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Dying beliefs

Héctor Abad Faciolince takes a critical look at modern life prolonging methods in the context of religious faith

Prince Rainier is into his tenth day in the reanimation unit at a clinic in the Principality of Monaco. Terri Schiavo spent 15 years confined to a hospital bed with serious brain damage, unconscious and in a vegetative state with feeding tubes. In the end they disconnected her and she died 15 days later. In the past few months Pope John Paul II has been given a tracheotomy to enable him to breathe and feeding tubes to the stomach. His faithful were shown him only from behind so that they could not see his artificial respiration and on several occasions he was taken to Rome’s Gemelli hospital. All three are, or were, under the complete control of doctors.

President Bush calls such barbarity and therapeutic frenzy
the “culture of life”, though little does it seem to bother this lover of life that he is at the same time the great standard bearer of the death penalty.

In addition to the technical and medical instruments aimed at prolonging life, priests and believers generally also possess spiritual and supernatural tools for prolonging life: sacrifices, prayers and devotions. This Friday 1st April, while the Pope is agonising, the church’s Communion and Liberation movement is inviting all Catholics throughout the world to recite the rosary to beg for the health of His Holiness. Not only are they having recourse to earthly instruments of reanimation; they are also having recourse to the life beyond.

Perhaps I am being naïve, but I frankly do not understand this. After all, aren’t we supposed to believe that if someone has lived a holy life then on dying they will go to heaven? Isn’t this senseless attachment rather impious or lacking in hope? It would be comprehensible in someone who does not believe in a life beyond. But if someone is certain of an afterlife, why cling to this life after having lived out one’s natural limits?

I once had an uncle who was a priest, Father Luis. At the end of his long existence on earth he suffered more ailments than the Pope. He was a simple man of serene, unshakable faith who in the last months of his life constantly repeated the same sentence: “Oh, I can’t wait to reach heaven to see what it’s like!” When Uncle Luis finally fell ill, he didn’t ask to be taken to hospital to be given serum, oxygen, stomach tubes and all those things which prolong life and would only accept analgesics to ease the pain. He had much desire to reach Paradise and much confidence that he would do so. He never asked about his health except to say: “When is my God going to remember me?”

There is a short story by Miguel de Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, mártir, which recounts the anguish of a priest who has lost his faith. He has turned atheist but keeps up all the forms and pantomime of his ministry and preserves them for his faithful as religious consolation, which he sees as a treasure in providing a tranquil acceptance of death for those final moments of life. I sometimes suspect that, just like this fascinating character of Unamuno’s, many of the church’s hierarchs, for all their theological studies and vain invocations of the deaf powers on high, have also turned atheist, or at the least very sceptical. For if this is not the case, one cannot understand this great attachment to life on earth, especially when these people have lived as saints and can be sure that they are about to enter Paradise, a place of spiritual delight where they will no longer know any suffering.

With the development of increasingly advanced science and medical technology it is possible to prolong life for weeks, months and even years in people who have no chance of regaining conscience. When the mind is dead, the body’s attachment to life, which for many is a very spiritual inclination, reveals in the end a certain contempt for what most humans have: the capacities of understanding, perception and consciousness of our actions. Anyone who has had a relative with any sort of severe mental illness, for example Alzheimer’s, knows very well that there are times when bodies last longer than minds. This is especially so if we agree that the human mind consists, among other things, in the ability to think, to will and to give an account of our thoughts or desires.

The Pope is agonising and for the first time, according to a Vatican spokesman, he has refused to go back to the Gemelli hospital contrary to the wishes of his closest collaborators. He has expressed his wish to die in his own bed in his own rooms and to remain unconnected to a thousand instruments in an intensive care unit. It seems that he is finally going to be able to rest. However, his collaborators are not resting: just today, 1st April, while the Pope is agonising, there has been an announcement of the appointment of 18 new bishops in various dioceses throughout the world. John Paul II appointed 114 of the 118 cardinals who will elect his successor. But to his closest aides it seems that not even this is enough to give them confidence and they are clinging to power right up until the Pope’s last breath.

Note: This article was published for the first time by JUST Response on April 2 2005. Héctor Abad Faciolince is a leading Colombian journalist, novelist and academic who resides in Medellín.

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