A “merciless assault on human dignity”

The archbishop of Toronto is given to deprecating himself as “just a simple country cardinal.” In my experience, though, Cardinal Thomas Collins is one of the premier leaders of the Catholic Church today. He’s a bishop of the New Evangelization who does a lot of his evangelical work retail: like treating potential seminarians to early morning pancakes at a greasy spoon – “but it’s a good greasy spoon” – a couple of blocks from his residence. Now that retail approach is being applied to another urgent matter, as Cardinal Collins works one-by-one with members of the Ontario Provincial Parliament to ensure that the conscience-rights of Catholic health care providers are not compromised by Canada’s recent embrace of euthanasia.

In Ontario today, doctors who decline to euthanize their patients are required to provide what is termed, in the Orwellian vocabulary of the culture of death, an “effective referral:” meaning they are obliged, on pain of losing their license to practice, to send a troubled patient to a doctor of lighter conscience who will kill that patient. Cardinal Collins is fighting this abomination, as he is fighting at the federal level to make palliative care, currently available to only 30% of Canadians in end-of-life situations, universally available. (The Canadian government pays lip service to extending palliative care, but in a single-payer system like Canada’s, euthanasia is the cheaper option – which ought to give pause to the proponents of single-payer health care below the 49th parallel.)

Some bears of little brain would likely dismiss Cardinal Collins’s efforts to resist the further encroachments of the culture of death as examples of the kind of “culture warrior” activity Pope Francis allegedly frowns upon among bishops. That’s nonsense on stilts, as Thomas Collins made eloquently clear in addressing the 37th Annual Cardinal’s Dinner in Toronto:

“As we conclude the Year of Mercy, we look to the parable of the Good Samaritan….[and] we recall the constant urging of Pope Francis that we notice and care for those who are on the edges of life, who are cast aside, and whose plight is often treated with indifference. The Holy Father has spoken of the ‘globalization of indifference.’ We need to be like the Good Samaritan who cared and took action to help the wounded man, and not be like those who were indifferent to his suffering and walked by on the other side…

“A merciful life is one in which we recognize the fundamental fact that the people around us are brothers and sisters to be loved, not things to be used, and once no longer useful, to be disposed of. Mercy calls us to recognize the dignity of the human person and to acknowledge that each person we encounter is a ‘who,’ not a ‘what.’ Each of us has dignity, worthiness, which is inherent in us, despite any superficial weakness or inadequacy….

“We have been made more aware recently of the merciless assault on human dignity which is sometimes falsely called ‘mercy killing,’ and even more falsely ‘medical assistance in dying,’ and most falsely of all ‘death with dignity.’ When we are dying, especially if it is the result of a long illness, we may well not have….[the] wholeness of mind and body we had when we were young and in good health. But everyone dies with dignity, and it is not right to hasten death in the mistaken belief that doing that is what is needed to allow a person to die with dignity.

“It is essential that…we show the mercy of the Good Samaritan not only to the homeless, to the sick, to those suffering or in prison, to any victims of violence, and to refugees, but especially to those who are dying. We do that through true palliative care, by using the best medical expertise available to control pain, and by surrounding the one who is dying with the love that we all hope to sustain us as we come to that crucial moment which we Catholics mention in our most frequent prayer, ‘the hour of our death’…”

That is the authentic voice of the shepherd who is always “in mission.” It issues from a man of God whose service to the Church might not end on the shores of Lake Ontario.

COMING UP: Christmas and the divine proximity

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In October 2001 I had a long conversation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It was but weeks after 9/11; a new century and millennium were opening before us; and I wanted to get Ratzinger’s view on the main issues for the Church and for theology in the twenty-first century.

The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI was deeply concerned about the moral relativism he thought was corroding the West, and located its roots in western high culture’s refusal to say that anything was “the truth,” full stop. This was a serious problem. For when there is only “your truth” and “my truth,” there is no firm cultural foundation for society, for democracy, or for living nobly and happily.

Then Ratzinger turned to Christology, the Church’s reflection on the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Both the Church and the world were suffering from a “diminishing Christ,” he suggested. Some wanted a less assertive Christology to avoid conflict with other world religions. Some wanted to make Jesus “one of the illuminators of God,” but not the unique, saving Son of God. Both these interpretations were deeply problematic, the cardinal continued, because they pushed God farther and farther away from humanity.

“If Jesus is not the Son of God,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “then God really is at a great distance from us.” So perhaps the chilling sense of the absence of God evident throughout much of the western world was “a product of the absence of Jesus Christ,” who is not just moral exemplar but Savior, Lord, and God-with-us – “Emmanuel.” On the other hand, “if we see this Jesus” born for us and crucified for us, “then we have a much more precise idea of God, who God is, and what God does.”

Then the cardinal connected the dots to 9/11. A “more precise” idea of God, gained through an experience of God-with-us, was not only important for the Church and its evangelical mission. It was also “crucial for the dialogue with the Islamic world, which really is about the question, who is God?”

Fifteen years later, that typically brilliant Ratzingerian analysis seems even more salient – and not just in terms of whatever dialogue may be possible with Islam, but in terms of us.

Loneliness is the modern predicament and it’s getting worse. I was recently in New York, and as walking is the only way get around traffic-choked Manhattan, I hoofed it. And what powerfully struck me is how isolated the denizens of the Concrete Jungle are – and are by choice. For the vast majority of people you bump into (sometimes literally) on the sidewalks of New York are living inside their own reality: Pod World, I started calling it when the iPod was all the rage. Today, there are very few New York pedestrians to be found without ear buds of some sort stuck into their heads. The iPod is ancient history, but the buds are still there, and so is the isolation.

Social media is no antidote to this isolation, for tweets or Facebook postings (not to mention comment threads beneath online articles) are not substitutes for real conversation. In many cases, I fear, they intensify the loneliness and the self-absorption from which it often springs.

Christmas reminds us what Christians have to say to this pervasive loneliness. We say “God is with us,” as throughout the Christmas season we celebrate the divine answer to the Advent plea, “O come, o come Emmanuel.” That plea did not go unrequited. We see the answer to it in the crèches in our homes. God is with us, not in awe and majesty, but in that most accessible of human forms, the baby who reaches out for our embrace.

God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the midst of our lives, not outside them. A few years ago I began collecting Fontanini crèche figures, and while the display is now as big as it’s going to get, there’s a reason why the manger in our crèche is surrounded by dozens of figures: decoratively speaking, that’s the best way to express my conviction that the Lord of history came into history to redeem history in the midst of history.

He is Emmanuel. He is God-with-us. We are not alone.

Merry Christmas.