In today’s divided moral landscape, with thoughtful, well-meaning people on both sides of every issue, there’s no better way to show that you’re a serious thinker than by acknowledging that every controversial issue is “complex.” Even among Christians, for whom scripture should be a guide to life’s challenges, many cling to the idea that issues such as abortion and the end of life are so complex that only a simple-minded person, unable to see two sides of an argument, could possibly take a firm stance.
Two years ago, a Jesuit priest and Dartmouth College alumnus visited parishioners at his alma mater, and I and other Catholic students gathered to hear him after Mass. Myles Sheehan, S. J., was no ordinary priest—he had earned his M.D. three years before donning the cloth, and both his medical and his spiritual vocations had shaped his faith. On the day of his visit, Fr. Sheehan had come to discuss the issue that had spurred him to the priesthood: proper care for the sick and elderly in their final days of life.
He opened his lecture by affirming the Church’s teaching that Catholics must live life to its natural end, a familiar and welcome belief among the folks in the audience that morning. Only his tone betrayed the shift in his thought that would follow. As he spoke the doctrine of life, he seemed to think it not only familiar but almost trite. He hurried through it the way an irreverent teen might rush through the dinnertime grace.
With these pro forma pieties out of the way, Fr. Sheehan let us know why he had really stopped by. His decades as an anatomical pathologist had allowed him to see what so many Church scholars never could. Yes, he repeated, we must care for our neighbors until their natural ends—but what could be more unnatural than our costly, hopeless attempts to preserve our loved ones despite terrible pain and imminent death? To Fr. Sheehan, the Church’s insistence on natural death wasn’t the problem. The issue was the simplistic thinkers in the clergy and laity who couldn’t grasp that complicated matters like the end of life should prompt us to find depth and “flexibility” in what the Church has to say.
Tables of statistics about medical costs were his tool to cut through the rigid rhetoric on sickness and death. A slideshow tallied the financial burdens that so many families have borne to cover treatment for their ailing parents, often with little improvement to show for their investments. Fr. Sheehan urged us to imagine the money and grief that we could spare ourselves by shaking free of the command to nurture life to its end, and deciding instead to weigh the costs and benefits of our situations. He insisted that a practical moral calculus would help us find the right balance between the preservation of life and our personal needs.
Fr. Sheehan expressed certainty that those who hold firmly to the idea of perseverance through suffering must have no sense of the toll that chronic illness takes on patients and their families. He failed to acknowledge that the entire purpose of the Church’s principles on issues such as the end of life is to create a standard of conduct clear enough to guide believers through their most trying challenges. Living up to the way of life to which God calls us often feels like a burden during our struggles. But ultimately, adhering to the Church’s call is the means by which we attain the peace of God.
The ninth-century French monk Rabanus Marcus described the purpose of God’s burdensome commands in his reflection on the Gospel of Matthew: “The sea is the turmoil of the world; the boat in which Christ is embarked is to be understood the tree of the cross, by the aid of which the faithful having passed the waves of the world, arrive in their heavenly country, as on a safe shore.” The cross, that very inflexible fate to which Christ was called by his Father, is also the vessel that carried him to the good that the Father set out for him. In a similar way, the seemingly impossible command to sacrifice our money and peace of mind to preserve our dying loved ones steers us to cherish life above our own comfort.
Fr. Sheehan and the “moral complexity” school invite us to treat doctrine as a set of guidelines—ideals to live up to in a perfect world, which are always proven unreasonable when considered in the practical terms of real life. Of course faithful Christians constantly mediate between the teachings of the Church and our needs in the moment, but the “moral complexity” mindset tempts us to recast this tendency as a kind of sophistication. We begin to see our ability to find exceptions to every rule as a sign of our depth, setting us apart from the simple-minded believers that Fr. Sheehan repeatedly called the “Catholic Taliban.”
Not a simple mind but rather a committed mind allows us to tune in to the signal of divine wisdom amidst the disorienting trials of the world. Far from being simplistic, obedience during our toughest moments reveals that we are deep enough to suppress our tendency to find excuses to avoid what we know is the best path. Augustine of Hippo, a man who faltered as often as many of us, described the excuses that we think up in tough moments as a dangerous sort of lie—a smokescreen of faulty reason that we conjure to obscure inconvenient truths. The call to preserve life through sickness and suffering often subjects victims and their families to what seems like ceaseless pain. But when the pain does finally cease, and the confusion caused by both the situation and our own attempts to avoid it clears up, we’re left with the clear truth of life’s permanent importance, which no pain should ever be permitted to obscure.
Mene Ukueberuwa is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College and the current Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion.