4 October 2011
As Christians we readily accept the birth of a child as a gift from God. Parents understand this means that we do not ‘own’ our children – we are called to provide physical, emotional and spiritual care for our children while encouraging them to flourish and realise their freedom.
Good parents are paradigm models of stewardship who can provide us with insights into an understanding of the notion of stewardship in the context of Catholic teaching about life and death.
It has been stated that we parents are committed to our children not because we choose them but because they have been given to us.
At first glance this claim might seem counter-intuitive; surely we are more likely to be committed to something that we have chosen? Yet, it makes sense when we consider that we are always freer to dispose of that which we ourselves have chosen or which we own outright.
When I have chosen something myself, I can also abandon it more easily. ‘Stewardship’ and ‘ownership’ foster different attitudes to commitment. The seeds of commitment flourish best in the fertile soil of a grateful heart.
Care rather than ownership
So to focus on stewardship is to highlight the virtues of care and commitment. This is why the gospels call us to assess the big questions about life and death from a gift-based ‘care’ or ‘stewardship’ perspective rather than one based on individual ownership and/or the right to choose.
When we find ourselves buying into the logic and language of a rights-based or choice approach to issues such as abortion or euthanasia, we may also be buying into an impoverished understanding of commitment – one that, because it is more aligned with the rhetoric of choice, is also more compatible with the idea of abandonment.
Those involved in the day-to-day delivery of palliative care tell us that persistent requests for euthanasia are mostly a symptom of the suffering that results from feelings of social isolation or abandonment – loneliness and/or the fear of being a burden. (Euthanasia is wrongly understood as being about the relief of physical pain. Palliative physicians tell us that no one need die in pain these days.)
We need to recognise that the growing sense of isolation experienced by many reflects a crisis in our attitudes to commitment, a sign that too many people in our society have bought into an ‘ownership’ model (that elevates choice to disproportionate levels) rather than a gift- or stewardship-based approach to life – in which case we should understand that the pro-euthanasia response of affirming personal choice (the right to die) is not an answer to but rather a symptom of this dilemma.
If social isolation is one of the key reasons people demand to be euthanised, giving people the legal right to ask to be killed appears to be an act of gross injustice because we are ignoring a deeper need.
This injustice is then compounded by those who insist that they are simply letting people exercise their personal choice. A lack of real commitment is disguised by the language of choice – dressed up instead as a commitment to personal autonomy.
From a Christian perspective this stance appears to be the antithesis of true caring and stewardship.
A Christian response to those who seek to legalise euthanasia is not to confirm people in their sense of isolation or abandonment but to recognise there is a deeper crisis of commitment.
We Christians are possibly more complicit than we think in the growing call for euthanasia in New Zealand because of our failure to tackle the increasing fragmentation of families and societies that is contributing to the growing isolation and vulnerability of the elderly and dying.
We need to nurture, respect and protect life. In the case of those who are most vulnerable, this requires a commitment to inclusiveness and caring. Only then are we exercising the gospel call to be stewards of the gift of life that we all share.
See also All things are full of God – a dying mother’s son’s view of life