The Pope and Mrs. Shiavo

Terry Schiavo  has passed, and the pope is not far behind. As if in rebuttal, the little tufts of grass on my lawn are puffing up and greening in a small pageant of renewal.

To obsess as a culture, a world, over a life over or nearly over seems odd, misplaced, as lives in full are threatened daily, hourly, by the very circumstances we create for ourselves–in war, poverty, and all those conditions and crimes we assign to the realm of the inevitable.

And here are those crying, mourning souls all bent out of shape over ends which truly are, or were, inevitable. Schiavo has been, from her own perspective, gone for 15 years. Now her body can rest too, its marionette strings cut, the puppeteers given the pink slip. They will find another poor soul to symbolize before too long, and we’ll start this sidewalk theatre over again.

The Pope, in an odd convergence, has a feeding tube inserted as they remove Schiavo’s. He too is on that inevitable path, but why not keep him alive? He is alive, after all, not dead like Schiavo was. Yet the same madness that insisted on animating her corpse for fifteen years may steal the life from His Holiness prematurely, because just as the Catholic law forbids taking–or preventing–life against God’s will to create it, it also forbids “extraordinary means” for preserving life against God’s will to end it. The philosophy is simple: don’t interfere with God’s process for life. But medicine complicates the question, and now, suddenly, it seems we need an answer.

Do we? How do we formulate a single answer for conditions so wide-ranging in their prognoses, and in the quality of the life we may save? Do we revive our 93-year-old grandma after her third heart attack, or do we accept the body’s end? Do we pull the plug on 60-year-old Dad because, even though there’s a chance he could recover, he’s costing $12,000 a week to keep alive?

The Pope wants his suffering to symbolize Christ’s suffering, he wants to share it and display it to the world in a show of faith. Now, he is silent. Like it or not, others will have to decide for him how long the show must go on. And, not incidentally, the church needs a pope. One who talks. Can he keep his job with a ventilator down his throat? If he’s relieved, will his suffering still symbolize Christ’s? Or is he at that point just a disturbed, dying old man? I don’t want to answer. But the questions do not go away.

Schiavo may or may not have wanted her life ended once her brain was beyond recovery. To my mind, it makes little difference what they did or didn’t do once she reached that point. We have certain predilections when we live, and once we’re gone they really don’t matter. Not to us. But they matter to the living. Now if only the living who have the luxury to worry about such things could get excited about what the rest of the living want–food, homes, safety, good government, and all those things that make life worthwhile.

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