Here in Richmond, a state commission recently convened a workgroup to study whether the legislature should consider legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Various stakeholders, including the Virginia Catholic Conference, were invited to be part of the workgroup, which held its first meeting last week. At the meeting, participants were given the opportunity to explain their organizations’ stances on the issue. After listening to the explanations, one participant expressed surprise and disappointment that some people had come to the meeting with their minds made up. The point of the workgroup, she argued, was to have a discussion before drawing conclusions.
Two things come to mind in response. First, it should not be at all surprising that some arrived with thoroughly reasoned, deeply held prior convictions. Admittedly, there are many times when people reach conclusions prematurely. But this is not a new issue. The “stakeholder” the Virginia Catholic Conference represents has considered this and like questions for the better part of 2,000 years. In what St. John Paul II described as a “remarkably relevant passage”, St. Augustine wrote, “It is never licit to kill another: even if he should wish it, indeed if he request it…nor is it licit even when a sick person is no longer able to live” (quoted in Evangelium Vitae, 66). Augustine wrote those words 1,600 years ago, long before last week’s meeting in Richmond. Neither he nor John Paul II are simply giving people a series arbitrary of “thou shalt not’s.” Rather, they are articulating a consistent and resounding “yes” to the inherent value and dignity of human life. They are affirming that, as Fulton Sheen put it, life is worth living. When the state legalizes euthanasia, John Paul continues, it “contributes to lessening respect for life and opens the door to ways of acting which are destructive of trust in relations between people” (EV, 71).
The second, and perhaps more concerning, issue that her comment raises is the problem of relativism. The morality of human acts depends on the object of the action, the intention of the person taking the action, and the circumstances surrounding the action (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1750). If the object itself is wrong to choose (e.g., suicide), then the intention and circumstance cannot somehow transform a bad action into a good one, though they can of course mitigate one’s subjective responsibility (EV, 66; CCC 1755-6). To assume that approval or disapproval of an action is always up for debate is to presuppose that these objective moral norms are non-existent.
At first blush, it may seem that arriving with non-negotiable moral claims does indeed undermine the possibility for discussion. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger famously observed, “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism [for a recent example of this, see Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism, and Archbishop Chaput’s response]…We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive.”
Yet if nothing is definitive and each individual decides what is right or wrong – and what the law should permit or prohibit – without a universal framework, then we are dealing in “truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good” (Lumen Fidei¸ 25). Thus, the foundation for a shared conversation is undermined by an excessively flexible relativism. That is why there are times, such as the one last week, when we have to come with our minds made up. It may be somewhat counterintuitive, but this is what allows us to go beyond ourselves, truly giving us the opportunity to have a thoughtful, common discussion.