Yesterday, during Mass, I listened as a letter from the Archbishop of Toronto Cardinal Collins was read out. That same letter was read or shown by video in hundreds of other Catholic churches that same morning. It was a warning and a call to action regarding Euthanasia, an issue under much debate in Canada right now. The Cardinal’s message was twofold; one, that euthanasia should not be permitted, and two, that doctors and Catholic hospitals should not have to violate their consciences in order to continue providing medical services to people. He acknowledged a difference between artificially supporting an extension of life and actually killing an individual.
This morning, looking at the reactions online on Facebook’s ‘trending’ tab, I was shocked to see the sort of vitriol leveled at the Cardinal in response to his message. Comments suggesting that the Cardinal is a pedophile, that he would next want to burn witches, that he wants to return us to the ‘Dark Ages’ and that reason and logic play no role in religion were mixed with assertions that religion is primarily about being non-judgmental, and the Cardinal ought to keep his nose out of the rights of others. None of the comments acknowledged that a large section of his talk was about respecting the conscience of doctors and Catholic institutions. Instead, these comments focused on insults, hyperbole, red herring arguments and sharing sad stories to back up their indignation.
Unfortunately, I think this is indicative of the level of dialogue now prevalent in many Western countries. Regardless of whether one believes Catholic teaching on this matter is correct or flawed, one would think that people all fired up about ‘rights’ and ‘nonjudgmentalism’ would be the first to react in a loving, accepting way to a point of view they disagree with. Unfortunately, this sort of consistency doesn’t happen.
I think this is inherit in the whole rights discussion. There are no universally agreed upon criteria for classifying something as a right. Saying that something is a right can only be argued about by simply repeating an affirmation or a negation of that same statement. (Essentially a ‘Yes, No, Yes, No’ back and forth.) Because of this, the rights discussion can’t tolerate dissent… rights are only founded on widespread acceptance, not upon a set of logical criteria. In this sense, being nonjudgmental is not about respecting divergent viewpoints but about all agreeing on a set of rights, regardless of what one personally chooses to believe.
This is why people get so angry and hate Cardinal Collins for this issue. Dissent actually endangers something’s status as a right. So to get enough support for a new right, one has to rely on manipulating the emotions of the people involved. Logical arguments may be used, but primarily with an eye to being persuasive rather than logically sound since status as a right is not dependent on criteria. This is where insults, sad stories, hyperbole, arguments about hypothetical future quality of life and red herring arguments like those listed above come in. A skeptical distance from judging what is right and what is wrong (as those categories actually do have specific, static logical criteria in any system of ethics) plays into this. Because of that, the rights framework tends to favor the side of a discussion that maximizes personal choice and avoids questions of right and wrong.
Which brings us back to Euthanasia. Is it a right? It looks like will be made a right in Canada soon. But a Christian asks a different question. Is it right? This question falls on deaf ears because nobody is prepared to have a rational discussion about right and wrong; by and large people are not concerned with logic, only feeling. And right now, it feels dignified to kill.