Former Archbishop of Canterbury backs euthanasia

The former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has sent a message to the Parliament of the Australian state of New South Wales, urging it to pass a euthanasia bill.

In a letter obtained by The Australian addressed to every member of the NSW Upper House, Lord Carey, who is also a member of the House of Lords in the UK, said: “It is not my intention to interfere in a matter that properly belongs to Australian citizens, but I write as a former archbishop of Canterbury who has had a radical change of heart on assisted dying.”

Lord Carey had his Damascene moment back in 2014. To the astonishment of the British public, he  published an op-ed in which he strongly backed an assisted dying bill sponsored by Labor Peer Lord Falconer. Although Anglicans are not united on assisted dying, as on other social issues, he was not speaking for the Church of England. The incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, the de facto head of the Church of England, Justin Welby, has declared that it would be a disaster for the elderly.

In his 2014 essay Carey wrote that the scales had fallen from his eyes after speaking with several dying people:

“I began to reconsider how to interpret Christian theology on the subject. As I did so, I grew less and less certain of my opposition to the right to die. It seemed to me that both the Bible and the character of God laid far more importance on open-hearted benevolence than on upholding this particular law. As I reminded myself, one of the key themes of the gospels is love for our fellow human beings.”

He argued that allowing people to suffer is actually deeply un-Christian: “In strictly observing accepted teaching about the sanctity of life, the Church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain — the very opposite of the Christian message.”

Time has done little to temper Lord Carey’s zeal to spread the Gospel of euthanasia. If anything, he feels more committed.

In yesterday’s letter to the NSW MPs, he says: “I urge you not to consider the religious view to be settled on this matter and that all Christian and religious leaders speak with one mind. It is often thought that this is simply a sanctity of life matter on which most Christians agree. Yet there is a considerable gulf between the leadership of churches and the views of many in the congregations.”

But is proclaiming that the problem of pain is solved by ending the patient rather than the pain authentically Christian?

Put aside for a moment the debate over the morality of a doctor ending a human life. How should Christians approach the pain of the patient? Obviously, as Lord Carey rightly says, they should feel compassion and do as much as possible to end the pain, or palliate it.

But Christianity is not a gigantic aspirin. Jesus cured lepers, but he did not cure all the lepers in Israel. He himself went on to die on a cross in great pain, but also in great peace. So if Lord Carey thinks that the Christian message is that there should be no pain, he is ignoring facts of Christian theology which are proclaimed with every cross on every steeple. The cross shows that people can discover love in suffering.

We will never do away with pain. We do not live in the Garden of Eden. Even if Lord Carey had the most pleasant of lives, surely he has been bitten by a mosquito at some stage.

Yet that mosquito bite, as at least one contemporary philosopher contends, is enough to make life unendurable. In a much-discussed book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, David Benatar argues that any pain whatsoever is too much:

“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad -- a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick -- is worse than no life at all.”

Benatar’s appalling nihilism, based on a utilitarian balance of pleasure against pain, is not necessarily shared by everyone in the assisted dying lobby. But his reasoning is: the bar to make patients eligible for euthanasia keeps falling lower and lower as the notion of “unendurable” passes from excruciating agony to the mere absence of life satisfaction.

Christianity is not, never was, and was never meant to be, a magic potion to take pain away. It only promises to imbue pain with sacrificial love. The idea of uniting oneself to the sufferings of Christ may not make sense to non-Christians. That's a topic too large to be debated today. But an important impulse in every great religious culture, including Christianity, is to seek out some kind of meaning in the inevitability of suffering. The rottenness at the heart the assisted dying movement is that it ignores this completely. All of its other flaws stem from this dismal lack of moral imagination.

As Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived three years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, wrote: “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.”

Pain has a meaning in the Christian message. It’s a pity that a man of Lord Carey’s stature is betraying his faith by proselytising for a gospel which promises death instead of life everlasting.


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