The life of a Christian was never meant to be easy. Even when Christ was walking among his disciples, He warned that whoever wished to follow Him would have to “deny himself and take up his cross.”
Yet it is often the uncertainty as to which choices He wishes for us to make and not the weight we carry which is most overwhelming. Having been directed to both beat our swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4) and our ploughshares into swords (Joel 3:10), it’s unsurprising that we sometimes find ourselves holding a different implement than our fellow neighbour in the pew.
Many undoubtedly felt such a conflict when the government asked Canadians to offer their opinion on future amendments to section 241.2 of the Criminal Code. The existing code provisions were only adopted in 2016, legalizing what the government euphemistically termed ‘Medical Assistance in Dying’ (MAID).
Removing the political gloss and engaging Webster’s dictionary, we can colloquially refer to the legislative scheme as euthanasia. The very fact that the law resides in the Criminal Code is itself a clear indictment of our shifting cultural values: an action which was up until recently the subject of criminal sanction is now being portrayed as “medical assistance”.
The amendments to the Criminal Code’s euthanasia provisions which are currently being explored arise as the consequence of a 2019 Quebec Superior Court decision which held that it was unconstitutional to restrict the availability of MAID to only those persons whose “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable.”
At first glance, it may seem that a consultation process should be welcomed by the many who are seriously concerned by the government’s intention to expand the reach of the existing legislative framework. After all, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us that “participation in community life is … one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of the democratic system.”
As the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sacredness of life and how we ought to care for those whose lives are “diminished or weakened” is clear, wouldn’t this seem like a circumstance where the need to participate is obvious? Perhaps, had the federal government indicated any willingness to retain and defend the legislation which it drafted, introduced, supported and passed.
However, while in 2016 Justin Trudeau’s Minister of Justice had described the Criminal Code amendments as “deliberately and carefully crafted” (Hansard – June 16, 2016), the federal government is now willing to see key provisions struck down and has indicated that it will decline its right to appeal the decision of the Quebec Superior Court.
Furthermore, while the presently impugned legislation was proposed after a Special Joint Committee “met 16 times, heard from 61 witnesses (and) received more than 100 briefs” before presenting a report to Parliament (Hansard – May 2, 2016), the federal government is now only permitting a two-week online public consultation in relation to the current changes.
Even if the federal government were expressing a genuine desire to consider the views of Canadians, whether we ought to participate as faithful Catholics would still be unclear.
During the initial consultations preceding the current Criminal Code provisions, a marked difference of opinion arose between two prominent Catholic bioethicists, Sister Nuala Kenny and Moira McQueen. Both had been asked to sit on panels which were developing guidelines regarding “physician-assisted death” and each provided a dramatically different response.
Sr. Dr. Nuala Kenny, a Sister of Charity and professor emeritus of bioethics at Dalhousie University, decided to join the panel, stating: “I decided to participate because I did not believe I had any other moral option.”
“My position is, it’s clearly that of minimizing harm,” Kenny was reported as saying in an article published by The Catholic Register. “The harm has been done. After the Feb. 6, 2015 Supreme Court decision, assisted death, both physician-assisted suicide and physician-performed euthanasia are now legal.”
Dr. Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, took a dramatically different approach: “When something is really seriously wrong in the first place – Catholic teaching would call it intrinsically wrong – how can you mitigate the harm?” It’s so wrong, no matter what follows from it is also wrong. I would call it formal co-operation.”
So which of the two is right? Armed with a mere intellectual ploughshare, I feel ill-equipped to cut through the arguments. But I do feel that are there is a lesson that can be are more easily discerned from this morbid chapter in Canada’s political history, one that we’ve been taught throughout salvific history and have forgotten time and time again: once we permit an evil to enter, whether it be into our lives or our laws, we will have more difficulty in driving it out than we would have encountered had we resisted it in the beginning.
In 2015, Catholics across the country knew that revisions to the Criminal Code were being debated, yet euthanasia scarcely registered as a prominent issue for voters. That election was the moment when Catholics were called to speak out and voice their objections, yet too few did. The amendments being proposed by our Liberal government were predictable to those acquainted with the legal factors at play and will continue to stain our future as a tragic legacy of our political apathy.
Catholics will always struggle to weigh preferences and personal opinions regarding how to best structure our economy, systems of taxation and the various operations of government. There is much societal good which democratically elected representatives can pursue, with multiple approaches and strategies to obtain them.
Therein lies the challenge of casting a single ballot with the hope of best reflecting the entirety of Gospel values and the deposit of faith. However, if we determine our vote in a manner which compromises objective truths, then we’re handing a sword to the enemy and hoping we can defend ourselves with a ploughshare.
-Theodoric Nowak is the director of social justice and outreach ministries with the Diocese of Calgary.