Peter Stanford: Losing My Religion

Gentle Jesus, grant him eternal rest. May the soul of Tony Nicklinson rest in peace.

I've read, in my time, a few good pieces by Peter Stanford, in various publications. This should hardly be surprising given that Peter is a former editor of The Catholic Herald.

I have to say, however, that his latest piece for The Telegraph is a bit of a let down for a Catholic reader. Sensitively and with a great deal of human compassion, Peter describes the anguish and plight of the now deceased Tony Nicklinson. The good thing about the article is that Peter conveys empathy with a man who suffered a great deal and who felt trapped by his condition. It should be hard for a Catholic to be unmoved by human suffering. Another good thing that he conveys is that a Catholic man visited him, fulfilling what Our Lord asked of us to visit the sick.

The bad thing is that Peter goes on to say that the plight of Tony Nicklinson 'converted' him to coming around to the idea that assisted suicide should be made an option for those who see no way out of their condition but death itself. To say this is a considerable own goal on behalf of someone who in writing as a Catholic surely represents, albeit as a layman, the Mystical Body of Christ to the rest of the English-reading World.

It goes without saying that with Mr Nicklinson's body not yet cold, elements both in politics and media are already saying that there should be a 'Nicklinson's Law' recognising the 'right to die'. Lord Joffe, who has previously tried to introduce assisted dying legislation has already made political capital out of Nicklinson's death, saying that the locked-in sufferer's death should pave the way to a change in the law. The Times, covering Mr Nicklinson's death, suggested, outrageously, that 'pro-lifers' were among those 'prolonguing' Mr Nicklinson's suffering, when, in fact, 'pro-lifers' only insist that the law should not be changed because it is there to protect the vulnerable - indeed, to protect all.

Unhelpfully, Peter frames the debate around his Catholicism and therefore frames assisted suicide as a religious debate when it is not. It is a political debate - for it is Parliament that would have to change the law - which centres on the wisdom or lackthereof of granting to the State the power to kill its own citizens. Unhelpfully, too, Peter describes the Church as 'my Church', but perhaps it was just a rushed piece. It wouldn't be the first time that a Catholic in public life has claimed ownership of the Ark of Truth despite the fact that it was Christ who said, 'Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church.'

It is perhaps true that the life and death of Mr Nicklinson, who was so determined in what became a very public campaign for personal autonomy over his life and death, does not present Catholic writers with an easy opportunity to defend the Church's teaching. In the face of such suffering and pleas for the 'right to die' it is quite easy for the Church and those who support the teaching to be painted as cruel and indifferent towards suffering. What needs to be said, however, is that despite all the pain and the suffering of individuals, the law is there as it stands to protect individuals from other individuals who are cruel and who are indifferent to human life.

We have seen how nurses can become so indifferent to human life that they neglect to change the dirty sheets of their patients or attend to even their most basic needs. We have seen that doctors, despite their oaths to protect life, can become so indifferent to human life that they trade in their hippocratic oaths in order to devote their entire life to killing the unborn just because they are girls. We have warnings from history in the Nazis and the other regimes for whom human life meant absolutely nothing and for whom a cold eugenic mentality became a way of life. We have warnings in British history from such doctors as Dr Harold Shipman. How much more easily he would have slipped through the profession unnoticed were there a relaxation of the law!

We know that there are forces both within and without the State who, far from empathising with human suffering, view the elderly, the sick and the poor as an economic burden on society. Peter, as a Catholic, should understand and be able to communicate that despite the fallen and suffering state of the World due to Original Sin, Saints and Blesseds like Mother Teresa recognised in the suffering of their brothers and sisters the Victim Who suffered and died for mankind. Peter, as a Catholic, should be able to communicate that, because of Original Sin, human nature, too, is flawed and the temptations presented to family and relatives of those suffering could lead these same people to encourage someone to die in order to gain their property or wealth, or simply desire to end the life of someone they have come to view as a burden, or simply because they can't bare to see their loved one suffer. It is grossly naive to think that no family member or relative or doctor would abuse the relaxation of the law in order to advance purely financial or economic motives, either personally in the case of family or for the State, in terms of doctors.

Why is it, too, that so few public Catholics come forward to say that, as far as Catholics are concerned, Death is only an improvement on a condition of suffering if a person goes to Heaven. For all their 'rational' bluster, atheists have zero evidence that Hell or Purgatory do not exist. The quality of life in Purgatory is apparently not that great and in Hell the suffering and torments of the damned are worse than anything in this life and they are both intolerable and eternal.

These are just some of the objections that Catholics and others have to assisted suicide and the majority of these objections are also shared by many people who are not religious. That a Catholic should publicly declare his 'conversion' to the assisted suicide cause because he met a man suffering who wanted to die is worrying not just because he displays ignorance of 'his' Church, and not only because his audience is wide when he announces that he is losing his religion, but because on focusing on how one man changed his mind, he forgets entirely the others who are at grave risk of being exterminated having been made to feel like they should be exterminated in the future because 'nobody likes to be a burden' and everyone fears the day when their 'quality of life' may drop to a degree that is almost intolerable. What would emerge would be a society that does not tolerate weakness at all.

Of course, those working in the media and politics who support assisted dying as an answer to economic crises, or who generally despise our humanity, want us to concentrate on the 'hard cases' so that we do forget not only the general principle underlying the law, but everyone else who would be affected by a potential change in that law.

Pray for the repose of the soul of Tony Nicklinson and for his bereaved family. Pray, too, for Peter Stanford, that he may 'recover' like his patron did, after he denied his Saviour thrice.


John Kearney said…
I believe that Tony Nicklinson had also many blessings. He was with the help of modern technology able to communicate with the world, he had a wonderful family who loved him,and he was able to make his wishes known in the matter of suicide. I would wish that if tragedy struck me I would be so grateful for the love around me, I would be so grateful to watch my children and grandchildren grow up that I would pity those who did not have that opportunity but lived in what is called a real `vegetable state`. I pray for him.
Nicolas Bellord said…
I think that characterising Peter Standford's article as "Losing my religion" is taking matters a bit far. Nowhere does he say that.

However it is a very limited article as it nowhere gives the arguments against what Mr Nicklinson wanted to do. Would I be wrong in believing that Mr N's principal suffering was mental? I suspect that pursuing his court case gave him a sense of purpose to live which he lost when he lost the case. I wonder whether he could not have found some other, more positive, interest that would have given him some sense of purpose and thereby a desire to continue living?
Dorotheus said…
You say, 'it should be hard for a Catholic to be unmoved by human suffering.' It is hard for human beings to be unmoved by suffering: being human is prior to being Catholic. What I find worrying about blogs like this one is the increasing totalitarianism in the Catholic Church whereby nobody can say anything that diverges from the official line without being branded as not a true Catholic. This is something new. Previous ages could encompass a variety of opinions on contentious matters without stigmatising those who think differently. One can surely raise the question whether easing someone's way to death (not killing them - a fine line to draw certainly, but that is why such matters are contentious and can be talked about) where this would be a release from intolerable pain may be humanly the right thing to do without being banished from the Catholic Church, but it seems that these days nobody is allowed to question anything without incurring the displeasure of the orthodoxy watchdogs. As I say it is very worrying, because totalitarian attitudes so often lead to the sort of actions that go with that mindset.
The Bones said…
I'm just in agreement with the Holy Father who asked that dissent not be mistaken for mature contribution to a debate.

I think you find this blog worrying because I'm following the Holy Father's lead.
Dorotheus said…
Well done, Mr. Bones. You can congratulate yourself on being a loyal totalitarian.
Mike said…
Dorotheus says: “Previous ages could encompass a variety of opinions on contentious matters without stigmatising those who think differently.” Well, I’m not sure what sort of contentious matters Dorotheus is referring to but once the Magisterium of the Church has made a pronouncement all Catholics are required to accept that pronouncement. For example, the Council of Trent declared after every pronouncement that anyone who disagreed, let him be anathema. That’s what makes the Catholic Church different from every other Church. The Catholic Church holds that it is guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit and that therefore Catholics, all Catholics, must accept all of the Church’s teaching. If people want to belong to a Church where members can go on disagreeing with each other over everything then there are plenty of Churches to choose between.
The Bones said…
The Holy Father is the custodian and guardian of the infallible truths of the Church.

He is not their author.

I think what you mean is, 'Well done on humbly accepting the Church's teaching because She is holy and cannot err.'
blondpidge said…
Failing to spot the totalitarianism. I liked this post Laurence, compassionate and bang on.
Lazarus said…
It's clearly right that Tony Nicklinson's suffering should make everyone, Catholic or not, feel compassion: he was suffering a terrible trial and I have no idea how I would face a similar experience. But as soon as we move beyond compassion to drawing ethical or political conclusions from that suffering, Nicklinson's analysis ('and therefore you should allow me to be killed') has to be subjected to the rather brutal light of reason. I'd rather have left it at compassion: I have prayed for him and his family, and will do so again. But, since he and his family have raised the matter, from the mere fact of his suffering, it does not automatically follow that either his own attitude to that suffering or his prescription for legislative change is right.
Nicolas Bellord said…
I am reminded of Camus's "La Peste" where the people of a city are not allowed to leave for fear of infecting others. The novel treats of the interests of the individual who has every reason to escape as opposed to the community albeit from someone who believed the world to be absurd.

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