I wrote the first version of this on May 15, 2013, and it was addressing the issue of clericalism and avoiding it in the context of SB 303. By that time, we had seen the TCC further support SB 303, Bishop Vasquez of Austin testify in favor of it (using language dangerously close to “death with dignity”), and other Catholic and Catholic-led organizations (such as our local CPLC) support and testify in favor of it. But we had also had many faithful, well-formed Catholics oppose it (as well as many faithful Protestants; but I am writing from a theologically Catholic viewpoint).
I was asked, how can this happen; why are so many Catholics supporting this? What do we do about it? Why do the Bishops support it? Surely they are not wrong. Look at how many groups support it.
Support of something because the clergy do is the error of clericalism. Support of something because others are is the logical fallacy called the bandwagon approach. Neither is a legitimate reason to support something; neither is “proof” or “evidence” of anything other than that these people support it and these people do not. It says very little about the merits of the thing in question. And that is not a sufficient basis morally to determine whether you can support something or not.
Can we disagree with our Bishops’ Conference? Yes. If they are wrong, you are morally obligated to do so. Here’s how to go about determining what to do in these cases. But first, a Bible History lesson.
St. Paul Warned Us about This
The Epistle from the readings for Mass on May 15, 2013, spoke to me and inspired me to write the first version of this that day. Paul spoke of situations like what we see here in Texas (and in Ireland; more on that later). Paul was speaking to the early Bishops here in Acts 20:28-33 (I like the Knox Version):
"I have never shrunk from revealing to you the whole of God's plan. Keep watch, then, over yourselves, and over God's Church, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops; you are to be the shepherds of that flock; there will be men among your own when I am gone, and will not spare the flock; there will be men among your own number who will come forward with a false message, and find disciples to follow them. Be on watch then; do not forget the three years I spent, instructing every one of you continually, and with tears. Now, as then, I commend you to God, and to his gracious word, that can build you up and give you your allotted place among the saints everywhere."
Our Bishops are supposed to instruct us, but James 3:1 cautions them, “Do not be too eager, brethren, to impart instruction to others; be sure that, if we do, we shall be called to account all the more strictly.” They have a heavy burden and they need our prayers.
The TCC’s Support of SB 303 Was & Is Error; Supporting SB 303 because They Did Is Also Error: the Error of Clericalism
What is Clericalism Anyway?
The TCC released a letter in support of SB 303 in 2013 to which the electronic signatures of all of the active Bishops of Texas were affixed. TAL and other supporters, including the CPLC and TCC itself, continually point with pride to this (and to justify their support of the re-election of Bob Deuell). Some rely on it as “proof” that this was a pro-life bill bettering the law. I am asked, "What do you think of this? Why would you or I oppose SB 303 since the Bishops support it; that’s proof it’s a good bill, right?" That is no such proof at all and that is not a morally legitimate basis for supporting legislation. Supporting something simply because the clergy does is the error of clericalism.
Consider the following from Catholic author, Mark Shea:
“We laypeople are called to obey our bishops in matters of faith and morals. And we are called to honor our bishops as spiritual fathers. But we are not required to approve everything they do, especially when it contradicts the clear teaching of the Church. [NB: Most recently in the magisterial teachings of St. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI]. If a bishop, like former Bishop Anthony O’Connell of Palm Beach, specifically commands something clearly contrary to the teaching of the Holy Church, such as “Remove your pants and bend over,” our right and proper office as laity is to raise our voice and call the cops. Indeed, we laypeople must do it, because we are the cops, the investigators, the prosecutors, the jailers.
"But mark that: We laypeople have to hold them to account in light of the Tradition, not in light of the tenets of the secular world, nor in light of what lawyers and psychologists say, nor in light of what the “Repeal Vatican II!” crowd says.
"The way out of clericalism is more fidelity to the Holy Church, not less. This problem will be solved by returning to the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, pure and undefiled,…”
(Emphasis added.) See the full article here.
I mentioned in my last post about the Arian Heresy and how most of the Bishops of Europe were in some way tainted by it. Read some history about that and the role the laity played.
We have a moral obligation to look into these things on our own. God Bless the Bishops. I will not assume any bad motives here, nor should you. Perhaps they relied too much on their staff, “expert” opinions, and fellow lobbyists’ talking points, rather than really delving into the nuts and bolts of the legislation in detail. (Each group used almost identical bullet points, but without reference to the actual language of the bill. Again, when confronted with the bill language that contradicted those bullet points, they simply pointed back to each others’ endorsements and the bullet points. See my “Circular Firing Squad” post.)
As an attorney, I know that there is a big difference between the theoretical and the practical as applied. The law is complicated. Legislation frequently has both intended and unintended consequences. It is often difficult to grasp this and take it all in when one is busy doing the myriad other tasks one must do. (That said, if one is supporting, lobbying for, and testifying for this legislation, and telling their flock or friends to do likewise, one should undertake this task. Not every task can be delegated.)
How Do We Combat Clericalism? Know the Issues and Study the Legislation
In light of all of this, we, the laity, must work through legislation and Church teaching on our own and not rely solely on endorsements regardless of from whence they come. How do we make decisions about this independently?
First, get the facts. Here let’s address a misstatement of fact about SB 303. It is not true that all the Bishops supported SB 303. What I do know is that the one Bishop who I know actually read the bill in its entirety, Bishop Emeritus Gracida from Corpus Christi, vehemently opposed it and wrote on this issue early on his blog. See the first comment by “abyssum” which is his blog name.
Second, be informed about the underlying issues. Bishop Gracida has continued to write not just about SB 303 but these end-of-life, refusal of care issues, and all manner of pro-life issue. His blog is an excellent resource for information from people with many different professional backgrounds. Read!
Third, look at the language of the bill yourself, not just SB 303 but whatever bills come up in the future that you are asked to support or oppose. I read and analyzed SB 303 (as I have other bills) and encourage everyone to do the same. The bill language is here.
Bishop Gracida used his own intellect and his own analysis to read the language of the bill, look to Church teaching, and arrive – bravely – at a different conclusion than the TCC represented. This is a blueprint for us to follow as lay persons.
Fourth, if you find it helpful, consider a detailed analysis by someone who knows how to analyze legislation and is not tied to a particular group.
Know Authentic Church Teaching on the Issue. A Case Study: SB 303
Fifth, consider official Church teaching from the Magisterium. For a time, the supporters of SB 303 pointed to one or two paragraphs of a USCCB “directive” and claimed it provided support for the language of SB 303. That was not true. This directive was not even aimed at drafting legislation. (NOTE: This “directive” itself is suspect as in footnote 19 it says: “It is recommended that a sexually assaulted woman be advised of the ethical restrictions that prevent Catholic hospitals from using abortifacient procedures.” So, let the woman know if she wants an abortifacient, we can’t give it to her, she’d better go someplace else. That alone tells us this is a flawed document. We do not counsel women to get abortions!)
Instead, look to official Church documents. In this context, pay special attention to what St. Pope John Paul II (a favorite among pro-lifers) and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“CDF”) say about this issue. Addresses by the Pope, Encyclicals, and documents from the CDF trump anything coming for the USCCB or TCC. I cite both documents and extensively quote one here.
Sixth, what about this idea that the language for SB 303 came from these documents cited by the TCC in a letter it released after the final hearing on SB 303 last year? Summarily put, those documents provide moral support for the OPPONENTS of SB 303!
Let’s look at each reference by the TCC. The first quote in the TCC document is from Pope Pius XII is concerning the provision of ordinary means – that is, nutrition and hydration. That is required under Church teaching. It is only human to do so. The problem is that SB 303 – like current law – allowed for the withdrawal of artificially administered nutrition and hydration against a patient’s or family’s wishes. (See this to understand how that is the case.)
The next quotes by Pope Paul VI also address ordinary means and prohibit euthanasia. Both SB 303 and current law run afoul of this.
Incredibly, the TCC’s quote from the CDF’s Declaration on Euthanasia says that a doctor is to take account of the reasonable wishes of the family in interrupting “disproportionate means” (which means extraordinary means, like chemo; that is, things beyond food and water which are called “normal care” or “ordinary care”). Again, this is supportive of the opponents of SB 303.
A quote not used by the TCC from this document, but supportive of the position of opponents of SB 303, is:
When inevitable death is imminent in spite of the means used, it is permitted in conscience to take the decision to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted. In such circumstances the doctor has no reason to reproach himself with failing to help the person in danger.
(Emphasis added.) The full document is here.
The next reference by the TCC is St. JPII on foregoing aggressive treatment. Again, that is different than what opponents of SB 303 advocate. In other words, even when death is imminent, we do not withdraw “normal care” – that is “ordinary care” – which is nutrition and hydration. Again, SB 303 would have continued to allow the withdrawal of this as does current law.
Finally, the TCC looks to a CDF document from August of 2007 apparently to support the idea that ALL the exceptions allowing for withdrawal of ordinary care in SB 303 are morally licit. The document is here and the TCC quoted the Commentary. If you read nothing else, read this one.
You cannot take that Commentary out of the context of the specific question it was answering, which is exactly what the supporters of SB 303 did:
“Second question: When nutrition and hydration are being supplied by artificial means to a patient in a "permanent vegetative state", may they be discontinued when competent physicians judge with moral certainty that the patient will never recover consciousness?
Response: No. A patient in a "permanent vegetative state" is a person with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means.”
The language in the commentary allowing for withdrawing nutrition and hydration assumes that - based on the manner in which the hypothetical was phrased - that "competent physicians judge with moral certainty that the patient will never recover consciousness." That is, more than one physician judges with “moral certainty that the patient will NEVER RECOVER consciousness.” (Emphasis added.)
That language is no where to be found in SB 303, but that is a required prerequisite in this hypothetical for allowing the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration for the patient in a persistent vegetative state. In other words, the Church did not answer the question affirmatively for withdrawal of food and hydration for all patients under any circumstance. .
Yet, SB 303 allowed for that as does current law if those four broad, subjective exceptions were met for ANY PATIENT. ANYONE can be victimized under current law and SB 303. Those four exceptions go way beyond Church teachings which intend that this is only the rarest of exceptions. I give both here for you to compare and contrast.
The Commentary from the CDF that the proponents of SB 303 say provides “identical” language as the exceptions in SB 303 actually says:
“When stating that the administration of food and water is morally obligatory in principle, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not exclude the possibility that, in very remote places or in situations of extreme poverty, the artificial provision of food and water may be physically impossible, and then ad impossibilia nemo tenetur. However, the obligation to offer the minimal treatments that are available remains in place, as well as that of obtaining, if possible, the means necessary for an adequate support of life. Nor is the possibility excluded that, due to emerging complications, a patient may be unable to assimilate food and liquids, so that their provision becomes altogether useless. Finally, the possibility is not absolutely excluded that, in some rare cases, artificial nourishment and hydration may be excessively burdensome for the patient or may cause significant physical discomfort, for example resulting from complications in the use of the means employed.
“These exceptional cases, however, take nothing away from the general ethical criterion, according to which the provision of water and food, even by artificial means, always represents a natural means for preserving life, and is not a therapeutic treatment. Its use should therefore be considered ordinary and proportionate, even when the ‘vegetative state’ is prolonged.”
See the full document here.
There are more exceptions in SB 303 and they are not limited to a particular condition, not limited to being RARE in their usage, not limited to the “moral certainty” required by the doctors that the patient will “never regain consciousness.” Rather, the language in SB 303 regarding exceptions states (in this one section 166.046(e); you find these exceptions in other sections as well):
“…The attending physician, any other physician responsible for the care of the patient, and the health care facility are not obligated to provide life-sustaining treatment after the 21st calendar day after the written decision required under Subsection (b-1) is provided to the patient or the surrogate unless ordered to do so under Subsection (g), except that artificially administered nutrition and hydration must be provided unless, based on reasonable medical judgment, providing artificially administered nutrition and hydration would:
(1) hasten the patient’s death;
(2) seriously exacerbate other major medical problems not outweighed by the benefit of the provision of the treatment;
(3) result in substantial irremediable physical pain or discomfort not outweighed by the benefit of the provision of the treatment; or
(4) be medically ineffective in prolonging the patient’s life.”
Besides the undefined nature of these broad, subjective terms, there are other questions. What if the patient is willing to endure some discomfort for the sake of life-sustaining artificially administered nutrition and hydration? Well, they do not get to make that decision.
In short, one cannot say that SB 303 has language from Church documents.
Seventh, ask yourself where in any document is this decision to be made by a doctor or hospital committee against the wishes of the family? These questions are written as a directive to the moral issue for when this determination can be made - RARELY made - based on the prerequisites SB 303 supporters and this bill’s language ignore - but these questions and answers do not say that the doctor or hospital makes the final decision. No matter how you look at it, SB 303 takes these final decisions away from the patient and his family. How is that not a violation of the principle of subsidiarity? Normally, pro-lifers understand this principle and are unwilling to give these important decisions to others to make. We would never (I hope I can still say this) allow a law that said a doctor could decide whether a pregnant woman has to have an abortion or not if there was a threat to her health or a problem with the baby. Yet, at the end of life we have a law that has just that effect – and SB 303 would not have changed that.
An Analogous Situation in Ireland: A Warning for Us
This story came out this week that the Irish Bishops’ Conference has lost its way, specifically on matters of legislation:
Pro-life advocates in Ireland have denounced a statement for voters by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference as “insipid” and out of touch with reality for omitting any mention of the country’s pressing moral issues on the family and human life.
The statement, issued ahead of the European Parliament and local elections, mentioned “the fundamental values of human life” but gave no definition of these, and made no mention, even in coded language, of abortion, euthanasia, or “gay marriage.”
You may also be aware of problems with the German Bishops’ Conference on matters of divorce and remarriage. Look at the example in the directive above from the USCCB. So you see how the contagion spreads.
Why would we assume that we in Texas are immune from this sort of thing happening here with our own Bishops’ Conference with regard to this issue. Look at the TCC’s Facebook page. There is post after post where the TCC wants convicted persons on death row given reprieves from their death sentences. I am not necessarily a proponent of the death penalty, but something is very wrong when they focus so much on saving the lives of the convicted but refuse to accept a law that requires “treatment until transfer” for sick patients in a hospital that wants to withdraw their care against their will. Where is the reprieve from death by dehydration and starvation for the ill patient after the ethics panel at the hospital decides that it is futile to continue care? It just makes no sense.
Conclusion & Action Item
You are under no obligation to support legislation based on the position of a Bishops’ Conference. You ARE under an obligation to learn about that legislation on your own, to reconcile it with proper, faithful, authoritative Church teaching, and you are obligated to make a morally correct decision. To rely only on the endorsement of the clergy is the error of clericalism. St. Paul warned of it. The Church has recognized it as error. Resist the temptation to fall into it.
Likewise, do not fall prey to the logical fallacy of the bandwagon approach. It does not matter who supports or opposes something. That may be a good starting point, but you have to do the hard work of thinking through these life and death issues.
This is all still highly relevant as this issue and other pro-life issues will be coming up in the 2015 legislative session. You now have a blueprint to help you make your own decisions.
Finally, what do you do to address what happened with the TCC? What is the action item here? Of course, it is always important to pray for your Bishop and your priest and those at the TCC. That is key and most fundamental. You can try to write a very respectful letter explaining to your Bishop that support of SB 303 was wrong, asking him to reconsider his support if/when similar legislation comes up in 2015.
But I have also been told that it is a good idea to write a respectful confidential letter to the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington, DC, describing how your Bishop – and the Bishops in Texas who are part of the TCC – are failing with regard to their obligation to actively uphold Magisterial teaching on the sanctity of life particularly with regard to their support of this bill.
His Excellency The Most Rev. Carlo Viganò, Apostolic Nuncio
Titular Archbishop of Ulpiana
3339 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Tel: (202) 333-7121
Fax: (202) 337-4036
Thanks for reading!