I HAVE no wish to appear -IL either as an avant-gardeist or as an integralist, nor to involve myself in an argument about what teaching is and what is not infallible. But I should like to get clear what we are supposed to believe about this business of dying and killing. What I was brought up to believe was something like this. We were told to confront the adventure of death with dignity and not to make a morbid fuss about it when it struck either ourselves or other people.
I remember when I was a schoolboy I composed for my own comfort a poem on the death of one of the masters for whom I had a high regard. The master was not in the least dead—in fact, was in vigorous and offensive health—but I enjoyed the exercise. I was not then a Catholic and I suppose that this was not a Catholic thing to have done.
The teaching, as I was given to understand it. was that death, though not a great evil, was yet a matter that God had kept peculiarly in His own hands. I must therefore neither kill anybody else nor commit suicide myself. Beyond that I must indeed do all that I could to prolong life. Doctors took their Hippocratic oath not merely not to kill but to do all that they could to keep their patients alive. All the rest of us were under obligation, if the occasion came to us, to save people's lives.
Commandment not absolute All this seemed plain enough and sensible enough. I had no difficulty in rejecting with some horror the sophistries of those who argued about some allegedly undesirable person that he would be better dead. It was not for them to make such judgments.
But then 1 was told—and so far it was reasonable enough—that the commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill was not absolute. There were special circumstances where it was no sin to kill. The Church was not absolutely pacifist. There were just wars in which one might fight.
I was, it is true — and indeed still am a little shocked to find how little attention so many Catholics both in the past and even today often seemed to pay to the very strict rules required by the Church before we may call a war a just war, how ready they were to plunge themselves without question into any war that their country happened to be fighting.
I was a little shocked when Catholics supported capital punishment without any real consideration of whether there was evidence that it was a uniquely effective deterrent and therefore likely to reduce the total volume of killing, and very shocked that in the past. if not now. some Catholics seem to have defended capital punishment for crimes other than murder. But these were defects in the conduct of Catholics, not in the teaching of the Church.
When we came to abortion I was told that abortion was the killing of an innocent baby and absolutely forbidden. I was told that even when the mother's life was in danger the child must be preferred to her. This latter was indeed a harsh teaching. In the past, when the death of women in childbirth was common it was of enormous practical importance. I was very glad that in our time medical progress had made the dilemma largely academic.
Doctors' and parents' duty
I was taught that euthanasia was wrong. I thanked God that, like the great majority of parents, I had been blessed with normal and healthy children and therefore never confronted with the agonies of how to treat a grossly deformed infant. But I did not doubt that, whatever its physical defects, a deformed child was possessed of an immortal soul and that it was the duty of parents and doctors and others to keep it alive.
When the mother of a thalidomide baby in Liege killed her child, I would have said that I would not have taken it on myself to impose any savage penalty on one who had been faced with a horror so vastly greater than any that I had ever been called on to suffer, but that nevertheless there was no doubt that she had done wrong.
Yet now we are told, not by some suspect avant-gardist but by a Curial theologian, Archbishop Lambruschini, writing in the Vatican Osservatore della Dominica that "Parents are free to put a seriously handicapped baby in an incubator or let it die.
"Ordinary children must indeed be kept alive, but "When children are abnormal —for instance, suffering from mongolism—one can neither ban nor impose in the name of Christian conscience recourse to incubators which would prolong a life of hardship and sacrifice . .
"Nothing can be done directly to abbreviate human life, but at the same time one may omit some extraordinary measures to extend life under conditions of particular plight.
The teaching is, it seems, that Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive Officiously to keep alive —at any rate under certain circumstances. What is abnormal? We are given an example of abnormality but no definition of it. What is required is something very different from the full Hippocratic oath—merely that one should not oneself strike the fatal blow. I am surprised that this pronouncement has not aroused more interest.
I take no side about it, but, if it represents true Catholic teaching, it would surely seem to follow that Catholics should be very careful of the exact language that they use when they talk about such matters as abortion, euthanasia, or the not very accurately named 'testtube' babies, and not indulge in the cries of Woe, woe' and the full-rounded denunciation of other people's opinions to which some so easily resort.