Death, dignity and the betrayal of Catholic politicians

by John Smeaton

On 22 October, the UK House of Lords once again debated the legalisation of assisted suicide. The Assisted Dying Bill 2021 was introduced by Baroness Meacher of Spitalfields, the chairwoman of the organisation known for 70 years as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society but in 2006 changed its name to Dignity in Dying. As with previous Bills, it aims to overturn 2,500 years of medical ethics by permitting doctors to supply lethal drugs to their patients with the intention of ending their lives. Of course, there is ample evidence from other jurisdictions of what would happen if this Bill were to become law: it would relativise the right to life, normalise suicide, fundamentally change the relationship between patients and their doctors and, needless to say, endanger the lives of the weak and vulnerable.

When writing about euthanasia, Pope John Paul II said, “depending on the circumstances, this practice involves the malice proper to suicide or murder” and that “suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder”.[1] More than 130 members of the House of Lords debated the morality of the issue for eight hours before bowing to Parliamentary convention and allowing this dangerous legislation to pass on to the next stage unopposed. 

Among those who took part in the debate was a contemporary of my school days in Salesian College in Battersea in South London, Gus O’Donnell. After he retired in 2011, having been head of the civil service and Cabinet Secretary under Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, Gus was raised to the dignity of the peerage and became Lord O’Donnell of Clapham. He prefaced his remarks by drawing attention to his Catholic faith but then proceeded to distance himself from Catholic teaching on the pretext that that is what is required of a public official.

“I approach the Bill, having been brought up as a Catholic – unsurprisingly for an Augustine O’Donnell – to respect the sanctity of life as recently re-emphasised by the Pope, the most reverend Primate, Cardinal Nichols and the Chief Rabbi. That is a very powerful group. All of them have dedicated their lives to making the world better. But as legislators, our job is to look at the evidence objectively and decide what is in the best interests of the public.” [2]

He concluded that assisted suicide should be legalised so that British people could be helped to end their lives in their own country rather than have to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland. 

This is just one example of a very serious problem with Catholic lawmakers. 

I recently met with a Cardinal who expressed his astonishment and frustration with politicians who claimed personally to oppose abortion but espouse freedom of choice. He suggested that if these people were asked to support the legalised killing of politicians then their political position would quickly fall into line with their personal views regardless of the so-called right to choose.

In the past, Catholic politicians who repudiated Catholic teaching would be left in no doubt that their support for immoral laws was incompatible with the faith. Today, however, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and countless other politicians who promote the killing of unborn children, loudly claim to be Catholic. Not only do they present themselves for Holy Communion but bishops, cardinals and Pope Francis himself encourage their sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist.

In July 2013, the Irish parliament took the first step towards the repeal of the Eighth Amendment when it passed the perversely titled Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. At the height of the abortion debate raging throughout the country, Fr Patrick Hannon DD, emeritus professor of moral theology in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth wrote: “A legislator who is a Catholic, and who wishes to honour the legacy of Catholic tradition in these grave matters, is both obliged and free to examine each side of the argument and come to his or her own conclusions about what human rights and the common good require at this time.”[3] This was a green light for Catholic politicians to vote in favour of legalised abortion.

What we see in such cases is the false belief that Catholics who join the establishment – the ruling elite – can be faithful to both God and Caesar. They can follow God in their personal lives while in their official capacity they promote legislation that violates God’s law. But no man can serve two masters. (Matt 6:24) Also in St Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord sets out what He expects from His disciples, including Catholic politicians. Asked about paying taxes to the secular authorities he points to a Roman denarius bearing the image of the Emperor saying: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22:21) This teaching is not just about the relationship between temporal and spiritual authorities, it reveals the incalculable value of every individual human being. Since Man is created in the image of God, our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings, are not ours to dispose of – they belong to God and must be returned to Him.

There are many types of dignity – social rank, nobility of character and so on – but “human dignity” is based on an understanding of Man as the “Imago Dei”. It demands above all the affirmation of the inviolability of the right to life from conception to its natural end. Life is not only the first of all rights, it is the precondition for all other rights. Every human being regardless of the circumstances of their conception, their stage of development or their state of health, bears the indelible image of God. To promote assisted suicide in the name of dignity is as perverse as calling a piece of abortion legislation the “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act”. 

Regardless of how it is presented, intrinsically unjust legislation, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, remains unjust. It is never licit to obey it, to take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it. Rome and bishops across the globe must leave Catholic politicians in no doubt on this point. It is their responsibility to lead the world back to Christ and back to an unequivocal respect for every single human life made in the image of God and destined for eternal happiness with Him.

Reflecting on the career of Lord O’Donnell of Clapham and his comments on the Assisted Dying Bill, I can’t help recalling a famous scene from the final act of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. After being betrayed by an ambitious politician, bought off with an appointment to a junior post in government, St Thomas Moore turns to his former friend in pain and amusement. With a minor alteration, what he says next could also be addressed to Gus O’Donnell – “Why…it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…” But for Clapham!

[1] Evangelium Vitae, 66.
[2] Assisted Dying Bill [HL] Hansard, 22 October 2021.
[3]  Patrick Hannon, “Abortion, Law and Morals”, The Furrow, (2013) 64, 7/8, p 387–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24635763.