Saturday, February 27, 2010

Euthanasia Debated in Massachusetts

This week, the Massachusetts legislature debated allowing physician assisted suicide in the Commonwealth. The sponsors of the bill assure us that it will be limited only to terminally ill patients who have already exhausted all possible treatments and have undergone counseling.

While such measures are already in force in three other states and several countries around the world, enshrining a so-called "right to die" in law would raise many legal and ethical problems.

First of all, if we say that everyone has a right to die "with dignity and on their own terms", then how can the legislation be limited to the terminally ill? If I can choose when and how I'll die, then why can't I ask to be killed when I am first diagnosed with a terminal illness? Why should I have to go through treatment and counseling? And if everyone has such a right, then how can it be limited only to those who are physically ill? Why should a depressed person or person with a mental illness not be allowed to request a life-ending drug? How about other persons prone to suicide such as gay teenagers who frequently botch their attempts at killing themselves and end up with disfigurements or brain damage as a result? Why should they not be allowed to die "on their own terms." Once we call suicide, assisted or otherwise, a right, then we cannot put limits on who chooses to exercise that right.

Secondly, once we establish that someone has a right to die, then who would do the killing? Presumably it would be doctors, but what if a person's doctor has a moral issue with ending her patient's life? Could a nurse or other health care professional administer a lethal drug? Could the patient's spouse or parent do it? Would the state have to license someone to administer lethal drugs?

Such legislation also raises the spectre of doctors who are unable to make a living curing people now turning to killing them, much as Jack Kevorkian did in the 90's and as many abortion doctors do today. A shadow industry of those willing to administer lethal drugs to the ill would emerge staffed by unscrupulous people who would no doubt be willing to skirt safeguards artificially built into any right to die legislation.

Finally, if everyone has the right to die on ones own terms, what are the rights of those who decide that they want to continue living even though they are terminally ill? Will they be protected from having life support denied them by a hospital administrator or insurance manager? Will such legislation assert that everyone has a right to nutrition and hydration as long as his or her body is able to absorb it? Will any legislation declaring a "right to die on ones own terms" protect my right to continue living no matter what burden it places on others?

No one wants to see others suffer. All of us want to relieve the mental anguish of those who feel that they are a burden to their loved ones. However, our compassion has to be focused on relieving suffering and making the last days of the terminally ill as comfortable and meaningful as possible, not on killing them.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Put to the Test

How do we find out how strong something is? By testing it.

Companies put their products - whether they be cars or concrete blocks - through numerous trials to see how they will hold up under pressure. Olympic athletes race against others in their class, pushing every muscle in their bodies to see who is the fastest. Only by putting ourselves under strain and pushing ourselves to our limit can we know how strong we are.

How does God know how strong our faith is? By allowing us to be tested and seeing how we react. He allows obstacles to be placed in the way of our hopes and dreams to see if we keep our hearts set on his will or if we'll fall into despair. He allows others to bad mouth us to see if we desire his will over the esteem of our peers. And he allows temptations to dog us to see if we will remain faithful to the vows of our baptism.

In this Sunday's gospel, the Father allows Jesus to be put to the test by Satan. Normally, Satan would keep his distance from the Son of God. But Jesus has taken on a human nature, and it will be through his humanity that he will deliver all of creation from the grip of sin and death. Satan never has much trouble tempting human flesh, but to be extra sure, he waits until the end of Jesus' fast, when he is at his weakest, to attack him. Satan approaches Jesus and says to him in effect:

I know who you are. You can't expect to take this human nature thing seriously. As the Son of God, you have never wanted for anything. Will you let yourself suffer the pangs of hunger when you can turn these stones to bread? As the Son of God, the stars of the sky and the armies of heaven obey your command. Will you allow yourself to be subject to those fools, King Herod and Pontius Pilate? Or will you worship me and allow me to give you all the kingdoms of the earth to rule? As the Son of God you never feared injury or death. Would you not throw yourself off from the summit of the temple and show all of Jerusalem that your Heavenly Father will not allow one hair of your head to be harmed? Throw off your human nature with its frailty and save the world as only an Almighty God can!

Sounds tempting, doesn't it?

But Jesus does not throw off his human nature. He would rather inhale dust from the desert floor than follow the path of worldly power and glory.

Why? So that we could experience, in the weakness and suffering which is common to every person, the victory of Jesus in our flesh. If Jesus saved the world through strength and power, then only the strong and powerful could share in his victory. But if he prevails through weakness, then everyone can take part in trouncing the evil one.

Satan's testing of Jesus revealed a strength hidden in his human nature, but not the strength the Devil expected. It is the strength of faith - a strength that doesn't rely on immediate, material results - but which relies simply on God and his word. It is a strength which doesn't prove itself through violence and conquest, but through humble acceptance of suffering and weakness.

We are no better than Jesus. We will be put to the test to see how strong our faith is. It might not be God who puts us to the test or the Devil. Many times it is the people around us. They want to know if we really are who we say we are or if we are frauds. They are checking to see if we will be drawn into the gossip at the office. They want to see if we will do anything when someone ridicules Church teaching or blasphemes Jesus' holy name. People are constantly putting stumbling blocks in our way in hopes that we will fall so they can dismiss our way of life as hypocritical or superstitious.

We will have to be kind and patient in return. We will not win such people over by logical arguments and quotes from Scripture. Rather it will be our willingness to undergo it humbly that will reveal the hidden strength of faith and convince others that there is more to being Christian than following rules and attending services. Then we will share in Jesus' victory, a victory that only the meek can inherit.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This Is the Fasting I Desire

I have never had much success at fasting over the years. Even in the zeal of my youth, I could not even live up to the minimal requirement of 2 small meals and 1 normal sized meal for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It was not until Ash Wednesday of last year that I was able to maintain a fast through a whole day. I simply asked God to help me, and he gave me the strength to see it through. Unfortunately, I had no such success the following Good Friday.

Ironically, it has been my failures at fasting which have taught me an important lesson. Fasting is not meant to be an exercise of will power and self-control. Rather, there is a more spiritual meaning behind this traditional Lenten practice which yesterday's daily readings illumine for us.

The first reading is from the prophet Isaiah (Is. 58: 1-9). The people are lamenting that God is not taking note of their fasting. In their minds, because they have succeeded at keeping the letter of the law, God is now somehow in their debt. As the prophet puts it, "They ask me to declare what is due them." But God replies that the fasting he desires is one that brings liberty to captives. We should go without food not to feed our egos but to share what we have with the poor and hungry.

I have always found this scripture passage daunting. Who could I liberate from the yoke? I don't know anyone who is bound unjustly, and I have never had the misfortune (or fortune) of running into someone who was naked and in need of my cloak. In fact, I don't even have a cloak! But the message of this reading is that our fasting, if it is to be pleasing to the Father, must give us a heart more sensitive and compassionate to those who go without food out of poverty and want. Every day in our world there are those who do not eat so that there will be enough food for their children. Even worse, there are those who must decide which of their children they will feed on a given day. If our fasting does not connect us with them, then we are wasting our time.

If Isaiah gives us the horizontal axis of fasting (love of neighbor) then the gospel (Matt.9: 14-15) gives us the vertical axis (love of God). We fast because our bridegroom, Jesus, is no longer among us. Going without food teaches us that our true hunger is for Christ and increases within our heart a longing for his return in glory. The rumbling of our belly is easily settled with a morsel of food. But the rumbling of our heart continues throughout our lives until we are united with our Savior. This is the meaning behind the Church precept that we fast one hour before receiving the Eucharist. First of all, it focuses our attention on what it is we are about to do. Secondly, it reminds us that we do not live on bread alone, as Jesus famously told Satan in the desert, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Not only must fasting connect us more closely to our brothers and sisters who are in pain, but it must train our hearts to yearn for the fulfillment of all our desires, our bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

The spiritual purpose behind fasting can be lost on our weight conscious culture with its constant dieting and eating disorders. Fasting can be thought of as just another way of losing weight and looking better. On the other hand, our overabundance can lead us to forget that no amount of material possessions can give us meaning or quell the anxieties of our hearts. The discipline of fasting can not only teach us to control ourselves but to rely more on God for our needs. Then we will be free to give more generously to the poor. And God's promise through the prophet Isaiah will be realized among us:

Your light will break forth like the dawn,
And your wound will be quickly healed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Remember You Are Dust

September 11, 2001 was a terrible day for our country and for the world. It's hard to believe that it has been over eight years now. The horrors of that day are still so fresh in our minds. We remember how everything stopped. If you were at work, you stopped what you were doing to listen to the reports. Whatever you may have been watching on TV that day was interrupted to bring the latest news of the event.

And the news was not good. Death, destruction, fire, explosions, hatred, fear: All these form the images from that tragic day. At ground zero, only smoke, rubble and ashes were left. That day changed our perspective on life, on our country and on the world. We have not been the same since.

We begin the season of Lent today. Lent is a blessed time when we stop what we are doing to observe a tragedy, the tragedy of sin. Our history as a human race is scarred by endless conflicts as a result of sin. Sin has brought nothing but death and destruction. Some of it has been devastating, like the events of September 11. Most sin, however, wreaks its havoc in small ways in our personal lives. Nonetheless, there is no one who has not been marked by the effects of sin.

However, unlike September 11 when we weren't sure how to handle the tragedy or how to prevent another one, we do know what to do about sin. God tells us through the prophet Joel in today's first reading: "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Once we realize the damage that sin has worked in our lives, we have no choice but to turn to God and to show our regret in a dramatic way. This is what Lent is about. It is about returning to God and asking God to change our lives.

Today, we will mark our foreheads with ashes. It is a symbol that we are guilty of the destruction which sin has wrought in our world. But, more importantly, it is a symbol of hope. For the God who created us out of dust, can also bring good out of the world's misery and evil. We approach the altar to be marked with ashes as a sign of our repentance, as a sign that we mean to change. We bear proudly on our foreheads the mark of a God who brings life out of death.

And so sin, destruction and death are not the final chapter in human history. It has a happy ending. For, as tragically as sin has disfigured our lives, just so mercifully and completely has God saved us in Jesus Christ. Adam and Eve could never have imagined what evils their disobedience would unleash on the world. Neither could they have imagined that God, the Almighty Creator, would take on flesh and die to bring the new life of the Resurrection.

We have stopped everything to gather here today. We are fasting and not eating meat to show that we mean to change. The God who knows our hearts sees how serious we are. We can never know just how deeply our sin has offended God nor how far our bad choices have rippled out and hurt others. Nonetheless, we can know how completely we are forgiven. Marked with ashes, we can live these next forty days leading up to Easter with a new commitment to turn things around with the strength God provides.

Saint Paul sums it up best in the second reading: "We beg you not to take the grace of God in vain. For he says, 'In an acceptable time I have heard you; on a day of salvation I have helped you.' Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blaming the Victim

Are people to blame for their own misfortunes? Is there a "karma" which assures that if we act morally good things will come to us, and in contrast, that if we act badly, evil things will boomerang back? Does that mean that every time something unfortunate happens to me I'm being punished for something wrong I've done?

In sociological circles, it is called "blaming the victim" when we claim that people must somehow deserve the misfortunes they suffer. It is a mentality which unfortunately afflicts many religious people who often see calamities as divine retribution. We have only to look at last month's earthquake in Haiti and the unfortunate remarks of Pat Robertson who claimed it was divine payback for a pact Haitians supposedly made with the devil some 400 years ago.

But it is certainly not isolated to religious types. How many people around the world - and in our country - believe that the events of 9/11 were retribution for America's misuse of power over the years?

Why is such a mentality - though often subtle and unspoken - so prevalent in our society?

First of all, blaming the victim gives us an excuse to not help those in need because they are the cause of their own suffering. We often hear people say, "He made his bed; now let him lie in it." When we are gripped by this mentality, we claim that the poor are impoverished because they are lazy. Or we might say that if we give the homeless money, they will only spend it on booze and drugs. By blaming people for the adversity they face, we can wash our hands of any responsibility to come to their aid.

Secondly, blaming the victim gives us a false sense of security. If bad things only happen to bad people, then we can keep ourselves safe simply by being good. Because we believe in God and go to church every Sunday, we can be deluded into thinking that we live a charmed life and that no misfortune can ever touch us. And when something unfortunate eventual does happen to us - when we have experienced a sudden death in the family or have lost our job unexpectedly - we wonder what evil we could have done in our lives to deserve it. We blame God for abandoning us and insist that we were entitled to better treatment because of our good behavior.

I suspect that many of us, if honest, can admit to falling into this trap in our own thinking. When we do, we are strangling off compassion for our fellow human beings and setting ourselves up for major disappointment when we realize that things do not always go our way just because we are pious. Most of all, we are perpetuating an image of God as a tyrant who is just waiting for any opportunity to smite us.