Many people may find it difficult to support Pope Benedict’s conviction that “Life, which is the work of God, cannot be negated by anyone, neither at the very young and indefensible unborn stage, nor when grave disabilities are present.”   

The Pope was responding to an Italian doctor who switched off the life support of a paralyzed man being cleared of wrongdoing by a medical panel.  The doctor had disconnected the life support of a man who had asked to die to end years of being paralyzed by muscular dystrophy.

Some Catholic theologians also appear to question Pope Benedict’s views on euthanasia.  Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, for example, supports the right of the individual to refuse “unreasonably obstinate” treatment  to delay inevitable death.   

 The Pope’s insisting that “Life…cannot be negated by anyone,” also appears to contradict the Catholic Church’s argument that the state has the right to use all punishments, “not excluding…the death penalty.”  The “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life) issued March 25, 1995 by John Paul II, for example, says that execution is appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity” when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.

But who can be trusted to accurately define “cases of absolute necessity”?  The Catholic Church saying only the state the right to take a life ignores abundant evidence the state is not always and entirely objective, moral, or just, even when it follows its own legal protocols and processes.  

There are, for example, numerous cases of unjust executions.  In 1998, for example, the British Court of Appeal set aside Derek William Bentley’s conviction for the capital crime of being indirectly involved in the shooting death of a policeman, deciding that his trial had been unfair because some of the evidence presented should have been considered at least flawed and other evidence, including forensic evidence that the fatal shots in the case were more likely fired by police, was ignored.  In fact, many legal authorities believe Bentley was executed because the public mood at the time of his arrest demanded it.  His gravestone carries the inscription, “A victim of British justice.”

The Catholic Church’s support for the right of a state to take a life, despite the Pope’s insistence that “Life…cannot be negated by anyone,”  gives the Church few, but very dubious, allies.  The few societies still using capital punishment appear to have one or two common elements: most of their people consider vengeance an important element of “justice” and/or lack the means or the courage necessary to question the authority of the state.  

The Church’s moral and logical inconsistency in giving only the state the right to take a life, despite widespread doubts the state always makes objective, moral, and just decisions, leaves many individuals convinced only they have the right to make decisions which affect only their own lives.  Most philosophers have argued in favor of the individual’s right to decide purely personal matters; John Stuart Mill, for example, argued an individual should be free to make any choices which directly affect only that individual.  Existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre insisted that choosing how and when one’s life ends is such an individual choice, and no one, including the Pope, has the right to interfere with that decision. 

 If individuals are not allowed to decide for themselves, then existentialists are right, and there is no point to anything.  Allowing individuals to make such decisions is, therefore, acting compassionately, not acting in the “guise of compassion.” 

“Passive euthanasia” – the withdrawal of extraordinary efforts to maintain life -requested by a patient or by a patient’s family if the patient is incapable of that request, is, therefore, not the cutting short another life under “the guise of human compassion;” it is the ultimate expression of human compassion in a world virtually devoid of such compassion.  Fulfilling the wishes of a patient who asks for death to end his or her suffering in agony without hope of recovery is not the crime; the crime, the insult to God, would be in allowing the suffering to continue.

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