in reply just then. One thing
for sure, though. If I become seriously ill, I won't go to
Doctor X for treatment.
The novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor once
remarked that in secularized times the tendency is to "govern
by tenderness." But that has a price: "When tenderness is
detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome
is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the
gas chamber." Also, one might add, in euthanasia and its near
But Doctor X and people like him have the advantage that
religious arguments against taking life - your own or
somebody else's - are ruled out in the current debate, and
these matters instead must be argued on the secularists'
terms. Guess who stands to win the game when it must be
played by those rules.
Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and author of
American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and
Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius Press).