Friday, February 11, 2005

The Pope, Death and Dying

A recent column by William Buckley on the state and health of the Pope has recalled to mind the issues of death and dying, especially when it comes to extension of life technologies. Mr. Buckley provocatively asserts at the beginning of the essay that he is not praying for the Pope to live any longer. He concludes his essay with his explanation.

What to do includes clinging to the papacy as a full-time cripple, if medicine, which arrested death by only 10 minutes, can arrest death again for weeks and even months. But the progressive deterioration in the pope's health over the last several years confirms that there are yet things medical science can't do, and these include giving the pope the physical strength to coordinate and to use his voice intelligibly.

So, what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings?

Please note that Mr. Buckley is a good and outspoken Catholic, and has no ill-will for the Pope. His point is that the best course of action for the Pope and the Papacy at this point may be no extreme medical action at all.

It has been noted by several in the last few years that if it were not for recent medical technologies, the Pope probably would have passed a long time ago. Not too recently there was talk of picking a successor while he was still alive and on the papal throne out of concern for the toll Parkinson’s would have on his mental capacity. This kind of concern is a uniquely recent development.

We are able, given medical and biotechnological advances, to extend life beyond what might be termed a “natural” point. As a friend, as a pastor, and as a grandson, I have witnessed people torn over the decisions of medical treatment and hospice when a loved one’s life is clearly near the end. One friend darkly joked that his decision would have been much easier (and certainly less expensive) one hundred years ago; “We just would have put him out to pasture.”

I attended a conference recently where the director of bioethics for a major evangelical parachurch ministry unequivocally noted that one of the benefits of technological advance is longer and healthier life. I think that deserves a little attention.

I agree that one of the clear benefits of biotechnology is health-I am personally counting on science to save me from diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The current situation with the Pope, however, provides us with a possible example of life extending technologies not being an unqualified good. We might be up against a wall that will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome-the inevitability of aging and decay. There are two important and conflicting forces at play when we decide to extend life beyond what may be “natural.” On the one hand is the inevitable fact that as we age we decay and deteriorate physically, and on the other hand are technologies which seek to extend physical life. In other words, the promise of life extending technologies is that we will lead longer lives healthier-we will be younger longer. But the reality at this point is that we lead longer lives without our health-we are older longer.

Is that really what we are after? Of course not. Admittedly, there might just come a time when someone somewhere discovers how to “turn off” an aging gene or set of genes, and we will, in fact, live longer younger. But by that point, other considerations will come into play. For instance, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, there were those among the Yahoos who lived forever and instead of their lives being rich, full and amazing, they were the creatures to be pitied.

The speaker at the conference I mentioned above did say something fairly profound which has stuck with me. She noted that bioethics is a prayer asking God into our suffering. While the promises of biotechnology continue to swirl, this is the kind of focus that will be of real benefit to people spiritually. If we are able to conform our theology and our own spiritual lives around God-in-suffering, then we will have reached a point far beyond the promises of mere medical science.

Mr. Buckley closed with this quote from Muriel Spark:

When a noble life has prepared old age, it is not decline that it reveals, but the first days of immortality.

Lord may it be.

7 comments:

Steve said...

Hey Phil-

Great thoughts and a great distinction on this issue!

Rural America is an excellent example of this. The majority of people in my two congregations are elderly (70's-90's) and their quality of life can become horrific. Visiting some of the homebound in my churches makes me fear getting old! Hopefully, biotechnology turns that all important corner before we are too old and we will enjoy long, younger lives!

Phil Steiger said...

Steve-

No kidding. There is nothing like watching family and friends grow old to make me fear the process. My mom's dad used to say, "getting old is not for whimps."

Patrick O'Hannigan said...

I'm late to this post, but a commentary by John Allen in today's Los Angeles Times speaks squarely to what you're talking about. Per Allen, "Many observers believe that John Paul II is providing precious testimony about the inherent value of human life, from beginning to end."

Moreover, "The Catholic Church regards the pope as important principally for who he is, not what he does — the living center of unity for a global family of faith. For him to resign because he is no longer an effective administrator would, in the eyes of some, compromise the church's teaching about the nature of the papal office."

DrPat said...

You have been scanned for my Weekly BlogScan "(Ding, Dong) The Pope Is Dead"
at , and also at .

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