It’s easy to consider the term “Culture of Death” as mere hyperbole and polemicizing by orthodox Catholics, akin to the cries of “statism/socialism” thrown out by talk-radio. Indeed, social discourse in both directions has become stained with hyperbole, with everyone trying to out-Hitler one another such that we’ve lost the art of separating ideas from people, of friendly intellectual scrums between opposing debaters whose final resolution lies at bottom of a pint of scotch ale. The term “Culture of Death,” however blustery and talk-radio it might appear, is a philosophically sound and prophetic concept put forward by John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae.
The Church has always stood a half step apart from the spirit of the age, able to examine it with the objectivity of a grandmother who has seen all nature of things circulate in and out of the world. There is nothing new under the sun, she says, and when she gives a warning, the wise one ought to turn up his ears rather than his nose. For all the talk about “ivory tower intellectuals in Rome” and “Celibate old men who don’t know how the world works” a Church that has spent 2012 years staring down the human condition has a better idea of where things lead, how one thing gives way to another, than someone caught in the slipstream of the culture, moving where it moves.
When she talks about the culture of death, she is observing over the course of a century not only the degradation of societies’ moral foundations but the increasing number of ways in which the life and dignity of the human person is being compromised. She is seeing the recirculation of actions against life which had once been thought eradicated. She sees the gaps in the social framework where Moloch slips in and all of the ornate and perfumed disguises he covers himself with,
So what is meant by the “Culture of Death”? Quite simply it is one in which violations against human dignity have become commonplace. The pope identifies the Culture of Death as one in which the powerful turn against the weak, treating them as means to an end or as obstructions to be done away with. In this he points out the various forms of oppression that human beings visit on one another such as human trafficking and prostitution, forced labor, subhuman living conditions, ideologically motivated mass-killings, mutilation and torture. Next to these he places examples of how violations of human dignity have surreptitiously crept into the culture, becoming socially acceptable, entering medical practice and human discourse and wrapping death in the guise of compassion or autonomy: particularly abortion and euthanasia.
Indeed, “death” in this culture doesn’t merely appear as a soldier with a machine gun mowing down student protesters, or a concentration camp guard shoveling corpses into an oven. It also appears as a doctor with a lethal shot of morphine and a compassionate smile, an abortion clinic worker kindly and non-judgmentally assuring the frightened pregnant woman that what is inside her is mere tissue. Death thus becomes fused to ideas of compassion, healing and mercy. It is not, as in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, treated with a certain combination of dread respect…that respect you would give to a lion about to tear you to bits. It is upheld as a form of pain relief, a way to relieve suffering, indeed something to be preferred if one’s own life, or the life of someone in your care, would be burdensome or difficult.
With the legalization of abortion, the practice of medicine became radically altered. Prior to this, the notion of doctors killing was seen as the worst type of abomination, hence the strong language the bible uses against “poisoners” (sometimes interpreted as “witches”) or those who used knowledge of herb-lore and medicine to kill rather than to heal. Indeed, the Hippocratic Oath drew a solid and unbreakable line against using knowledge of the body to do harm to it. Of course there were always doctors and midwives who performed death-bringing procedures, but these were exceptions, often excluded and ostracized from the practice of medicine. Within one generation, this millennial boundary so carefully drawn to keep Doctors on the side of healing, was destroyed. Doing harm via abortion has become such an intrinsic part of obstetrics that most doctors will ask a recently diagnosed pregnant woman if her child is “wanted.” Along with all of the requisitions for lab-work handed to her on her first obstetrical visit is automatically placed the “genetic screening forms.” Genetic screening is only done for one reason, in order to pre-determine if the unborn child carries any abnormalities so that, upon a positive diagnosis, it can be aborted in a timely fashion.
Just as it was with abortion, so now it is becoming with euthanasia. Although euthanasia is yet to be legalized on the mass-level that abortion is, little by little the culture is spinning it as something positive. Death is now being pushed as a remedy for pain, as a means to attain peace in the midst of a grave illness. Images of happy suicides, of people ending their own lives in order to spare others the “bother” of taking care of them, or in order to die in a peaceful, painless manner are repeating themselves throughout the mass media, playing on people’s emotions and drawing on their love for their family members and friends who are suffering. More and more, death is putting itself forward as the only compassionate alternative.
In this sense, the Culture of Death turns quality of life into a weapon against life itself. Promoting the avoidance of suffering via the avoidance of life, especially the lives of those whom according to the Pope most need protection and love, those who are vulnerable and weak. Beyond the creep of death into the realms of human activity once consecrated to life such as childbearing and medicine, there is an equivalent degradation of respect for life, such that, in the pope’s words, “A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated.” Thus children are better aborted than handicapped or born into poverty, elderly people better euthanized than taking up a bed in a hospital. The mask of compassion, which made it look attractive to people afraid of suffering, begins to slip off. Eventually it becomes, not an issue of rare and tragic cases, but a practice so common its practically expected. Hence those women who carry a Downs child to term are heaped with scorn. Children with genetic defects are denied life-saving organ transplants, even if their own relatives offer to be donors. The elderly and terminally ill are coaxed by medical personnel and their own families to “end their suffering once and for all” and individuals internalize the death mandate such that upon a terminal diagnosis they fear more “becoming a burden to loved ones” than suffering itself.
This is the Culture of Death.