A bishop always knows better

Now that I’ve given you something elevating to contemplate in the ALMA picture of planet formation, we have to bump back down to squalid theocratic bullying again. This time it’s the Vatican’s reaction to Brittany Maynard’s decision to die before reaching the last horrible stages of death by brain tumor. Catholic News Agency reports what an official had to say.

Spanish Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life at the Vatican, explained to ANSA news agency, “We don’t judge people, but the gesture in itself is to be condemned. What happened in her conscience we don’t know.”

Bishop Carrasco de Paula said Maynard decided to take her life “thinking she would die with dignity, but that is the error.”

No it isn’t. I’m not a fan of the phrase “death with dignity” but even so, I think there are a lot of kinds of helplessness and malfunction that are hell on anyone’s sense of privacy, self-respect, dignity, enjoyment of not being a helpless excreting blob in a bed. It’s not an error to prefer to die before losing the ability to hold a spoon or walk to the toilet or brush one’s own teeth. It’s a preference, and different people will have different preferences, and it’s not up to the bishop to say Maynard’s was an error.

He called this view “an absurdity” because “dignity is something incompatible with putting an end to your own life.”

“Committing suicide is not a good thing; it is bad because it’s saying ‘no’ to one’s own life and to everything that it means regarding our mission towards the people around us in this world.”

Not when you have a terrible terminal illness it isn’t. But the Vatican doesn’t seem to accept that it has any obligation to take particulars into account when delivering these dogmatic generalized announcements.


  1. Al Dente says

    Bishop Carrasco de Paula said Maynard decided to take her life “thinking she would die with dignity, but that is the error.”

    The Catholic Church is against dying with dignity. Death should be as painful and unpleasant as possible.

  2. says

    “We don’t judge people, but we will anyway”.

    I don’t judge people either, but Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula is a spouter of loathsome crap.

  3. weatherwax says

    “It’s not an error to prefer to die before losing the ability to hold a spoon or walk to the toilet or brush one’s own teeth.”

    My mother was reaching that point. I was helping her walk back to bed from the bathroom when her heart finally gave out. She was dead before I could even lay her down. I think she’d very much agree with you.

  4. says

    regarding our mission

    Whose mission??? WTF?!? The Catholic Church’s mission, by chance? Everything’s got to be about them, doesn’t it? I’d like to think that I’m just reading that wrong because it’s late and I’m tired…but I wouldn’t put that kind of selfishness past them.

  5. RJW says

    The men in dresses are pussyfooting around the issue, presumably for PR reasons. Their belief is, that since human lives are god-given, people don’t really have the right to end their lives when, and if, they choose, that’s what the reference to ‘conscience’ implied. They also believe that their deity has the prerogative to torture people to death, not an easy sell these days.

    In Greco-Roman civilisation, suicide was usually the suicide’s business.

  6. sailor1031 says

    To decide to end one’s life so as to avoid the gross indignity of being incapable of performing the most basic functions for oneself, or to simply end the agony of painful terminal disease, or just not to excessively burden one’s loved ones is a personal decision. RCC executives need to mind their own business and find a better way to deal with their own rather than shamelessly appealing for the public to assume responsibility for care and support of old, ill and dying priests. I note they don’t suggest shipping them back to corporate HQ at vatican city to be cared for…..


  7. opposablethumbs says

    They certainly fetishise suffering; just not sure whether exceptionally so (e.g. Mother Theresa) or on a par with the rest of xtianity (crucifixion, refusing the right to die, refusing the right to reproductive healthcare).

  8. Eric MacDonald says

    There are several things wrong with the bishop’s objection to Brittany Maynard’s choosing to die. First of all, the term ‘dignity’ is a highly contested one, but Ignacio plays on two completely separate and unrelated meanings of the word. In Roman Catholic theology (and I think this is a new use of the word, though I have not been able to establish this), ‘dignity’ refers simply to the “God-givenness” of life. It does not refer to dignity in the strict sense, which consists in a person’s feeling of respect for herself (given present circumstances), and the respect paid to her by others (as opposed to pity, for example).

    Dignity, in the sense relevant to Brittany’s decision, is acting according to one’s own will and in accordance with one’s own sense of value as a person. Catholics will say that human life itself has dignity, but this is a far cry from the individual’s sense of her own dignity. What Catholics mean, I take it, is value, and they think of the value of life as infinite. However, someone in Brittany’s situation cannot feel that what the future holds (especially in the case of a brain tumour, than which there is perhaps no more excruciatingly painful way to die) will be characterised by dignity in the personal sense, however much Ignacio might hold a life characterised by unbearable pain to have infinite value.

    Besides, how he supposes that Brittany would have been able to carry out the church’s mission at the point of direst pain is simply beyond me. I have sat and watched helplessly a patient with brain cancer die. Her last hour was one long, uninterrupted scream, the doctor standing by meanwhile saying defensively that there was nothing he could do. How someone in that situation is supposed to carry out a mission to others in that condition is simply beyond me, and Ignacio does not explain, because he can’t. These are rote proclamations based on the church’s dogma, and do not reflect the actual situation of people in such conditions.

    I think the term ‘dignity in dying’ is an appropriate one, for most people’s deaths are not dignified. In my life as a priest I saw only one person die with what I could describe as dignity. The rest simply crumbled away into pain and a final struggle for air, or continuous vomiting. How aware they were I did not know, but their lack of dignity was the most striking thing about their deaths. Many relatives and loved ones stay away because they “didn’t want to remember [their loved one] in such distress.” They wanted to remember them as the people they really were, people with dignity, acting from their own centre, and in accordance with their own desires and values. It is a scandal that the church cannot see beyond the repetition of its dogma, rather than consider with compassion what might be the best way for a person to die, given their own choice in the matter. Forcing someone to die in a manner not of their own choosing is slavery (as Montaigne aptly said). It is interesting to see that the church still maintains this residual commitment to the enslavement of those who are most in need of freedom.

  9. machintelligence says

    Why get into the dignity argument anyway? It boils down to who owns your life, you or God (assuming God exists.) I am a firm believer that I own my life, and if I ever decide to end it, how is anyone going to stop me? Laws and threats do no good; you can’t punish someone who is no longer there.

  10. soogeeoh says

    @machintelligence, and everyone

    you can’t punish someone who is no longer there

    How do religions/churches/communities treat the next of kin or peers or assisters of someone who chose to die?

    I don’t mean to passive-aggressively induce feelings of shame and guilt or something in anyone who chooses to die :-/

    It just feels as if “punish the ones who’re there then” is the obvious course of action

  11. Dan says

    Yeah, I don’t like saying “death with dignity” because it implies if someone chooses otherwise they’re not dignified, which isn’t true, it should be about what the person wants (and if they want assisted dying, that’s fine, don’t get me wrong.) Also some people choose assisted dying for reasons other than dignity, like avoiding pain, etc. and that’s fine too. We shouldn’t get bogged down in what’s supposedly more dignified, which isn’t really objective.

  12. Eric MacDonald says

    Thank you Ophelia. Dan, if someone chooses to die in a particular way, then they have all the dignity in dying that counts (though see below). Some people (possibly most people) will not choose assistance in dying. This does not lessen their dignity, unless they are given no other choice. The matter of dignity in dying does not rest only with those who choose assistance in dying. Of course not. The dignity lies in the freedom and in the making of an informed and autonomous choice. As you say, “it should be what the person wants.” Choosing to avoid pain is, in fact, a choice for dignity, just as a choice to die in a hospice would be. The whole point of dignity in dying lies in the autonomy of the person involved, and this autonomy extends to an enormous variety of choices regarding one’s final days or hours.

    And what, I ask, is unobjective about dignity? We can recognise it when we see it. The person who bears misfortune with dignity is someone who bears it without whinging and complaining, with fortitude and strength; and the strength and dignity of their being will shine through. The person who dies with dignity is one who dies in a way that they would consider dignified. Unfortunately, as things go, very often people are not told beforehand how their dying is likely to go, something that most physicians can predict with a great deal of consistency, and so people often die in the most undignified conditions, incontinent, with cancerous ulcers whose smell alone drives people away, gasping desperately for air. These are seldom choices that people make, because doctors try their best to hide the most horrible things from their patients. The advantage of having a choice to receive assistance in dying is that the patient knows beforehand that if conditions do get very bad, they can, in the end, make the choice to avoid conditions that can be anticipated. Brittany Maynard made the choice she did because she knew that her end would otherwise almost certainly have been mindless and very painful. And let me tell you, choice or not, a dying person who is reduced to an uninterrupted scream of pain is not dignified.

    Machintelligence, it’s a lot harder to kill yourself than you might think. Thousands try it every year and fail — and not only as a cry for help. That’s why it is so important to have legalised assisted dying. Your life is yours, certainly, but the results of many ways of killing yourself may leave your loved ones traumatised for a very long time to come. Better to have legal means to do so, that are more or less guaranteed to do the job in a relatively peaceful way (guns, jumping off high places, or hanging usually work — though not always — but think of the effect of this on those who care for you), and to let others know that this is what you intend, and why you intend it. Then, if things work out as they should, you can have your friends and family present as you say farewell.

  13. lpetrich says

    That bishop’s objection to suicide makes no sense when one considers his theology. He believes, or at least is supposed to believe, that one’s consciousness will survive the death of the body. It is a sort of symbiont that lives in the body, and that departs from the body when the body is in too bad shape to host it. So suicide is like demolishing a house where one lives.

    There would certainly not be much value in doing that if the house was in good shape or needed a few minor repairs. But if it was in bad shape and starting to fall apart, and if repairing it would be monstrously expensive and awkward, then it may be good to demolish it to get it out of the way.

    There is still a possible theological objection to suicide, however. The objection that it’s gate-crashing, crashing the Pearly Gates.


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