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(4/5) The Catholic churches attitude to suffering and how this influences End of Life choices in Ireland.

This is the fourth 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 describing the negative impact the ‘Irish Bishops Conference’ has had on legislation in Ireland, you can catch up here.

 

In this post I will discuss the church’s concept of suffering, and how this filters down to legislation enacted in Ireland.

Even a cursory reading of the bible is sufficient to see the god of the Bible has no problem with pain and suffering. In many cases in the Bible, God is the cause of the pain and suffering. Any objective history of the Catholic church shows how the church has caused pain, suffering anguish and torture, not least here in Ireland in the last century.

The Catholic church has a completely different attitude to pain and suffering than is normally acceptable in society – to the church pain and suffering can be a good thing and have a societal purpose.

This concerning quote from a contentious Catholic raises grave concerns about how the church considers the suffering of their flock.  The Catholic church is based on blood sacrifice –that of Jesus himself becoming the “sacrificial lamb”.  To the Catholic Church the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus provides the model for voluntary suffering in his followers. The church’s symbol is the cross and the crucified Christ.  The problem is they want to impose this macabre justification of suffering on all of us through the laws of the land.

Theodicy and the contradiction of suffering and an omnipotent, benevolent god

Christianity has an issue with their benevolent god in the context of the evil and suffering in the world. In theological terms their god is “omnipotent” (all powerful), “omniscient” (all knowing) and “omnibenevolent” (all good). 

Theodicy is the branch of theology attempting to reconcile the supposed unlimited goodness and love of an all-powerful god with the sad reality of pain and suffering in the world. Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher asked: 

As the Christian god created the Universe and everything in it, so also he created suffering and pain.  Being omnipotent he could have created a world without suffering, and therein lies the necessity of the casuistry, sophistry and distortions of theodicy that attempt to rationalize the contradiction of an omnipotent and omni-benevolent god, in a world with such suffering.

The arguments of theodicy are flawed, morally, emotionally and intellectually. One cannot logically reconcile an all-powerful and all-loving god with suffering and pain. Despite the churches attempts to do so, there is no rationalization, justification or vindication for why an innocent baby should die a painful death with cancer.

The influence of a church that welcomes1,2 and even inflicts suffering is a particular concern when it comes to those approaching the end of their lives. In 2021 a Vatican Pontifical Council issued a 132 page “ New Charter for Health Care Workers” (specifically for Catholic Health Care Workers).  A quote from paragraph 153 of this handbook is sufficient to show the Church’s mindset:

A further concerning document is the Catholic Church’s “Declaration on Euthanasia”, dated May 5th 1980 states:

Irish bishops maintain that the continuation of pain and agony for those suffering should be drawn out until the last second as part of their gods’ plan. This lack of empathy for those suffering in the last stages of their lives is typical of the church’s attitude. This attitude is rooted in the fact they must justify all suffering, because this is necessary to explain how a supposedly all powerful, all loving and all just god can be reconciled with pain, suffering and agony.

Suffering and the Dying with Dignity Bill

The church in Ireland portray their attitude to the “Dying with Dignity Bill” as superior to the attitude of those of us who have a compassionate, merciful and pitiful belief in helping those in pain and agony. Passing the “Dying with Dignity Bill “ would give relief to those that are dying with pain by giving them the choice to end their own lives.

The notion of unquestioning loyalty ensures that Vatican dogma is followed by Irish bishops. The church precludes freedom of choice in all matters3, and in particular forbids us making our own personal healthcare choices such as choosing Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD). As we saw in our first post, the preferences of the Irish bishops as agreed at the annual ‘Bishop’s Conference’, have been and continue to be influential in Irish society and laws.

What is really worrying is the fact that Irish bishops through their representatives sit on the boards of many of the hospitals and hospices in this state. If they have their way in defeating this bill, the principal consequence will be more unnecessary pain, suffering and agony for many and for years to come.

Suffering through self-harm in the Catholic Church

I could not leave this topic without considering the Catholic church’s attitude to self-harm. Apart from the church’s external history of bloodshed and suppression, there is also the internal violence of its belief in self–mortification through fasting, self-sacrifice, abstinence, self-abasement, custody of the eyes and senses, and compulsory celibacy for priests and nuns. At the extreme end of self–mortification, there are hair shirts, wearing of chains, self–flagellation, and flogging, and for those really desirous there is of course martyrdom.  Many of those who were made saints were canonized because of their self-mortification and /or martyrdom. Think of poor Matt Talbot who was brainwashed into extreme self- mortification – and still didn’t get to be a saint!

The idea that those who suffer here on earth are united in their suffering with Christ because of his death on the cross is concerning and has historically fed into a culture of self-harm. This is typical of the Catholic church, because dogma must be constructed to explain how a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving and all-just god can be reconciled with the pain, suffering and agony in the world.   Through their dogma and pronouncements the bishops imply they know what their god thinks and wants, but they have yet to answer satisfactorily the question as to why their god included pain in his creation.  Unfortunately for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Irish bishops continue to force their macabre belief, that suffering has a purpose, on all of us.

Further evidence of these dreadful attempts at justification of suffering are done through casuistry and sophistry and can be seen in an Apostolic Letter by John Paul 11, a pope who himself is believed to have practiced self-flagellation.

This is the meaning of suffering, which is truly supernatural and at the same time human. It is supernatural because it is rooted in the divine mystery of the Redemption of the world, and it (suffering) is likewise deeply human, because in it the person discovers himself, his own humanity, his own dignity, his own mission.” 

Para. 31, Salvifici Doloris, Apostolic Letter, John Paul 11 (1984)

It is a macabre document. The then-pope outlines the role of suffering and evil and how a love of god can be borne out of suffering. It lacks any empathy for the physical and mental pain, experienced by some people in the final stages of their lives.  This attitude is evident in the Irish bishop’s condemnation of the Dying with Dignity Bill.  In the bishops eyes, their purpose is to inform consciences which they do vociferously. Fortunately not too many consciences are informed by their bronze age beliefs and practices.  

Does God change his mind?

The present attitude of the church is in complete contradiction to their past history. Now it insists that merciful euthanasia is a sin against god and yet for centuries the church tortured, maimed and killed anyone who disagreed with it, and forced many to suicide to avoid the wrath of the church.  So does their god change his mind?

If one believes in the Christian god it follows that people suffer because god makes them suffer. God made humankind as we are. With his attributes, this god could have made humans pain free, physically, mentally and emotionally.  Yet this god choose not do so.  The church believes without punishment there can be no real atonement for sin. Pain and suffering can be redemptive and bring one closer to salvation. 

Catholicism still pursues its age-old mission of slowing down the progress of human welfare, and consequently prolonging the misery and agony of those affected by their continual fight to delay social progress.  Hopefully in this instance through their cult of suffering they will not delay the call for a humane choice at the end of life.

In the next post I will deal with the bishop’s insistence on the use of the word suicide. 

References:

  1. “the Holy Spirit giving to some a special charism of healing so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen lord. But even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illness.  Thus St. Paul must learn from the lord that ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’, and that the suffering to be endured can mean that ‘ in my flesh I complete what is lacking  in christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. “

Para 1508, The “Catechism of the Catholic Church”  

  • “By the grace of this sacrament (Last Rites) the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to christ’s passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the saviour’s redemptive passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.”

Para 1521, The “Catechism of the Catholic Church”  

  • “It is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, of writing, of worship as if these were so many rights given by nature to man.”

Para. 42. Pope Leo X111, ”Libertas” (On the nature of human liberty)