Saturday, October 25, 2003

Florida Report: Is Terri a Person?

I arrived in St. Petersburg Wednesday afternoon with no problems. After picking up the rental car and checking in to my hotel, I got on the phone to Pete Vere and Msgr. Malanowski. Msgr. came out and over dinner, he brought me up to date on what was happening.

I have to say, Msgr. Malanowski is very impressive. He is zealous, energetic, and courageous. His courage was demonstrated on Tuesday night: He went in to visit Terri and give her Viaticum. When the husband-mandated "minder" (family members and Msgr. Malanowski aren't allowed to see Terri without one of Michael's representatives present) realized what he was about to do, she cried foul and told Msgr. he couldn't do that. He asked the police what would happen if he did it anyway. They replied that they would arrest him. His response was "so lock me up", or something to that effect. But then they added that they would physically prevent him from giving Terri communion. It was only the certitude that he would fail that dissuaded him, not the prospect of being arrested. Bob Schindler (Terri's father) told me that he saw a side of Msgr. that night that he'd never seen before, and told me how he felt "unworthy" of the friendship and support of such a good and holy priest. I know priests half his age (he's 81) who don't work half as hard as he does. My primary reason for being here is to help him out: to allow him to take a breather. On Wednesday, he hadn't slept 4 hours in the last two days. Well, for the past couple of nights he's been able to go home at a decent hour, and is finally getting some sleep. As you can see by the time code on this post, I'm the one burning the midnight oil now. But that's not a big deal for me, as I'm a night-owl by disposition.

Today was a very busy day: The Schindlers learned about the ACLU's announcement that they would come in the side of Terri's husband, to defend his right to kill her. Of course, that't not the way they phrase it. They use noble-sounding phrases like "right to die", or "death with dignity". Of course, Terri wasn't dying when they pulled the feeding tube, and I don't see what dignity there is in dying of starvation and dehydration, in a way we don't even use on our most heinous criminals. The Schindlers also hosted a news conference to respond to husband Michael's announcement Thursday that he would never give up his effort to see Terri dead. The Schindlers had three doctors, two nurses, and numerous family there to testify to what Terri's real condition is. I'll go into greater detail about that in a future post, probably later today. But in a nutshell, their testimony was:
(a) Terri is responsive to those around her, in distinctive ways (she responds to different people differently).
(b) All three doctors testified definitively and convincingly that Terri is NOT in a Persistent Vegetative State or coma. They all but begged the reporters present to stop reporting her as "brain dead" or PVS.
(c) Terri would almost certainly benefit from rehabilitative therapy, which therapy husband Michael has steadfastly denied for 10 years.

A lot has been happening in the last couple of days. I could write pages to try to cover it all. I'll go into more detail about specific issues in future posts, but for now I want to try to convey the understanding which, I think, lies at the heart of the Schindler's efforts to save Terri.

One of the things that struck me very quickly is how level-headed, reasonable, and calm the Schindlers are. That might seem a strange thing to say, but when I arrived I didn't know what to expect. I only had spoken to Bob on the phone up to that point, and he sounded exhausted. I was half-expecting to meet people rendered emotional wrecks by their week-long ordeal of watching their daughter dying. They've also been portrayed, by the husband and his attorneys, and by unsympathetic media, as everything from religious fanatics to pathetic simpletons.

But they weren't, and aren't. They're very normal, solid people. They've been represented as people in denial of their daughter's sad state, blinded by their emotional attachment to her. But that is simply not the case. They are quite realistic about Terri's condition: she is severely brain damaged, and will almost certainly never come close to substantial recovery. But they see that the person they know and love as Terri is still there. And they cannot understand why the fact that she won't recover amounts to grounds for ending her life.

Much of the argument about Terri and the withdrawal of food and water has focused on the issue of Terri's "recoverability". Those in favor of "letting Terri die" say that she won't recover, her situation is hopeless, so why prolong such a limited and "meaningless" life. Those trying to save Terri frequently argue to the effect that Terri could recover, that you can't definitely say that it is impossible that she could recover, and therefore her life is to be preserved. Now, I think that the latter position is vastly morally superior to the former. But I think the whole issue of Terri's recoverability is a red herring. To argue about that is to argue around the real issue.

People develop all sorts of conditions, varying in severity, from which they will never recover. Some of those conditions severely compromise a person's "quality of life". For example, a man who has advanced Congestive Heart Failure has such compromised cardiac efficiency that he won't be able to walk to the mailbox and back without stopping to catch his breath. This is without doubt a serious impairment of his quality of life. Furthermore, Congestive Heart Failure is a progressive and degenerative disease. It will only get worse, and ultimately it will kill the patient. By the criterion of recoverability, you could justify killing people once they're diagnosed with CHF, because they won't recover.

Another unrecoverable disorder is Down's Syndrome. People with Down's Syndrome won't "get better". The best you can hope for is to teach them enough skills so they can function in society, and many Down's patients will never even reach that point. But we don't (yet) kill the mentally retarded because they won't recover. Most of us still have sufficient vestigial humanity to recognize that killing of the retarded is inhuman and barbaric.

Why is that the case? Well, I believe it is because we recognize the humanity of the Down's sufferer. We recognize that, in spite of the limitations, this is a human person. And, contrary to a commenter on Amy Welborn's blog, personhood is not a "value judgment", which we (whoever "we" are) "choose to attribute to some objects and not others. " This attitude is not only monstrous, it is not even rationally coherent. Firstly, if it is a "value judgement", then who is empowered to define or mediate the values constitutive of it? What person is authorized to decide which values count and which don't? Or will these values be decided by some sort of societal consensus? If so, what percentage of agreement is necessary to grant personhood to a certain "object" or group of objects. If I decide that you aren't a person, on what basis could you refute me? If 60% of the population decides that Mexican illegal immigrants aren't persons, then can we kill them? And before you pooh-pooh such a scenario, let me remind you that in our own country, not too long ago, certain groups of people were commonly held to be "non-persons" by the majority of their neighbors. Furthermore, we only need to look at the slaughter that has occurred in the Balkans to see where a socially constucted idea of personhood leads you. It leads inevitably to the brutish, violent, striving for domination of one over the other. It leads directly to Auschwitz, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the plains of Ukraine in the 20's, and the Apartheid of South Africa.

No, personhood is inherent in the human being. To separate personhood from human identity is as disordered as separating eating from nutrition, or separating sex from... ohhh.... procreation. It is this way because God made human beings that way. And God made Terri Schiavo that way. Those who know and love her see her as a person not because they are deluded, but because they look beyond what she can or cannot do, to see who she is.

We are not very good at focusing on what things are. We tend to see everything in functional terms. We are what we do. We are what our power can perform. And looking at Terri, who can do very little, those who can think only in terms of function see a non-person. She is broken, and can't be fixed. She is useless, and uselessness is The Very Worst Thing. Since she's no use to herself or others, she may as well die.

But that is not how God sees things. Remember that when God created the first man, He called him "very good." He said that before Adam had done anything. Adam's being was a good thing. And just so, Terri's being is a good thing. Not because of what she can do, but because of who she is. One of Terri's cousins asked me the other night, "why is it that some people want Terri dead because she doesn't meet their 'standard' of minimum humanity? We know who she is, and we love her. And she knows we love her, and she can receive that love. Why do they want to deprive us of the ability to give her our love? Why do they want to deprive her of receiving our love?" I didn't have a ready answer to that. After thinking a few moments, I said, "They can't, or won't, see who she is. They only see her limitations, and imagine that is all there is to her."

Only in the case of people do we somehow imagine that the solution to problematic people is their destruction. We find certain unborn children problematic, so we solve the problem by destroying them. We find certain disabled people problematic, so we seek their destruction. The solution to the "problem" of Terri's disability isn't to destroy her, but to see beyond her limitations, to see who she is.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

We've Won a Victory, But The Battle Isn't Over

As Mark Shea has reported, Terri's husband and his lawyer aren't about to just give up in their efforts to see Terri Schiavo dead.

I spoke to Mr. Schindler (Terri's dad) last night, and he sounded exhausted. He isn't able to get any information about his daughter except through the husband. Furthermore, Terri is still being denied Viaticum. So she's not out of the woods yet.

I'm leaving for Florida later this morning. I will do my best to keep you all posted on what happens there. But keep praying and keep up the pressure on the judges and politicians. It's especially important that we recognize and thank those in positions of power when they do the right thing. So let Jeb Bush and the Florida legislators who voted for Terri's Law know you appreciate them!

Pray for Terri, and pray for me. Pray especially for Msgr. Malanowski, who has labored so hard on Terri's behalf.

Monday, October 20, 2003

I'm Going to Florida: Here Are the Details

As Mark Shea and others have reported, I am going to Florida to be of assistance to Terri and the Schindler family in whatever way I can.

I am still working out some of the logistical details, but at this point I can say that I have spoken to my bishop, James A. Murray of Kalamazoo, about this matter, and have explained my intentions to him. He has graciously given me leave to go. I have consulted with Msgr. Malanowski, who has been the priest closest to the Schindlers, and he and the Schindler family have asked me to come. I'm also grateful to Mr. T. Edward Carey, Chancellor of my diocese, for assisting me in finding a priest to cover at my parish, and to my brother priest, Fr. Massimiliano Camporese, for agreeing to help out in my parish.

I am going down first thing in the morning on Wednesday. I'm not sure how long I'll stay.

Many of you have emailed me or left comments on my blog offering your financial support for my trip . I am very grateful and humbled by this outpouring of support. I will be very grateful for that assistance, and I promise that any funds given to me over and above what is needed for my expenses will be donated to the Schindlers and/or the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation.

Many of you have asked where to send donations. I can receive donations online through PayPal. Just click on the PayPal icon below:

You can use either a credit card or an "instant transfer" from your checking account. It's better to use the instant transfer, because I get charged a fee for credit card transactions. But I'll accept the money any way it comes!

If you wish to send a donation via US Mail, send it to:

Fr. Rob Johansen
St. Joseph Catholic Church
211 Church Street
St. Joseph, Michigan 49085

Thank you for your generosity!

One other thing I would add: If you're feeling in a giving mood, I might suggest that you offer some financial support to Canonist Extraordinaire Pete Vere. Pete has been doing yeoman work in helping the Schindlers and getting the word out about Terri's plight. He's been of invaluable help to me in making my arrangements. His wife is due to have a baby any day, and he's given up his vacation in order to devote the time to Terri's cause. He's done all of this at some financial cost to himself as well. He's too humble to ask for himself, but you might e-mail him yourself and ask him if he'd be willing to accept your help.

Pray for Terri, and pray that I can be of help down there!

We Throw Away Things That Are Broken

Homily for The 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Isaiah 53:10-11
Hebrews 4: 14-16
Mark 10: 35-45

Holding up a large screwdriver in my hand, I ask a child in the congregation: What am I holding in my hand? "A screwdriver", she answers. That's right, a screwdriver. A screwdriver is a very useful thing. You can do all kinds of useful things with a screwdriver. It's a tool, an instrument. Asking another child in the congregation: Now, suppose I was using this screwdriver, and I put so much force on it that I broke it, and I couldn't use it anymore? What do you suppose I'd do with it? "Throw it away, I guess", he answered. Throw it away! That's right, I'd throw it away, and get another one. That's what we do when a tool or instrument breaks: We throw it away. There are few things more useless than a broken screwdriver. A tool is a thing. Tools are things we make for a practical purpose: when they don't fulfill their practical purpose anymore, they're useless, and we get rid of them.

Now, when I was in the seminary, one of the things I learned was a basic principle of morality: You should NEVER treat persons as if they were things. It is always wrong to treat persons like things. There are very good reasons for this: Firstly, we make things, as I said before, for a practical purpose. We make things to suit our own convenience. But persons are not here for our convenience! YOU are not here for my convenience. Pointing at a woman's husband, and addressing her: In a certain sense, HE is not here for your convenience. Human beings are created by God, in His image and likeness, and put here because they are goods unto themselves. We are, by our very existence, goods in and of ourselves. Even if you never did anything that appeared useful in the eyes of the world, you would still be a good unto yourself.

Now, that things are different than persons, and should be treated differently, is really just common sense. After all, we don't treat tools like we treat people. We don't... well, I was going to say that we don't get emotionally attached to our tools, but I know that some of us men might get attached, a little. Addressing a man in the congregation: But even so, we know the difference: Would you trade your child for new circular saw? "No", he answered. No, of course not.

But even beyond common sense, there are even deeper reasons why we must not treat persons like things. You see, God thought that human beings were so important, so valuable, that He gave his Son, gave Him up to death for us. He thought we were so precious that He became one of us: He took our nature upon Himself and united His Divinity to it. Think about that for a moment: Our human nature, in Christ, is united with the Divine nature. That means that human nature is elevated, by Christ, to having infinte dignity and worth. That is why the great christian writer C.S. Lewis said, "Next to the Sacrament of Our Lord, the person sitting next to you is the holiest thing you will ever set your eyes upon."

We heard, in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus Christ is our great High Priest. Now the essence of the priestly office is to be an intermediary: A priest acts as an intermediary between God and His people. And so Christ is our priest and mediator. But consider this: God Himself, in the Blessed Trinity, is in no need of an intermediary for Himself. The persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are in perfect intimacy and communion with one another. There could not be any mediation between the Persons of the Trinity. This means that Christ's priesthood subsists in his humanity. It is in His humanity that Christ is Priest and Mediator for all of creation. Our human nature, the nature that Christ took upon Himself, is the same nature which bore Christ's priestly office. And we are united with that nature. We are in communion with that nature. And so, in Him, human nature is elevated to the infinte majesty, dignity, and worth of His Priesthood.

Human beings are of inifinte dignity and worth, and so can never be treated as mere things. But unfortunately, we are in danger of losing sight of this truth in our society. In some circles, I would say that we have already lost sight of it. I imagine that many, if not most of you, have heard about the woman in Florida, Terri Schiavo, who has had her feeding tube removed by a judge's order and even as I speak, lays dying. Up until this week, when the news media reported on the situation at all, they simply parroted the arguments of those wanting Terri to die, that she is in a "persistent vegetative state." But a number of doctors and other health care professionals have testified that she is in fact NOT in a persistent vegetative state. They have further testified that they believe she could be at least partially rehabilitated. But her husband (that's right, her husband), has refused any efforts at rehabilitative therapy. Some reports have indicated that Terri is terminally ill. That is false as well. If she dies, she will die not of any disease, but of starvation.

Unless someone in authority intervenes, Terri will almost certainly die within a week. She will die because a judge has ordered her to die. Her husband, who has refused any kind of rehabilitation, stands to inherit about $800,000 when she dies. That money was supposed to go to Terri's care and treatment, but he has used it to pay for lawyers in order to seek her death. He also has said that he wants to move on with his life, and marry his live-in girlfriend. Terri is in the way, her life has become inconvenient, and for that she is going to die.

Terri's body is "broken", and so her husband, his lawyers, and the judge, want to throw her away. Terri is is being treated like a thing, to be discarded when it has oulived its usefulness. But persons aren't things. They can't be thrown away, and they certainly cannot be replaced. What is happening to Terri is certainly an injustice. It is a horrific and merciless cruelty. We treat condemned criminals with more mercy and compassion. But even worse, this is a crime against the dignity and worth of the human person. This is an affront to the Lord of Life, who gave our human natures infinite worth by uniting them to Himself.

By our baptism we all share in the priesthood of Christ, so we must be sanctifiers of the world. We must sanctify it by our prayers. We must pray for Terri, her family, and all who are threatened by the failure to respect the dignity of life. We must pray for Terri's husband, for his lawyers, and for the judges in this case, that the grace of Christ may penetrate and soften the hardness of their hearts: That they will see that Terri, although her body is broken and wounded, is nonetheless of infinite worth.

We must sanctify the world by our actions. We must act to see to it that human life is always respected. We must stand up for Terri and all like her. We must stand up by making sure our laws protect the helpless and weak. We must stand up against those who seek to discard the weak because they are weak. We must stand up against those who would deprive the voiceless of justice because they cannot speak for themselves. We must be witnesses to the worth and dignity of the human person which has been granted us in Christ, so that never again in this land will anyone have to suffer as Terri has.

Our Lord tells us in the Gospel that we must be the servants of all. We must especially be the servants of the weak, the helpless, those who cannot speak for themselves. Terri Schiavo is all of those things. We must be people who speak out for her, and those like her, who are in danger because they seem to be useless or a burden. By our baptism we all share in the priesthood of Christ, and so we must be intermediaries: We must mediate Justice. We must mediate Mercy. We must mediate Compassion. We must mediate Truth.

We have in Christ a high priest who sympatizes with our weakness. He will give us strength to act, to fight, to stand up. He will give us courage if we falter. If we seek to witness to Him, to His Truth and Love, he will give us grace and timely help. Let us approach the Throne of Grace, that we may be the ministers and heralds of Christ a world in desperate need of Him.

Support "Terri's Bill" In the Florida Legislature

Many of you have already heard about the bill to save Terri and others like her introduced in the Florida legislature today.

This bill needs YOUR support!

Call and/or write James King in the Florida Legislature and demand that emergency legislation be passed immediately--today--to create a moratorium on starving/dehydration such as Terri is being forced to endure.

Phone: (850) 487-5229 or (850) 487-5030


Time is running short. Act now!