By Melissa Lauber
Sixty eight years ago, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin was born to Mary, an immigrant seamstress, and Joseph, a stone cutter. Last fall when he died, he was one of the most powerful forces in the Roman Catholic Church and leader of the 2.3 million member diocese of Chicago.
Last August, news of the cardinal's struggle with pancreatic cancer interrupted a broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game.
Upon learning he had just a short while to live, Bernardin threw himself into ministering to the sick and dying -- personally answering letters from hundreds of other cancer patients and reaching out in prayer to thousands who sought his blessing.
In his journey toward death, Bernardin drew upon a theology that he refined in 1983. Called to develop the church's response to nuclear weapons, he then expanded those thoughts to include "one consistent ethic of life" that addressed such concerns as war, the death penalty, abortion and assisted suicide.
Bernardin concluded that life is a gift of God and must consistently be treated in that manner.
Just a few days before his death, Bernardin sent a letter to the Supreme Court, now considering the constitutional right to choose when to die. In the letter he wrote: "There is much that I have contemplated these last few months of my illness. But as one who is dying, I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life. Creating a new right to assisted sucide will endanger society and send a false sginal that a less than 'perfect' life is not worth living."
He urged the justices to rule accordingly.
While Christians everywhere are moved and humbled by Bernardin's determination to face death with faith, they still find themselves torn over the issues he wrestled with during his final months.
Is assisted suicide a means to allow those whose lives have been swallowed into caverns of pain and suffering an opportunity to die with dignity? Or, is it humanity extending its reach to play at being divine by extinguishing the flames of life lit with intention by God?
As the issue of assisted suicide gathers increased attention in the public arena, good people on both sides of this issue disagree. But that is to be expected. They have disagreed since the beginning of history. Socrates, one of the world's greatest thinkers, died in 399 BCE in what is considered by some to be history's first recorded suicide.
Although he faced a death sentence, Socrates had resigned himself to being found guilty by a jury of his peers. Choosing "not to be ridiculous" for "sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit," he accepted a cup of hemlock from his friends who grieved him as "the wisest, the justest and the best."
Never one for silence, Socrates first spoke on the goodness of death and concluded, Plato recorded, with the words: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways - I to die, and you to live. Which is better only God knows."
Such sentiments often make many modern people uncomfortable. In our society death is often viewed as a defeat, made sterile by clinical detachment and spoken of in hushed tones. But the reality is that 2.2 million people in the U.S. die each year. Rather than being something natural and respected, about which people of faith can speak with a clear voice, death has become unnatural. It no longer stands as a respected, final right of passage. Instead, Christians have abdicated their role in helping people understand dying to those in the medical and legal professions.
Before 1950, more than 70 percent of all deaths in the U.S. occurred at home amid rituals handed down over many generations. For those in and around the deathbed it was an experience, says Elizabeth Kubler Ross, "of walking together up to the gates of heaven."
Today, more than 70 percent of people die in hospitals where medical science can alter nature's courses with an astounding array of death defying measures. Such measures first captured the imagination of the nation in 1975 when the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan fought a lengthy legal battle to allow their daughter to die. Quinlan was being kept alive in a nursing home, in a permanent vegetative state with no hope of recovery. They were eventually granted the right to remove her from life support systems.
In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Nancy Cruzan and legalized the growing public perception that the medical community can play a passive role in respecting an individual's right to die.
But when that role becomes active, and means must be provided to enable a person to end his life, a more ethically sensitive issue arises and the assisted suicide debate heats up.
Those on one side, like Austin Barnstable who suffered from chronic progressive multiple sclerosis and took his own life in May, ask the question: "who owns my life." Barnstable made his final days a crusade for an individual's right to die. His homepage on the Internet still plays Elvis Presley singing "My Way."
For those who advocate assisted suicide for terminally ill, mentally competent adults, the issue of suffering and quality of life is paramount.
On the other side of the debate are those who believe that "facing that final curtain" lies beyond the hands of the individual. Many of these people are Christians and believe, as Saint Augustine did in the 13th century, that suicide (assisted or not) violates one's natural desire to live, harms other people and flaunts the gift of life, which is given and must be taken by God.
Those who speak out against assisted suicide often say they fear abuses that will lead to involuntary assisted suicide, and perhaps even genocide of groups of people the powerful feel are unworthy of life.
In the midst of these two camps, lies a large majority of the religious and secular communities. For them, Socrates' legacy of the Socratic method sometimes helps put the issue in perspective.
The Socratic method arose from Socrates' practice of roaming about Athens asking questions of everyday people. He would, for example, enquire of a well-known general about the meaning of courage; or ask someone who held sincere religious beliefs about the meaning of piety. His questions often led to new understandings of these large concepts.
Socrates did this as a test of the Delphic oracle, who proclaimed that no man was wiser than Socrates. The philosopher ended up concluding that the oracle was right because most of the people he spoke with thought they knew everything and knew nothing, whereas he both knew nothing and realized he knew nothing.
Socrates believed that "once we recognize what is truly good, we will act in accord with that knowledge." But in the case of assisted suicide people are still searching. In her final words before dying, poet Gertrude Stein asked, "What's the answer? In that case, what is the question?" And philosopher Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe just called out for "More light!"
But as society searches, we are all called to remember the words of Guida Swan: "Death itself is so small a thing compared with a full life," and the legacy of Bernardin, who upon announcing his impending death to the world, said, "perhaps the greatest contribution I can make in my ministry is the manner in which I face death." He filled us all with love, and hope.
Copyright © 1998 Villagelife.org Inc. All Rights Reserved