Embracing Death: When we Can’t Face Life but Won’t Take the Cross

Embracing Death: When we Can’t Face Life but Won’t Take the Cross March 19, 2015

carrying cross

By Russell Shaw

When religion and secularism butt heads on public policy—a regular occurrence these days—religion typically is obliged to fight with one hand tied behind it. Unfair, you say? Certainly it is, but that’s how the game is played now.

Consider the escalating argument over euthanasia and its first cousin, assisted suicide. For a religious believer, the most powerful argument against these practices concerns God’s authority as Lord of Life. To a secularist, though, god-talk is ruled out in the policy debate of a pluralistic secular democracy.

This state of affairs is no small matter as the euthanasia-assisted suicide battle heats up. Just last month, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously declared that anyone with an “irremediable medical condition” is entitled to choose “termination of life.” In the U.S., assisted suicide is permitted to some extent in five states, and the legalization debate currently is getting started in a number of others.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a definitive statement on this matter: “It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life….We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (no. 2280).

But to many people today, this language probably sounds like an archaic survival from the dark ages. Conditioned to think in secular terms, these folks find the idea that God has rights over the disposition of their lives that are superior to their own an unwelcome novelty, an infringement on what assisted suicide advocate Derek Humphry calls “the ultimate personal and civil liberty”—that is, “freedom to die.”

Even semi-secularized Christians have been taught to reason like that.

It’s said that no one is obliged to practice assisted suicide, which is a matter of personal choice. Not only that—refusing access to it in the name of religious dogma violates the fundamental right of individual self-determination, and that’s unacceptable in a pluralistic society.

Faced with this mindset, someone who enters the policy debate from a faith perspective must turn to valid but second-tier arguments. For example: If you legalize assisted suicide while declaring it voluntary, you can be sure the voluntary part will sometimes disappear in the hands of over-zealous medical personnel or family members.

I got my own wake-up call recently in conversation with a doctor whom I know only slightly. For whatever unstated reason of his own, he felt moved to make this remark: “If I knew I was terminally ill, I’d sit down one evening with a bottle of good wine, turn on music I like, and then drink something that would put me to sleep knowing I’d never wake up.”

I was too startled to say much in reply just then. One thing for sure, though. If I become seriously ill, I won’t go to Doctor X for treatment.

The novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor once remarked that in secularized times the tendency is to “govern by tenderness.” But that has a price: “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber.” Also, one might add, in euthanasia and its near relations.

But Doctor X and people like him have the advantage that religious arguments against taking life—your own or somebody else’s—are ruled out in the current debate, and these matters must instead be argued on the secularists’ terms.

Guess who stands to win the game when it must be played by those rules.

Russell Shaw is a freelance writer based in CathPT_RussellShaw_100Washington, D.C., and the author of twenty books, including American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America is available on Kindle. You can email him at

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

10 responses to “Embracing Death: When we Can’t Face Life but Won’t Take the Cross”

  1. “refusing access to it in the name of religious dogma violates the fundamental right of individual self-determination, and that’s unacceptable in a pluralistic society.”
    That’s your interpretation. Another interpretation is that refusing access to assisted suicide in the name of one religion’s beliefs violates the religious freedom of those that profess a different set of beliefs.

  2. The very definition of modern secularism excludes matters of faith and religion. So which is it? Is it the secular self-given right to end ones life or is it a God given right to end your own life? Of course the latter removes God as well and elevates an individual determination to that of the Divine.

  3. Raymond — If you pass a bill that puts people with dementia and disabilities at risk then you are violating MY beliefs and I resent it! You have no right to force your disrespect for the value of human life down my throat!

  4. And you are putting my aunt (in a nursing home) at risk of being pressured to end her life, because she’s on medications that make it difficult for her to think clearly!

  5. Regarding the article: I tend to think authentic Christianity ALWAYS fights with at least one hand behind its back. It’s just a question of which issues and considered uncomfortable, unmentionable etc.

    Now, to Raymond:

    The problem is that this sort of idealized “freedom” doesn’t exist. If two (or more) people disagree on a fundamental level, whether a thing is allowed or whether it’s basically a crime, both of them will always be under pressure from the other. If you define your freedom (religious, political etc.) as a situation where no pressure is applied against your beliefs, that freedom can only come from total agreement and uniformity of opinion.

    It doesn’t matter whether the illogical freedom is supposed to be religious or secular – it doesn’t actually exist either way.

  6. Thanks for totally missing the point. Passing laws based on religious beliefs is a violation of freedom of religion for those that don’t share those beliefs. If you can provide a rational secular reason for not passing a law, then please do.

  7. I am not intending to comment on this specific instance. My point is that passing laws based solely on religious beliefs is a violation of the freedom of religion of those who don’t share those beliefs. Any law/bill/whatever that can be justified on secular grounds is perfectly fine.

  8. And what is a “secular reason”? And who decides if it’s “rational”? You? Let me tell you something: the motivation of people in voting for laws (or candidates) is THEIR business, not anyone elses. If someone is motivated by a roll of dice, that’s fine! The Constitution does not limit motivations!

  9. No, the Constitution doesn’t limit motivations. But your still missing the point. If someone decides to present or support legislation to allow or forbid something based on “God told me to” or “my religious beliefs demand this” that restricts the religious freedom of those that don’t share those beliefs.