The decline of religion in North American society presents a series of problems that are significant threats to all its citizens. The first problem, which is the direct result of undermining the importance of God or even negating his existence, is the illusion that man is autonomous. Without a viable relationship with the Creator, man begins to think that he is not dependent on any other being than himself. He believes that he is self-sufficient and can create his own morality.
With the decline in Christianity, in particular, the notion of suffering becomes bereft of meaning. The crucified Christ no longer affords salvific meaning to suffering human beings. Thirdly, the autonomous self, who finds his suffering to be an intolerable burden, seeks to end it through physician-assisted suicide or some form of euthanasia. Standing in the way of such “self-deliverance” is a tradition as old as Hippocrates, which states that physicians should neither kill nor harm. Thus, in order for physician-assisted suicide to become a legal option, society, including the institutions of law, medicine, and politics, must cooperate fully. A new morality is on the scene. This leads inevitably to the deadening of conscience, which is now clearly manifested in both America and Canada.
These problems are pointing to a contradictory notion of man as an autonomous automaton. He is currently being viewed no longer as a social being, a creature of God, or a person who combines individual uniqueness with social responsibilities, but as someone who is allegedly independent but at the same time operates without a conscience. President Obama’s belief in choice but not in conscience attests to this contradictory view.
The late Rev. Richard Neuhaus, founder of First Things, has made the comment that “in most aspects of life [in Canada] Christianity has been not only disestablished but also banished”. On February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada invalidated that country’s criminal prohibitions against assisted suicide and euthanasia as applied to physician-assisted death. By a nine to nothing count, the Court ruled the previous holding to be unconstitutional. The Court interpreted the Constitution’s rights to “life, liberty and security of the person” in a novel way, as including the right to die. The Court so ruled because it regards the human being as an autonomous agent who reserves the option to live or to die. Thus, it included the right to die within the right to live.
Dr. Margaret A. Somerville, a leading ethicist in Canada who is a lawyer and professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Montreal’s McGill University, explains that the Court’s decision grants “a right to control of one’s bodily integrity and a right to be free of suffering, or even the fear of suffering, in the future”. This utopian concept is directly opposed to the realistic notion that human life is inseparable from suffering. It implies that the only way to rid suffering is through death. In this way, the autonomous concept of the human being signs his death warrant.
The Court required that informed consent be obtained for “doctor assisted suicide and euthanasia”. Nonetheless, such consent is not valid unless reasonable alternatives are provided. An important alternative is palliative care. Yet only 16 to 20 percent of all Canadians who need palliative care have access to it. The Canadian Medical Association, proposed as one of the main advisors to the government, has expressly stated that non-availability of palliative care should not be a reason to refuse physician-assisted suicide. Conscience, as the etymology of the word indicates, means “with knowledge”. To suppress knowledge is to suppress conscience. In this way, the alleged autonomous individual merges with the automaton who has been deprived of the exercise of his own conscience, and therefore, the expression of his own free will. A spokesperson for the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons recently remarked that physicians not willing to refer for abortions should “get out of family medicine”. The same dismissal of conscience in the area of abortion is now being transferred to the field of euthanasia.
Doug Bandow, writing for Forbes magazine asks, in the title of his February 6, 2012 article, “Why Does President Obama Dislike Freedom Of Conscience?” He argues that “authoritarian liberalism” (as contradictory an expression as “autonomous automaton”) prevails throughout the Obama administration. “Acting on faith must be punished,” he concludes. Just as euthanasia removes suffering by removing the sufferer, a united nation can be achieved by suppressing the conscience of dissenters. Dissent, which used to be proof that one was an independent thinker, is now passé. Uniformity is currently de rigueur. Representative Joe Pitts has complained that “Without legal protection, we can certainly expect even more bureaucratic assaults on the conscience of medical workers” (Washington Post, February 18, 2011).
The right to conscience is a paramount importance for the medical profession. It allows members of the profession the freedom to refuse to perform practices they oppose on either moral or religious grounds. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology, however, has stated that abortion is a social value that outweighs any conscientious objection. A 2009 survey conducted by The Polling Company/WomanTrend reported that 87 percent of adults held that “it is important to make sure that healthcare professionals in America are not forced to participate in procedures and practices to which they have moral objections.” The present bureaucratic disregard for conscientious objection is driving health professionals out of their chosen field. Many have asserted, “I would rather stop practicing medicine altogether than be forced to violate my conscience”. Nonetheless, according to President Obama, “A country’s conscience sometimes has to be triggered by some inconvenience.”
Religion, especially the Catholic religion, recognizes three things that the secular world vehemently rejects: the primacy of God, the rightful place of man as created by God and called to love both himself and his neighbor, and the redemptive value of suffering. Secular society may believe that it is being progressive by denying each of these factors, but the truth is, that the attempt to force human beings into an impossible role, which combines an illusion with a humiliation, places man on the road to death, both spiritually as well as physically. It is a phenomenon akin to what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote about “The Abolition of Man”. It is also consistent with the searing conclusion that Henri De Lubac derives in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, namely, that “man cannot organise the world for himself without God; without God he can only organise the world against man. Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.”
North American society would do well to assimilate some of the ideas that Saint John Paul II has propounded concerning “anthropological realism”. In his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, the former pontiff states that “At the heart of the moral life we thus find the principle of a ‘rightful autonomy’ of man, the person as subject of his actions.” This “rightful autonomy,” as he explains in great detail in The Acting Person, involves “self-governance and self-possession” and not the unrealistic autonomy of self-sufficiency and independence. Conscience, therefore, despite its subjectiveness, retains a measure of “intersubjectivity” for it is in conscience that a person unites the objectivity of truth with the duty to live that truth. “In each of his actions,” John Paul writes, “the human person is eyewitness of the transition from the ‘is’ to the ‘should,’ – the transition from ‘X is truly good’ to ‘I should do X’.” Secular society, being sceptical about knowing truth, fails to understand the first dynamic of conscience. As a result, it has little respect for it.
In failing to respect conscience, the secular world then fails to respect the integrity of the human person. The unhappy result is that it cannot steer its citizens in the direction of life, but only encourage them to accept the illusion that they are free, while obliging them to conform to a world that is accurately described as a Culture of Death. Instead of an anthropological realism which is true to man’s nature, the secular world imposes on him the unrealistic and impossible task of being, at the same time, both “pro-choice” and “anti-conscience”. A revolt will surely follow, for man cannot live a contradiction for very long.