Reflectons on Veritatis Spleandor by Alfred McBride, O.Praem.

"I was born with a disability. As a child I spent a lot of time in severe pain. Today I use a wheelchair and lead an active and fulfilling life. To those who argue so vehemently for my ‘right to end that life,’ I have one question. Are you truly concerned about my human dignity, or does my existence simply make you so uncomfortable that you would rather I disappear? To me, this right to die’ sounds more like society’s right to kill me" (Douglas Lathrop, U.S. News and World Report, May 16, 1994).

The hospice movement worldwide would appreciate Lathrop’s intelligent defense of human dignity and his pertinent question for the "right to die" proponents. Why kill the sufferer rather than kill the pain?

A woman tells of her mother who was terrified about the sufferings that would attend her illness. She did not want to be an emotional, physical, or financial burden to her family. Thankfully, she found a doctor who helped her manage her pain. He treated her as a person and not as an illness. If more doctors would pay more attention to their patients’ fear and pain, people like Dr. Jack Kevorkian would not make headlines. The "right to die" movement is but one of many examples of the so-called war between Mother Nature and freedom. When Mother Nature occurs in the form of extreme pain and life-threatening illness, it seems to reduce our freedom to live, our will to live. The physical appears to take control of the spiritual. Some say, "I may as well lose the war and commit suicide."

When I experience a tension between nature and freedom, I have three unsuitable choices and one that is acceptable. I could choose these unproductive paths: (1) Give in to nature and give up my freedom. (2) Manipulate nature to make it fit what my freedom wants, such as artificial insemination. (3) Use my freedom to control and exploit nature, as is happening in the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests.

The proper choice would be to reflect on the fact of nature, to understand it in the light of reason and faith, and to judge its value for our life here and hereafter - to decide in favor of the moral law.

Some moralists advocate a morality based on opinion polls. If most American Catholics are practicing artificial birth control, these moralists claim, it is all right: We should not change our behavior; rather, the Church should change its teaching.

These moralists accuse the Church of reducing the natural law to mere biology (Mother Nature), especially in the areas of sexual and conjugal ethics. "It was, they maintain, on the basis of a naturalistic [that is, merely biological] understanding of the sexual act that contraception, direct sterilization, autoeroticism and premarital sexual relations, homosexual relations and artificial insemination were declared morally unacceptable" (No. 47). These moralists claim that the Church fails to consider people as thoughtful and free, and that it disregards the cultural conditioning of moral norms. The Church should admit that man can and "must freely determine the meaning of his behavior" (No. 47). Besides, the Church should take more seriously the Gospel command to love God and neighbor. Love would teach the Church to change its mind on these matters.

The Church responds by asserting that the human person is a unity of body and soul. The body participates in the moral life of the person. The Church has been history’s foremost upholder of the power of reason in its ability to apply faith teachings to moral problems. It acknowledges the role of culture in forming moral norms, approving those that conform to God’s law and rejecting those that do not. The Church argues that love of God and neighbor is a sound moral principle, but love is not love when it ignores or denies the truth. Love without truth is an illusion. The conflict of nature and freedom tormented St. Paul. "For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want" (Rom 7: 19). But this tension did not immobilize St. Paul. It did not lead him to reject nature in favor of freedom. Nor did it persuade him to prefer nature because freedom was impossible. He reached for a higher viewpoint. He prized both the values of freedom and the messages of nature and worked through the tension to a unity for his moral life. Becoming a moral person is not easy. But with God’s help it can be achieved.

Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated 1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by permission.

April 1998 edition of the San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046),