(by Shawn Peterson)
January 15, 2015
There is an increase today in the demand for convenience, a growing disdain for anything that causes us any sort of burden or pain. Where once our culture valued and even celebrated someone facing obstacles and admired someone who endured suffering, we now find every means imaginable to avoid these at all costs, even by choosing death that masquerades as “compassion” or “love.”
Pope Francis has often referred to this as our “throw away culture.” In a December 2013 speech, he pointed out who is in danger: “the weakest and most fragile human beings — the unborn, the poorest, the sick and elderly, the seriously handicapped, etc. — who are in danger of being ‘thrown away,’ expelled from a system that must be efficient at all costs.”
A consistent ethic of life
Contrary to the throw away culture, Catholics embrace a consistent ethic of life. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., has explained that at the heart of the consistent ethic of life is “its insistence on the interconnectedness of life issues across the span of life from conception to natural death. . . . The denial of respect or even the diminishment of respect for any one aspect of life would lead adversely to a denial or diminishment of respect for life in other aspects of life due to the fact that they are all related.”
This “denial of respect,” for so many aspects of life, characterizes the throw-away culture. This attitude pervades everything from our treatment of consumer goods to human relationships and our own lives. The days have passed when, if something was broken, people attempted to fix it.
Today almost everything is tossed away with little thought and replaced by a new, better “object.” Our attitude is: If something or someone is not perfect or wanted, it has no value and can be discarded.
As Catholics we must reject the throw away culture, which is not compatible with the consistent ethic of life, and we must remind ourselves that to truly respect God’s great creation — especially human life — we must oppose anything that threatens that life in any situation, be that abortion, euthanasia, environmental degradation and unjust treatment of laborers, among others.
The rising tide of assisted suicide
The most recent example of the throw-away culture gaining in popularity might be the case of Brittany Maynard, the terminally-ill 29-year-old woman who publicly promised to kill herself and later followed through. Her story, which played out in the national media on the cover of People magazine and the daytime talk shows, returned the issue of assisted suicide and the so-called “death with dignity” movement to the forefront of this dangerous trend.
Euthanasia advocates are using Maynard’s story to fuel a new push for physician-assisted suicide, even here in Minnesota, which is one of four states being targeted for legalization. Fortunately, those engaged in building a culture of life are finding creative ways to tell their own stories.
A Catholic seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., who has inoperable brain cancer, shared his story with the world in the hope of convincing Maynard and others that living in difficult circumstances is beautiful and that dying a natural death has dignity.
Another person, Liz, a mother of four with incurable cancer, made a deeply moving video response to the Brittany Maynard tragedy that declared “my life isn’t mine to take, it’s mine to give,” and that “love is dignity.” (Check out “Death with Dignity” on YouTube, a video by Christopher Stefanick.)
Closer to home, Elizabeth Bakewicz has been giving presentations about her struggles with cancer and the dignity that comes with suffering in and with the Lord.
These and other stories are true witnesses against the throw-away culture and compel us to reconsider what truly constitutes human dignity — one that will hopefully help us find our way through difficult public policy concerns such as assisted suicide legislation.
Renewing a culture of life
Pope Francis has asked us to “raise awareness and form the lay faithful, in whatever state, especially those engaged in the field of politics, so that they may think in accord with the Gospel and the social doctrine of the Church and act consistently by dialoguing and collaborating with those who, in sincerity and intellectual honesty, share — if not the faith — at least a similar vision of mankind and society and its ethical consequences.”
The Minnesota Catholic Conference will be working at the Legislature and in the public arena to address legislation that emerges from the throw away culture. But pushing back on the throw away culture also requires that each of us, in our own way, witness to authentic dignity by telling our own stories about the beauty of life in difficult circumstances. Already, many are doing just that.
In doing so, we will help foster an authentic culture of life that may, in turn, be reflected in wise public policy.
Peterson is associate director for public policy with the Minnesota Catholic Conference.