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(3/5) Compassion is not a virtue typically associated with the church in Ireland.

End of Life Ireland (EOLI) is a volunteer-led group seeking to foster conversation about end-of life issues. In this series, EOLI committee member Noel Byrne comments on the arguments expressed by the bishops of Ireland in their submission to the Oireachtas Committee considering the Dying with Dignity Bill.

This is the third in a series of posts by Noel Byrne considering the Catholic church’s stance on End of Life choice as outlined in their Oireachtas submission to the Justice Committee considering the ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill. If you missed the earlier posts, you can catch up starting with my first post, where I outline the negative impact the ‘Irish Bishops Conference’ has had on legislation in Ireland.

In this post, I illustrate why compassion is not a virtue that is typically associated with the Catholic church in Ireland, despite compassion being widely recognized as critical for pure moral conduct. 

The New Oxford Dictionary defines compassion as ‘sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others’.  Compassion is about mercy, pity and doing what we can to help the sufferer to overcome their suffering and anguish. Compassion is widely recognized as essential to ensuring pure moral conduct.

Compassion in the Catholic Church

The horrors of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Autos da fe and Witch burnings are examples of ghastly church-orchestrated historical events that show a lack of compassion. These events are described in many objective, impartial accounts of the Catholic Church.

Likewise, the well-documented history of the Catholic church in Ireland shows little compassion. As I described in my first post, the Catholic church showed no compassion for those abused by the clergy, nor women in violent marriages who sought divorce, nor for girls and women raped, who needed an abortion, nor for gay couples who wanted to marry, nor for the women and children incarcerated in church institutes such as Mother and Baby homes.

In the Catholic church there are four Cardinal Virtues: these are

  • Prudence
  • Justice
  • Fortitude
  • Temperance.

There are also three theological virtues

  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Charity. 

Compassion is not included in the list of virtues, with charity being the closest virtue to compassion.

Despite quotes such as that below from St. Paul, the word ‘compassion’ does not appear as a subject in the modern ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ (CCC).

The CCC runs to 691 pages, with a subject index of 42 pages yet compassion is not a listed subject. ‘Charity’ / ‘love’ is defined (at paragraph 1822 of the CCC), as ‘the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God’. It seems in the CCC our neighbor is secondary and only loved for God’s sake and not for their own sake!

Compassion and Suicide in the Bishop’s Oireachtas Submission on the Dying with Dignity Bill

In the bishop’s submission to the Dáil Committee dealing with the ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill the word ‘compassion’ is used only twice, in the consecutive sentences below:

Their next sentence says of Compassion, and Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD), “It is the complete opposite.”

They make the point in their submission, that in the church’s eyes VAD is actually “a failure to respond to the challenge of caring for terminally ill patients as they approach the end of their lives.”

The bishops deliberately take an etymological, literal, dry, dispassionate, abstract, conceptual meaning of the word ‘compassion’. Compassion etymologically indeed comes from the latin root ‘compati’ meaning ‘to suffer together’.  However, Etymology relates to the origin of words and not their use in a modern or contemporary world. Compassion is neither dispassionate nor abstract. It is and should be an emotive term.  It means a lot more than the latin root of ‘suffering together’. It implies action and is about wanting to care and help.  Compassion describes the feeling that arises when confronted with another’s suffering and feeling motivated to relieve that suffering

Their use of the term ‘suicide’ in the second sentence shows the lack of compassion of the authors. Anyone with genuine compassion for those who might feel the need to avail of the services this Bill facilitates would not use the term ‘suicide’. The use of the word suicide by the Irish bishops is pejorative and is intended at best to conflate issues, and at worst conveys their denigratory stance on VAD, by equating it to ‘the sin’ of suicide. Their use of the term suicide in relation to the ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill shows a complete lack of compassion and understanding for those who have a great wish to live, but who cannot continue to endure the suffering. (Suicide and Assisted Dying are terms I will deal with in a later post.)

Religious Free Will and the ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill

Accepted Catholic church teaching is that their god gave each individual free will and reason. It follows that this god expects each person to use those abilities. The ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill if passed will also allow religious and non-religious individuals use their free will to avail of Voluntary Assisted Dying services if they so need, desire and choose.  

Many of those who have availed of ‘Dying with Dignity’ or ‘Medical Aid in Dying’ in the jurisdictions where it is permitted were Christians. They have by their own free will and reason made the decision to avail of assistance to end their lives.

It is very positive to see some Christian church leaders (albeit not here in Ireland), recognise there is no compassion in forcing someone to suffer when it is their wish and choice to die free of pain and suffering.  The two Anglican archbishops quoted below are in favor of voluntary assisted dying. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in the context of VAD, “Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation” and Archbishop George Carey said “I want to send the message that we live in a compassionate society that has the courage to confront complexity, not one that bases its rules on fear or misunderstanding.”

We are unlikely to get a similar quote from an Irish Catholic bishop. As outlined in my first post, our bishops fear consequences from Rome if church orthodoxy were questioned. As in most moral issues, the Irish bishops have a fundamentalist attitude to ‘Dying with Dignity’. The opposite of compassion is hardheartedness or cruelty, and those are the attributes the bishops promulgate on behalf of their god. It seems nothing is grey and only the bishops know the truth. The bishop’s god is not compassionate and wants the last ounce of suffering eked out from each individual before judgement. Their god is cold, pitiless, dispassionate, and dogmatic. They believe they are the middlemen between god and humanity. In their eyes, if a law does not agree with their beliefs and dogma, it is wrong. They try to impose this on the rest of society by means of influencing Irish legislation.

It would be more in the bishop’s interest to explain to their followers how their omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god can justify pain and suffering at the end of life. With those wonderful attributes their god has the potential to cancel all pain and suffering. How Irish bishops seem to know what god is thinking and wants is beyond my comprehension! Their insistence that pain, suffering and anguish should be endured up to the very last dying breath utterly lacks compassion.

In my next post, I will address the church’s attitude to suffering and how their fondness for suffering informs their position on the ‘Dying with Dignity’ Bill.