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Physician assisted suicide 'demands an energetic response'


Below is the text of Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley's homily at the Red Mass, delivered Sept. 18 at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near, Isaiah urges us this morning. We gather here as seekers. Our life of faith is a quest. St. Paul tells us today: "Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ."

Life as a disciple is not a solo flight; it is more like being on Noah's Ark. Some passengers are getting seasick, part of the crew might be ready for a mutiny. Occasionally there is a man overboard. And yet we are all in the same boat, and it is infinitely better than being in a dingy by yourself. Faith is lived in a community of disciples who share a common vision and a common mission. One learns discipleship the way we learn a language; by being part of a community that speaks that language. And although we are pilgrims in this world, God expects us, as the Jews say, "to repair the world." We must leave it a better place than the way we found it. As Catholic jurists you have a unique responsibility and opportunity to advance this mission to repair the world, to build a civilization of love. Please see your own profession as a vocation, a calling to a life of service, a life of discipleship in Christ's Church.

When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert he based his arguments on passages from the Old Testament, which has given rise to the saying that even the devil can quote Scripture. Ironically those who advocate a strict separation of church and state often quote Jesus words: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Ceasar's and to God the things that are God's." What they often mean by that is "Let's lock God in the sacristy and let Caesar call all the shots." That can be very perilous, especially if Caesar happens to be a blood thirsty ideologue who likes to throw people to the lions.

A couple of months ago Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus came to give a speech at Faneuil Hall to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's inaugural address. Carl Anderson eloquently demonstrates how Kennedy's inaugural address captures the convictions of our nation's founders that "the rights of man come not from the generosity of the State, but from the hand of God."

Our country's democracy is based on the conviction that human rights come from God. The Declaration of Independence states that we are endowed by our Creator with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In declaring this nation's independence the signers of the Declaration stated that the rights cited in their claim were not simply a matter of opinion or even of belief. Rather they were God given rights that could not be taken away by any person or any government. These rights are self evident and those words were unanimously adopted. On this moral foundation, America has staked its claim for liberty.

American Catholics seek neither theocracy nor secularism but a moral way forward for our country. Last year when Pope Benedict was in England he addressed an impressive group of intellectual leaders of Parliament and four prime ministers. In Westminster Hall, the very venue of St. Thomas More's trial and condemnation, the Holy Father stated: "if the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident, herein lies the real challenge for democracy. The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as every economic decision has a moral consequence, so too in the political field the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can fail to ignore."

Pope Benedict asks: "Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of Revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by nonbelievers, still less to propose concrete political solutions which would lie altogether outside of the competence of religion, but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This corrective role of religion is not always welcome, partly because distorted forms of religion such as sectarianism and fundamentalism can be seen to create serious social problems themselves" but "without the corrective supplied by religion, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person." The Holy Father goes on to say that the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue for the good of our civilization.

This month the Attorney General of Massachusetts has certified a petition in support of legalizing physician assisted suicide in our state. It is another attempt to undermine the sacredness of human life that demands an energetic response from Catholics and other citizens of good will.

Today, many people fear the prospect of a protracted period of decline at the end of life. They fear experiencing pain, losing control, lingering with dementia, fear of being abandoned, fear of becoming a burden on others.

We as a society will be judged by how we respond to these fears. We must devote more attention to those who might feel that their life is diminished in value or meaning, they need the love and care of others to assure them of their inherent worth.

Most people, regardless of religious affiliation know that suicide is a tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent. They realize that allowing doctors to prescribe the means for their patients to kill themselves is a corruption of the medical profession. It even violates the Hippocratic Oath that has guided physicians for thousands of years. To quote from that foundational document: "I will not give a lethal drug to anyone even if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan."

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