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In Denys Arcand's 2003 film, Les Invasions Barbares, one of the main characters, Remy, decides to be euthanized with a lethal dose of heroin. In the film, "barbarian invasions" refers not to euthanasia but to political movements like nationalism and other "isms" of our culture. However, I suggest that the introduction of euthanasia in the history of Western civilization does in fact represent a form of barbarian invasion.
I predict that as euthanasia becomes more widespread in Canadian culture, we will witness more bizarre and disturbing stories emerging. I think of George and Shirley Brickenden who went public last year with their decision to be euthanized together on the same day, after almost 73 years of marriage. Kelly Grant of the Globe and Mail reported their story and confessed her own unease: "As I left my interview with the Brickendens, I couldn’t help feeling slightly perplexed by their decision to die now. They still appeared sharp, vibrant and elegant."
Mrs. Brickenden's health may have been failing, but Mr. Brickenden was robust enough to be refused his request for euthanasia by the first doctor he consulted. Perplexity is one reaction. Another is abhorrence at this aberration of a desire for death that runs counter to our natural human instinct for life.
Rather than an advance in our civilization, it is an example of barbarism cloaked under the guise of civil law and white medical uniforms.
For Christians, the Word of God is not only the basis for Church teaching but also the revelation of the ultimate reality, the truth about humanity and God. The essence of the human person is fully revealed in Christ. The Gospel of John reminds us that Christ came to give us power to become children of God. The human person is not defined first and foremost as an individual, but primarily as a son or daughter of God. That is our essential identity.
It means we are not completely autonomous individuals, but rather dependent beings. We are totally dependent, for both life and love, on the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even though Jesus is equal in divinity to the Father, as the Son he proclaimed and lived His total dependence on the Father: "The Son can do nothing on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing."
If the immortal Son was pleased to be dependent on His Father, so much more does this truth apply to us mere creatures.
In the history of Western culture, it may be difficult to define the exact moment when the concept of the individual clearly emerged. Certainly, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment highlighted the importance of the individual. This general concept of the human person as an individual is not at all in conflict with revelation.
But in the 20th century, a more radical understanding evolved, of the human person as a completely autonomous being. Gaudium et Spes, a document of Vatican II, responded to this myth of autonomy with admirable succinctness: "Without the Creator, the creature would disappear."
I have argued elsewhere that one of the principal motives pushing some people toward opting for euthanasia is a fear of suffering. Even though modern palliative care is very advanced in pain management, doctor-assisted suicide can still be seen as a means of escaping the anticipated suffering of a slow and painful death. But here I would like to propose that those who would choose euthanasia are inclined toward a specific philosophical disposition and anthropology – perhaps unconsciously – of a definition of the human person as a completely autonomous being.
A case in point: In an article by Peter Stockland, he cites the example of Dr. Wiebe. She euthanized a psychiatric patient and "saw the issue as one of a clear-cut human right to autonomy."
For believers in God, in the words of St. Paul in Romans, "None of us lives as his own master and none of dies as his own master. While we live we are responsible to the Lord and when we die we die as his servants. Both in life and in death we are the Lord's."
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Our death is meant to be the return of a gift. Christians with a sound anthropology know that we are primarily sons and daughters – not autonomous beings who possess life as our private property.
Our life is a gift from God, temporarily on loan to us for a short span. At the end, God is hoping we will surrender to Him in love, return the gift, then receive from Him a reward of unfathomable proportions, of our resurrected bodies and eternal life. It is interesting to note that Pope Saint John Paul II, in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, spoke of Christ's Resurrection as a gift from the Father. Christ's life was a "sacrifice that the Father accepted, giving, in return for this total self-giving by his Son . . . his own paternal gift, that is to say the grant of new immortal life in the Resurrection."
If this is true of the divine Son of God, how much more for us creatures who can only receive the resurrection and eternal life as an unmerited gift.
The Gospel of John asks, "Who is it that conquers the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"
This faith is victorious over all types of barbarian invasions. In 430 AD, St Augustine endured a barbarian invasion of his beloved Carthage. He died during the Vandal siege of his city. These particular barbarians carried not only the implements of warfare but also a pernicious heresy. They were Arians who did not profess faith in the full divinity of Christ. They were successful in their invasion of the city, but their heresy did not last, as the Church successfully countered and nullified the Arian heresy. Augustine himself may have died, but the truth of his writings not only endured, but helped shape Western civilization.
It is a good reminder that despite all the upheavals in society and culture, truth always triumphs in the end. Christians can be confident guardians of the truth and the deposit of faith entrusted to us by Christ. Let us hold fast to the faith we profess and be unafraid to constantly proclaim it not only from the pulpits but also in the public square, trusting in the eventual victory of Christ – the way, the truth and the life.
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