The American Life League mobilizes devout Catholics against medical options that, to their way of thinking, violate God’s will. If you should drive past a Planned Parenthood and see elderly women fingering rosary beads next to pictures of the Virgin Mary, or young men holding Bibles and praying, American Life League probably had a hand in their presence there. Ironically, ALL also spreads misinformation about birth control, for example via a Pill Kills campaign—which means they feed the line-up of Catholic women waiting for abortion services.
ALL promotes a passive, “let go and let God” approach to the dying process as well as family planning, so with death with dignity approved by the California legislature (and validated across Canada by a Supreme Court ruling), the group is fighting back—by touting the benefits of suffering. “Suffering is a grace-filled opportunity to participate in the passion of Jesus Christ. Euthanasia selfishly steals that opportunity.” So proclaims an ALL meme making its way across the internet.
Mother Teresa – “The Kiss of Jesus”
This is not a fringe position in the Catholic Church, which has long extolled the spiritual virtues of suffering. Mother Teresa’s attraction to pain shaped her ministry to the dying, and one of the most serious criticisms of her Calcutta homes was that patients were denied modern medical care to relieve pain even when the Missionaries of Charity had the funding to do so. By her own report, Mother Teresa once told a woman to imagine that her suffering was kisses from Jesus. “Suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you.”
“Tell Jesus to stop,” the woman responded.
The message the saint failed to absorb from her own story was this: Many people—Catholic or not, ill or not—reject the idea that suffering is a virtue. Whether we’re talking about nuns who would rather not self-flagellate, dying elders who would rather receive relief or even hasten the end, or desperate parents who would rather prevent the next childbirth—many people would rather not “let go and let God” manage their suffering or that of a loved one in their care. Many of us believe that causing unnecessary suffering or failing to mitigate suffering when we can is evil. Based on our moral and spiritual values, denying relief is not just wrong—it is horrific.
Catholic Hospitals Subject to Pro-Suffering Directives
One place this clash of values is playing out is in hospitals and outpatient clinics across the U.S. that have been absorbed by Catholic healthcare corporations. The mergers leave no non-Catholic care option in many communities—as, for example, in seven Washington counties where all hospitals are now Catholic owned or managed. By design, merger contracts between secular and Catholic health care systems often require that once secular institutions become subject to the “Ethical and Religious Directives” of the Catholic bishops. Despite support for palliative care, these religious directives promote suffering over patient choice in dying:
Catholic health care institutions may never condone or participate in [death with dignity] in any way. . . . Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.
Besides opposing death with dignity, Catholic teachings warn against pain medications that cloud consciousness at the end of life. This can lead to resistance when patients might otherwise choose sedation as the following comments, posted at Raw Story, illustrate:
IndyGuy: I watched my father in law die of lung cancer and the Catholic hospital he was at convinced him not to take morphine but as he was close to death my wife was able to get a medic to give him the medication. I do not understand this medieval thinking that’s still alive with the Church
KRM1255: Last week a Catholic hospice nurse told me she didn’t believe in morphine for my 92 year old aunt. I told her that was too bad – my aunt was going to get it anyway.
Although hospital systems vary in terms of how forcefully they apply the Directives, in theory strict adherence is non-negotiable; and the aim of the bishops is to move Catholic-owned institutions toward more rigorous enforcement:
Catholic health care services must adopt these directives as policy, require adherence to them within the institution as a condition of medical privileges and employment, and provide appropriate instruction regarding the Directives for administration, medical and nursing staff, and other personnel.
Watchdog groups like CatholicWatch.org and MergerWatch.org warn that—thanks to increasingly bold religious freedom claims by Catholic institutions—unsuspecting Americans may find themselves, like Mother Teresa’s patient, experiencing the kiss of Jesus as they wait for the end.
Suffering with Jesus
The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death. “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned . . .” (Romans 5:12) This kind of thinking is used to explain why Jesus had to die, and why his blood cleanses all of our sins, preparing us for heaven.
But, as any moviegoer can tell you, a swift and painless death rarely makes a very satisfying story. In particular, a swift and painless death of Jesus might not seem sufficient to make up for all of the evil in the world since, according to the story, he remains dead for only three days. Consequently, Christians—and Catholics in particular—have long played up the protracted torture in the crucifixion story.
In the Middle Ages, painters and sculptors competed to create the most graphic, visceral depictions of blood and anguish in the crucifixion story. Even today, the interior of many Catholic churches is ringed by a series of images called “The Stations of the Cross,” which depict the stages of torment leading up to the death scene. Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” turned this sequence into feature-length torture porn, and churches bussed children and elders to witness the spectacle. Gibson sought to convey the exquisite skill with which our Iron Age ancestors inflicted protracted pain, a skill our species mastered early. This is the “passion” story in which the American Life League invites us all to participate, holding it up as a preferable alternative to choice in dying. Only their invitation isn’t really an invitation, because what they actually want is to prevent any of us from choosing otherwise.
Eve Cursed to Suffer
Catholic opposition to family planning including abortion has many roots, but one of those roots is theological glorification of pain and even death during childbirth. According to the Genesis story, Eve brought sin into the world, and the trauma of labor is her divinely appointed punishment:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)
Centuries later, the New Testament writer of 1 Timothy reminded his audience that “women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15).
Through the ages, Christian leaders–both Catholic and Protestant–have echoed the Iron Age view of the Bible writers that women are dirty and morally vacant and must subjugate themselves to men.
In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell. –Tertullian, father of Latin Christianity
I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. –Saint Augustine
In this view—at its most extreme—if a woman should suffer or die in childbirth, that is simply the right and proper order of things. “Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, that is of no consequence; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for.” – Martin Luther [Erl. ed., 16 2 , p. 538].
Given the words of the Bible writers, and given the words of Christianity’s patriarchs, one can understand the muddled mentality that allows right-wing Christians to feel virtuous while promoting policies that force people to suffer against their will. If only pain has the power to cleanse sin, and only God gets to decide when enough is enough, then offering people choices about the beginnings or end of life denies the devil his due.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.