Anger over the right to die

If God wants to join the political debate over assisted suicide, he should expect a bloody nose.
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If God wants to join the political debate over assisted suicide, he should expect a bloody nose.

A few weeks ago, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly railed against what he saw as Catholic-baiting on the part of supporters of I-1000, which concerns, depending upon how you feel about it, "the right to die," "assisted suicide," or "death with dignity." The measure proposes an end-of-life option for terminally ill patients modeled on a tested and Supreme Court-vetted Oregon law.

I-1000 supporters have spotlighted the amount of money Catholic organizations have spent to defeat the initiative, and Connelly took offense that proponents of the measure have also claimed that some of the out-of-state dioceses putting up dough are also faced with child abuse lawsuits — a general slam at the Roman Catholic Church power structure. In general, Connelly senses an anti-Catholic prejudice. He quotes Yale Professor Peter Viereck once saying, "Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals." People in Washington have little to fear from Catholics, Connelly points out, as they make up only 13 percent of the religious population. He slams those who bash religion in politics: "It is flat-out wrong to demean the values of a particular faith or exclude them from the public square."

Joel and I are friendly colleagues, but on opposite sides of this issue. He's against I-1000 and I am for it. I also disagree about the charge of Catholic baiting or bashing, though there has been some outrageous rhetoric, much of it from opponents of the measure, such as the conservatives values group that alleged initiative backer former Democratic Gov. Booth Garner was leading us toward Nazi Germany. And some groups, including Catholic ones, have consistently mis-characterized the measure as "euthanasia." It is not.

But the political arena is a tough one, and anyone who sticks his nose in, religious or not, is likely to get it bloodied. Like Joel, I'm not Catholic, but I sense no widespread bias against Catholics in Washington. One sign that Catholicism is not an issue: Both our gubernatorial candidates, Dino Rossi and Chris Gregoire, are Catholics, and as far as I can tell, no one cares that they are part of a religious minority in the state. Neither candidate is putting religion at the center of their campaigns, nor are they in lockstep with church beliefs. They agree with the Catholic church in opposing I-1000. Yet both support the death penalty despite the fact that their church and pope is an outspoken opponent of capital punishment.

When religious adherents spend their money and invoke their faith to appeal for votes, however, those beliefs become fair game, and Catholic liberals, conservatives, and those of every shade in between, are deeply engaged in politics and values issues, from gay marriage to abortion to stem cell research to war, peace, and social justice. In a state and region where the majority of people (60 percent) say they have no religious affiliation and 30 percent are self-described "secular humanists," don't be surprised if faith-based arguments and religious institutions are sometimes roughly rejected. The kinds of word-of-God moral arguments often put forward by Catholics or evangelicals are frequently unpersuasive to people of other faiths or of no particular faith. That doesn't mean the moral arguments shouldn't be made, but to make them using religion as the basis is to lead with your chin.

There are perfectly reasonable non-religious arguments to make against I-1000. History and recent experience produce some data that can support concerns. Washington and Oregon were early adopters of well-meaning "eugenics" laws in the early 20th century which resulted in involuntary sterilizations of unwed mothers, gays, and the "unfit." It is legit to call into question the long-term effects of laws that could alter the values of the medical profession or institutionalize discriminatory practices that prey on the weak. But the notion that life and death ought to proceed only by "God's hand" asks a leap of faith many are not prepared to make. Vote your religious values, but don't expect me to vote your religious values.

In a way, what surprises me more than supposed Catholic bashing is the amazing amount of attention that is paid to the Catholic church as an institution in general. I would wager that over time, coverage of Catholics in politics in Washington far outweighs their percentage of the population. The Dalai Lama, black ministers, and evangelicals get some coverage, but for years the media have regarded what bishops and archbishops say as big news. Presbyterians? Not so much. That's partly because the Catholic church has viewed itself as a moral force and ultimate arbiter of right and wrong for everyone in the confessional and the public square. If liberals or non-Catholics bring up the moral failings of the church hierarchy, it is usually to point out that the church institution itself is not infallible.

Catholic leaders are heavily engaged in political debate at the national level, too. The presidential campaign is an example. Prominent Catholics are debating the morality of voting for Democrats or pro-choice politicians. A Vatican official recently dubbed the Democrats a "party of death":

Vatican officials seldom single out political leaders who differ with the Church on issues like abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research. But now that the Vatican's highest court is led by an American, the former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, we can expect things to get more explicit in Vatican City 'ꀔ at least when it comes to U.S. politics.

Burke, who was named prefect of the Vatican's Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature in June, told the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire that the U.S. Democratic Party risked "transforming itself definitively into a party of death for its decisions on bioethical issues."

And a Catholic archbishop recently had this to say about pro-choice Barrack Obama and his Catholic supporters:

Denver Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput labeled Barack Obama the "most committed" abortion-rights candidate from a major party in 35 years while accusing a Catholic Obama ally and other Democratic-friendly Catholic groups of doing a "disservice to the church ..."

"I think his activism for Senator Barack Obama, and the work of Democratic-friendly groups like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, have done a disservice to the church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn."

If some liberals are Catholic-baiting, some church officials are busy liberal-bashing. Connelly is right in the sense that it's too easy to portray the church as a monolith, though I would argue that it is often trying to present itself as such. The fact is, there is a lot of diversity within the Catholic community, including pro-choicers like John Kerry and Joe Biden, who, some Catholics believe, should be denied communion. One of the biggest debates over how religious faith is expressed in politics isn't between Catholics and non-Catholics, but between Catholics themselves. Interestingly, Obama seems to be doing better with Catholic voters than Kerry did. Personally, I don't have a dog in the fight over who's a heretic and who is not.

Perhaps the most, uh, spirited and profane reaction to Connelly's column came from Dan Savage, who tried to bring the issue back to "choice." No one is forcing anyone to take a kill pill:

The proper response to religious opposition to choice or love or death can be reduced to a series of bumper stickers: Don't approve of abortion? Don't have one. Don't approve of gay marriage? Don't have one. Don't approve of physician-assisted suicide? For Christ's sake, don't have one. But don't tell me I can't have one'ꀔeach one'ꀔbecause it offends your God.

Fuck your God.

Completing an odd-couple choice of I-1000 backers to quote, you might find former Republican Gov. Dan Evans more civil in tone, but in a P-I op-ed he makes a similar point:

This individual freedom, this ability to make our own choices and make up our own minds, is based on an agreement that every person is entitled to their opinions and their own guiding principles, but no one is entitled to impose their opinions or beliefs on others.

That's why I-1000 leaves the decision in the hands of the terminally ill patient. No one else should make this decision for patients — the decision rightly belongs to terminally ill patients themselves. It is a matter of respect, a matter of autonomy and a matter of freedom.

Which is the interesting twist in the debate. I-1000 expands choice for people regardless of faith, which is the principle under which Catholics and non-Catholics in America can engage in spirited political debate in the first place.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.