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I have been asked to share with my small international audience some thoughts about a public initiative in the Netherlands, which aims to give the elderly the right to choose their moment of death. In the proposal, this is a right to be given to everyone over the age of 70. In the Trouw newspaper, philosopher Paul van Tongeren goes over some of the objections against this proposal, in an article titled Self-chosen death is impossible.
Outright discussion of the affairs of society and politics is something which I have general avoided. Not because I consider it unimportant, but mainly because I fear my knowledge is lacking. Not that I have an extensive knowledge of Church and theology, but those topics are this blogs objective. Society is not, although the two obviously and rightly influence each other.
Euthanasia, like abortion and any other practice involving the murder of humans, is a grave sin. That much is clear. It is directly stated in the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill. As far as historians can trace it, the wilful murder of people has always been considered intrinsically evil, although there have been societies which allowed it (and continue to do so) in certain circumstances. But what a society chooses to do has no effect on the objectivity morality of an action.
This as an introduction. Now let’s take some of Mr. van Tongeren’s arguments against the ‘free choice of death’ initiative.
His first point, a relative argument, is the question how we can know what the death wish means. Is it a result of bad living conditions and can it therefore be remedied by improving those conditions?
He then questions the arbitrary age limit of 70. It is said that that age has been chosen because a death wish occurs more often in people over 70. But there is a risk in establishing that age as a boundary. Once implemented, we’ll see that the death wish occurs more often in people over 60. It is a boundary that demands adjustment downward. And there is another risk: people will have to explain themselves once they’re 70 and don’t want to die just yet.
Another point is if and how outsiders can decide if someone is ready to die. Would outsiders be so keen to decide in favour of death? Mr. van Tongeren says yes. One of the people behind the initiative, Hedy d’Ancona, said twice in an interview on Radio 1, that she know a few people of whom she thought that they were ready to die. There is then an outside pressure on the elderly to choose in favour of death.
The discussion that goes into more philosophical principles, most notably the principle of autonomy, related to the opinion that we are autonomous people who decide over our own life and death. Kant, one of the staunchest defenders of autonomy, said that when you do what you want because that seems attractive, you are not autonomous, because you don’t decide what you want, but are being led by your desires. Then you are heteronomous. You are only autonomous when you fully act according to reason. That means, among other things, that we have no automatic right to do whatever we please when, at the same time, we claim to act according to the principle of autonomy.
Self-determination does work ‘horizontally’. Someone who wants to order me about, has to justify himself, not the other way around.
In the history of philosophy we encounter a problematic but intriguing argument against self-chosen death: suicide is impossible. Of course, it happens and it that sense it is possible, but it can be countered logically, so it is a logical impossibility. Someone who wants to commit suicide chooses death, but that is not a choice between one thing and another (as when we normally want something). It is a choice between something (life) and nothing (death). And philosophy says: you can’t want nothing.
Van Tongeren explains to two forms of wanting: the object wanted, and wanting to be the wanter. We choose to want. Someone who wants to die, wants to stop being the wanter, which is a denial of wanting anything.
All that will not change the mind of someone who wants to die, but it indicates a problem. It’s not something we can want like we want other things. denying that problem is denying that there is any difference between wanting to die and wanting to go on a holiday. That is ultimately a denial of the very nature and identity of the death wish.
Van Tongeren closes with emphasising the importance of taboos in western civilisation. Taboos indicate boundaries that can’t be defended or defeated by logical arguments, but which society possible. Crossing them has destructive consequences.
Does it make sense to want to decide to die? We don’t decide we want to live. If we have no self-determination at the start, would it not be fitting to not have it at the end?
It’s a difficult social and ethical problem, this question of whether or not we should allow the free choice of death. I do think, like Mr. van Tongeren, that such a choice is the top of a downward slope. Not only is it a choice based in nothing more than gut-feeling, and as such it fails to acknowledge the differences between this choice and the choice of what you want for lunch today, it also tackles a taboo.
Taboos are not popular. Many people in our postmodern society consider them limits to our freedom. But are they? Are they not guidelines that lead to freedom? After all, any society without rules will quickly descend into chaos. Is that the freedom we want? Does that not limit us even more? I would say it does.
A life is sacred, in the religious and the social sense. We have neither the ability nor the right to give or take that life. There is not self-determination involved in the beginning and end of life. That does not make it easy. But do we measure our existence by the amount of pain we have? No. A person’s life is measured by his or her achievements, by the positive influence it has on us and on society.
We have a duty, an obligation to always choose life. The other choice is nothing but the easy solution and anyone knows of situations in their own lives where nothing is gained by the easy way out.
In a totally unrelated conversation, the following quote, from The Dark Knight of all things, came up: “It was always going to get worse before it got better.” The value of our goals can often be measured by the difficulties we have in achieving them. Difficulties are not inherently evil, although we rarely recognise them as such while we suffer them.
The rumours of Bishop Léonard of Namur succeeding Cardinal Danneels have become more certain today. The VRT reports that the Belgian bishops were informed yesterday, but the Archdiocese immediately stated that no news would be forthcoming until Monday. The media however, speculate heartily about the pros and cons of an Archbishop Léonard, but it is perhaps much more interesting to see who this man is.
In 2006, news outlet Knack interviewed Bishop Léonard. It is pretty thorough and portrays Msgr. Léonard as an eloquent, educated and orthodox man.
“The Belgian Church has been too passive”
“We all live off the faith,” he says. “There are few things we can control ourselves. For example, I believe that my car works . I put my faith in the people who designed and built my car. And that faith is justified. Likewise I can have good reasons to believe in other people, in people who are believable.”
He smiles. “If I wanted to get to know you, I can collect all kinds of information about your person. I can talk with people who know you personally. But I’ll get the most reliable information when you sit across from me, when you reveal yourself to me. If you’re believable I will accept that revelation in faith. That is also how my faith in God works. I put my trust in the word of God who revealed himself to us.”
André-Mutien Léonard is not only tipped as successor to Cardinal Danneels, but also portrayed as his complete opposite. The conservative bishop of Namur caused a stir recently because he questioned scientific research into embryonic stem cells. In his position on euthanasia or homosexuality he point-blank follows the strict teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
But let’s start at the beginning. At the foundation of his concept of man. “You must excuse me if I sometimes formulate things a bit philosophically,” he begins. “I have taught philosophy for more than 20 years, first in Louvain, later in Louvain-la-Neuve. I prefer to answer thoroughly. What is your first question?”
ANDRÉ-MUTIEN LÉONARD: The great Greek philosopher Aristotle already said that man is an animal in possession of logos, reason. Of course, as humans, we are also conditioned by our bodies, by our connection to physical nature. But yet we are also capable of distancing ourselves from that nature, from that environment. That is characteristic of man. He is, to use the famous words of Blaise Pascal, a thinking reed. In a way man is insignificant compared to the immensity of the universe. But if the universe would squash man tomorrow, it would not be aware of that, but man will.
Other animals also have a form of consciousness.
LÉONARD: Of course. Animals also respond in an adapted manner to their surrounding, but they are not aware of the deeper meaning of those responses. They also do not develop strategies to fundamentally change their environment. That is why animals have no history, no culture. A modern cat leads roughly the same life as a cat in ancient Egypt. Only man has the capacity to change his environment. Animals respond to what is, man can also consider that which is not. And so he has the pretense to say: things are not as they should be. And so man is an animal that creates values and norms. Animals do not do that.
It didn’t make us really happy, did it?
LÉONARD: (laughs) Exactly, that is precisely it. I used to give this example to my students: give a cat a tomcat, some kittens, a ball of wool, some milk and a basket to sleep in. I don’t think that a cat in those circumstances would long for a different world. That is totally different for humans. Give someone as much money and fun as he can handle and he still won’t be happy. That is because man is not just attuned to those who are, to paraphrase Heidegger, but also on Being itself. Man transcends this world.
What do you mean with ‘transcend’?
LÉONARD: Let me give you an example. When I ask a student to prove that the sum of the three angles of an euclidean triangle is 180 degrees, he will make a few diagrams. Everything that happens there, happens in accordance with the laws of nature. Neurological reactions in the student’s brain, chemical reaction, and so on. But at the same time something more happens. Namely the thoughts, the reflection of that student. We can’t reduce that to exclusively chemical, biological and physical reactions.
Not reduce, but explain by.
LÉONARD: Partially, but not completely. The operation of my brain cells is not enough to explain why I can think, desire and love… There is something else at work in the development of our human capacities.
You mean God?
LÉONARD: (laughs) It is interesting that you now suddenly mention God, and not I. I don’t like it when people want to introduce God prematurely into science of philosophy. Everything in its place. The question of God comes later. I just want to emphasise the fact that our thinking can not be reduced to the infrastructure of thought. By the way, there is something else which should be mentioned in this context. Why is the sum of the three angles of an euclidean triangle 180 degrees? Not because of the chemical reactions on the student’s brain, is it? Not because he has proven it is so? No, it is true because it is an eternal truth. Mathematical truths can also not be reduced to the structure of our thoughts.
Then who or what is God for you?
LÉONARD: (bracing himself) The first important question is: where does the information come from that precedes us and that works in the world? We know by now that matter is able to organise itself. But some information must be available before that. Elemental particles already contain some information. Where does that come from?
LÉONARD: But everyone wonders. There are two possible answers. Either matter has no beginning and is therefore eternal. But there is a problem with that. In our experience information is always preceded by thought. Information can never exist by itself. But it is clear that humans are not at the source of information. That is why there is a second possibility: at the origin of matter is a thought, a desire. Not ours, but a different thought, a different desire. Namely, Gods.
How do you picture that God?
LÉONARD: It is a personal God. If I were to believe in an impersonal God, God would be a sort of anonymous energy without consciousness. While I do have that. But I can certainly not be greater than God. So I picture God als someone who is also able to think and want. Another way to consider God is through Liebniz’s question: why is there something and not nothing? Why does something exist? That is also a way to God. Not just to God as the architect of those who are, but as creater of Being.
How do you see man? Optimistic or pessimistic?
LÉONARD: Both. It is typically Catholic to have a rather optimistic concept of humanity. As opposed to Luther, for example. He was convinced that human nature is thoroughly rotten. The Catholic Church has a more humanist vision. We’ll never say that man is totally rotten, but we will claim that human nature is damaged. That is what we mean by original sin. We have a deep desire for good, but also have the urge to act selfishly.
Did God want that?
LÉONARD: No, this world is not necessarily in accordance with the wishes of the creator. In the Christian faith we have an historical approach to reality. There is an original situation before man, so before sin. There is the current situation. And there are the new heaven and the new earth, which have already been announced by the resurrection of Christ.
Is it our duty to fulfill this world? Or will God do that?
LÉONARD: It is our responsibility to improve the current state of the world, knowing that we will never make it into a paradise. We can improve a lot, but we can also destroy much – but the final change will come from above. Everything we do to improve the world is like a foretaste of what is to come. Just like the miracles of Jesus in the gospel: those were also not definitive solutions. All the people that Jesus healed, fell ill again later. And the people he brought back to life, did not stay alive forever.
So Lazarus died twice.
LÉONARD: And they had to pay for his funeral twice. (laughs) Those miracles of Jesus were no definitive solutions. But they were signs, a promise, a prophecy. The message is that humanity is not created to suffer and to die.
What do you say then to people who suffer and lose their faith because of that?
LÉONARD: That I understand them. I detest it when I hear that people in the Church tone down the unacceptable character of evil. We can never say that evil is not so bad, as certain theologians do. That God created the world out of a certain didactic concern, to teach us how to fulfill this world. I don’t believe that. But a God who reasons like that would be a sadistic God. Of course fighting the troubles of life is a way to grow. But suffering can never be explained by that. I’d rather become an atheist myself.
What is your explanation of evil then? That God wanted it?
LÉONARD: No, certainly not! If I may use a philosphical term, I’d call evil contingent – something that exists, but does not necessarily have to exist. It exists, but could just as easily not have existed at all. That is why I think it is so important that we keep interpreting the original sin as a spoiling of the world, not as a required element of it.
Where does that spoiling come from?
LÉONARD: It is made possible because of the freedom of creatures. I find it normal that we were not created as creatures who perceive God’s majesty from the very start. There would not have been any room for free choice. And it is part of the dignity of man that he can choose his first steps of his existence himself. With all their conseuqences, because it also means that man can place himself above his creator. The origin of evil lies in the freedom of man.
Good comes from God, evil from what we do ourselves?
LÉONARD: Yes, that is our reasoning. The modern world, in which evil is so prominently present, is not part of the original intention of the creator. God is not content with the current situation. God has no sympathy for evil.
Why doesn’t he intervene?
LÉONARD: (sighs) That is the hardest question there is. And it is difficult to answer in words. Someone suffering does not want to hear an intellectual explanation. You could say that their decline and death are in accordance to the laws of nature. And that’s good, because life would be horrible if we lived eternally, biologically speaking. Imagine if we lived forever, who would want to be in charge of pensions? (laughs) Who would dare to promise to be faithful to his partner? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? Admit it, it would be unbearable.
Death makes life bearable?
LÉONARD: It does. (Suddenly serious) But that message will not comfort a mother who has lost her child. That is impossible. A possible answer can be found in the death of Christ on the cross and his exclamation of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (silent) I find that extraordinary. It is more than an answer. Right now, as we are talking here, there are people who ask: where is God? Well, Jesus died with that question on his lips.
Is there an answer yet?
LÉONARD: There is no immediate answer, no. But the fact that Jesus asked that question means that God is solidary with what we go through and experience here on earth. Therefore we are not alone in our misery. That is still not a satisfactory explanation, but it is something. God does not agree with evil. And it will end. The current world is not the pinnacle of God’s creation.
Don’t you ever doubt your faith?
LÉONARD: Not doubt, no. I do ask myself questions, yes. That’s very normal. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t base my entire life on an illusion. (silence) But a few seconds later I have both feet on the ground again: the figure of Christ in the gospel is so convincing that I give him back my faith immediately.
You have three brothers, who all became priests as well. What did your parents add to the food, if I may be so bold?
LÉONARD: (amused) That is rather unusual, I know. And that’s good, or our birth rate would never rise again. You know, I never knew my father. I was born on 6 May 1940 and baptised on 10 May, the day the war started. My father died on 16 May. He was mobilised to work on telephone connections and was killed during one of the first bombings. In his diary I later read that he used to dream of becoming a priest as a boy. But he couldn’t because he didn’t take humanities in school. My mother was a simple and devout woman, like most women in those days. We prayed at home, but not excessively much or anything. But when I was five I already knew for certain that I wanted to be a priest.
Why such a young vocation?
LÉONARD: I don’t know. I felt it. I thought the liturgy was beautiful, even though I didn’t understand it. I liked the prayer. Of course I didn’t know what it meant to be a priest, but I wanted to be with the Lord. At my first Communion, in 1946, I told Jesus: I want to be a priest. But my mother was unaware. When I was seven my first brother left for seminary. Two or three years later my second brother followed, and later my third brother did. And when I was eighteen, I told my mother I would also go to seminary.
Didn’t your mother tell you to choose a different profession?
LÉONARD: (laughs) No. She didn’t encourage us, but wasn’t opposed to it either. When I told her she only said that she already know I would become a priest as well.
How do you think the Church should get more vocations?
LÉONARD: When the Church no longer believes in it herself, when she given the impression that priest are no longer really necessary… well, no one is going to want to be a priest anymore. That is why it’s so interesting to be a little conservative. By that I mean: wanting to keep the things that are truly of great value.
What is your first question to a candidate priest?
LÉONARD: I must verify if that person wants to be a priest to serve the Lord and the Church and the people. Not because he has nowhere else to go. I must also verify if he is balanced, if his vocation is not a dream or an illusion.
Must you also ask if he is homosexual?
LÉONARD: That is indeed an important point. It is very meaningful for a priest that he is a man. Why don’t we ordain women? Not because they’re not capable. On the contrary. But a priest is someone who acts in the person of Christ. And theologically speaking, Christ is the bridegroom of the Church. Who does the Church symbolise? A woman: Mary. And who represent Christ as the bridegroom of the Church? Men. (shows his ring) That is why the bishop is a man and wears a ring. The ring symbolises that I must love my diocese and my people as a man loves his wife.
Why not like a man loves his husband?
LÉONARD: Since a priest must be a man, he must also be at peace with his manhood.
Homosexuals are, aren’t they?
LÉONARD: The fact that we are men and women is very meaningful. Sexuality comes from Latin: secare, to cut. Sexuality has to do with the difference between man and woman. If someone has evolved that he feels no normal attraction to the other sex, than something is wrong.
There isn’t. Homosexuality is perfectly natural.
LÉONARD: But the difference between man and woman is part of our essence. Not just our biological essence, but also our philosophical essence. Living according to our man- or womanhood is to me different than living according to only our biological nature.
Do you understand that a lot of people think the Catholic position on homosexuality is unacceptable?
LÉONARD: If you think that my position is connected to the Catholic faith, you should read Freud on homosexuality.
Freud was scientifically inconsequential.
LÉONARD: (sighs) It is an interesting problem, but I don’t think we can resolve it in a few minutes. You know my answer. By the way, my position on homosexuality is connected to a great respect for homosexuals. We may never confuse a judegment of homosexuality with a judgement of the homosexuals.
Another controversial topic is the research into embryonic stem cells. Aren’t you a member of the board of the Université Catholique de Louvain and yet you had requested a report on scientific research at that university.
LÉONARD: People want to turn that into a sort of Watergate now. But what is really going on? A friend proposed to make an inventory of the research involving embryos at the UCL. Based on public data. It has nothing to do with espionage and secrecy. And it was certainly not my intention to send everything on to Rome. They are very well aware of what happens here, by the way.
It is said you wanted to make a good impression in Rome, because you want to succeed Cardinal Danneels in 2008.
LÉONARD: (laughs) I can’t forbid anyone from thinking or writing that. But is not correct. I am not concerned with the succession of Cardinal Danneels. I don’t control it, so it’s not my problem.
What is the problem of embryonic research?
LÉONARD: Us having the pleasure of talking with each other here, is due to the fact that were respected in the past, as embryos. Across the world, there are milions of embryos confined to an absurd fate, being stuck in freezers. They remain frozen, or are destroyed, or are used for scientific research. That is all unacceptable.
Do you consider embryos full-fledged human life?
LÉONARD: Of course. There is no discontinuity bertween the embryo and the person who is born. And the embryo is the most vulnerable creature on earth. We’ve all been embryos, in our mother’s womb. No, such research is not acceptable to me. And there are scientific alternatives, such as adult stem cells.
Do you think that the Belgian Church has been too quiet in the last years on important ethical topics?
LÉONARD: I think it is painful that there hasn’t been a bigger reaction to the euthanasia laws in Belgium, for example. We are too passive. The reactions from the Church and the people is much more intense in France, Italy, Spain and even Germany. (silence) In our society we do so much to make death possible, that we eventually don’t put any effort into life.
If I ask for euthanasia, am I doing something wrong?
LÉONARD: Yes, you are doing something wrong. In the first place because it is not necessary. These days, palliative care is very effective in 98 percent of cases, allowing us to die in human dignity, without unbearable suffering.
And if I am among those two percent?
LÉONARD: Then there is still the option of sedation, eliminating consciousness. But the second and much more important reason that you are doing something wrong, is that death is never a totally private affair, but also affects the general wellbeing. I may have the idea that euthanasia is the ideal solution for you in your specific situation. But that assumes the presence of doctors and nurses and chemists who are going to help with that. In favour of your personal solution you have to demand a change in the profession of the doctor. He no longer exists to heal people, but also to let people die.
And if we define a doctor as someone who relieves suffering by healing are by letting people die with dignity?
LÉONARD: Helping to die can have a positive meaning. But our society knows a fundamental prohibition: Thou shalt not kill. When we do that anyway, it is a significant danger. And there is something else. If you use euthanasia like this, you may spread this attitude to other people who lose faith. It can lead to a certain dejection in society. I consider the problem of euthanasia to be very characteristic of our society, where individualism is always given priority. Everyone does things their way and we lose sight of the general wellbeing.
In the action for people without papers you have been getting a lot of respect from progressive circles. You have even housed people in your episcopal palace.
LÉONARD: Yes, ten people have stayed here, in a very pleasant atmosphere. These are people who speak our language, who are perfectly integrated, whose children have been going to school here for years. I think it is unacceptable that they live in uncertainty for so long. I know we can’t take care of all asylum seeker, but we need clear rules. It is my duty to help people. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus says: “What you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”
In closing: what is the purpose of life, monsignor?
LÉONARD: The purpose of life is to prepare for a life that never perishes. We are on a launch platform, so to speak. We can use the years we spend here on earth to get to know God, so that we are not homeless when we come to Him later. The purpose of life, in other words, is to know the deeper meaning of our existence as well as possible. Why do I exist? What am I doing here? What is the ultimate goal of this existence? And I find all those answers thanks to my faith.
How can someone who lost it, rediscover his faith?
LÉONARD: By being open to the figure of Christ in the gospel. Or by getting in touch with people who witness of a deep faith. Or by doing what Charles de Foucauld did. He was a French soldier in the late nineteenth century who had lost his faith and led a very frivolous life. Looking for peace, he walked into a church and there he uttered a spontaneous and honest prayer. I have often recommended this prayer to my students in Louvain. Seigneur, mon Dieu, si vous existez, manifestez-vous à moi. God, if you really exist, reveal yourself to me. That is the only thing you can do, being willing to open your heart to God.
Joël De Ceulaer