Friday, March 25, 2005

Judging Life and Death

Many Protestants and Catholics probably recognized the irony in the fact that the Terri Schiavo "right to life" case came to a head during their "Holy Week," in which the faithful contemplate the death and life of Jesus Christ. Schiavo's parents' wishes regarding her fate, pitted against her husband's—and purportedly hers—were argued in courtrooms in Florida, Georgia, and Washington, DC, and in the paneled halls of Congress, which took the unprecedented step of writing a bill for the benefit of one individual. President Bush obliged by signing it into law after midnight, hurriedly flying in from his Texas ranch to seal the deal.

It is no wonder that Terri Schiavo's case has sparked such debate across America, as two opposing values collide within it: the right to life, championed in the Declaration of Independence and by a host of devout advocates, and for lack of a better term, the right to a natural death, the desire of many not to prolong their lives artificially and pointlessly. Also in this case, religious beliefs square off against legal ethics, just as it sets medical ethics against parental love for their child. Surely, this is a case for the wisdom of Solomon!

We in the church of God believe that God is preparing us to be kings and priests in His coming Kingdom (Revelation 5:10), and kings and priests both have the function of judges—one in civil matters and the other in religious matters. If this case were brought before us to judge, how would we rule? What laws or principles would we base our decision upon?

Most of the arguments in the media are emotional. These arguments have their place, but a judge must first consider what is just and true before he has any basis for extending mercy. There must be a standard by which he measures the merits of each side in a dispute, and he rules according to the standard—not according to the fervency of one side's line of reasoning or the background, stature, or acumen of the other party's advocate. God lays out a judge's responsibility in Deuteronomy 16:18-20:

You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. You shall follow what is altogether just. . . . (see also II Chronicles 19:5-7)

The standard a godly judge must follow is, of course, God's law along with the statutes and the judgments. This is how God says it should be done: "In controversy [the priests] shall stand as judges, and judge it according to My judgments. They shall keep My laws and My statutes in all My appointed meetings, and they shall hallow My Sabbaths" (Ezekiel 44:24). This command, by the way, is given to the Millennial priesthood precisely because the priests of ancient Israel failed to judge as God had directed them. God prophesies, "I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city" (Isaiah 1:26).

Obviously, in the Schiavo case, the sixth commandment comes into play: "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). For many, the argument ends right here, for they prioritize a person's right to life above all others. Certainly, the value of any life is precious, but does it trump all others? The monkey wrench in this case is that, without the measures modern medicine has taken, including the insertion of a feeding tube, Terri Schiavo would have been dead years ago. On top of this, several doctors have examined her and concluded that she is essentially brain-dead—in a vegetative state—and has no chance to live a "normal" life. Though her heart is beating involuntarily, her brain has shut down. What is the godly definition of "life"?

Does the fifth commandment come into play? Some might say it does, using it to justify following her parents' wishes over her husband's. Those on the other side of the case might counter with Genesis 2:24: "Therefore a man [or woman] shall leave his [or her] father and mother and be joined to his wife [or her husband], and they shall be one flesh." Which is the more important principle? Whose wishes should the court grant?

Another scripture that could be brought forward is Deuteronomy 19:15: ". . . by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established" (see also Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16; II Corinthians 13:1; I Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28). Though Terri Schiavo did not have a "Living Will," a document that sets out a person's wishes should he or she continue to live only on life-support equipment, her husband and several friends have testified that she expressed her desire to them to be allowed to die naturally if she ever landed in such a circumstance. Does the lack of a piece of signed and notarized paper trump the testimony of more than the required "two or three witnesses"?

Some advocates might even bring up Paul's statement in II Corinthians 5:8, "We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord." Nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist Neal Boortz, who is also a lawyer, has advanced such an argument. Is Terri Schiavo better off dead, awaiting the judgment of God? Or is she better off living out her physical life, lying on a hospice-care bed, and needing constant medical attention?

Being a judge is not so easy, is it? Nevertheless, these and other thorny questions are what a just judge must face—not only in the "big" cases, but also in the routine ones. It is easy to jump to a conclusion that "he is wrong" or "she is right" (Proverbs 18:13, 17), but as the old saw warns, "The devil is in the details." Matters are not always cut-and-dried, which is why God is taking the time to train us in the skill and art of judgment, allowing us to ponder the questions of our time, great and small, and come to wise and godly conclusions without the pressure of having to make the actual decisions.

Take this opportunity to wrap your head around this case and come to a biblically sound conclusion. You may discover a budding Solomonic wisdom in yourself—or an area of understanding that could use some improvement!

Friday, March 4, 2005

John Paul II's Successor

Last week's leading news story dealt with Pope John Paul II's illness, described as a relapse of a viral infection that was making it difficult for him to breathe. He reentered the hospital where he is routinely treated, but his symptoms persisted. Ultimately, doctors performed a tracheotomy on the ailing pontiff, and this seemed to do the trick, as he was soon resting comfortably and eating heartily. He is expected to recover from this bout of illness by Easter.

Nevertheless, his recent ill health—on top of his Parkinson's disease and his 84 years of age—has started observers' tongues wagging (again) about his successor. It is unlikely that any of his closest aides and advisers will become the next Pope, as various factors (for instance, their age) render them improbable candidates. The pope's most important aide is his longtime private secretary, recently elevated Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, 65, but he also closely relies on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 77, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 71, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 77, the Vatican secretary of state. However, these men will have great influence on the College of Cardinals when they meet in conclave within twenty days of the pope's death to elect the next pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

The conventional wisdom runs along the lines of this sentence from a February 24, 2005, Reuters article by Phillip Pullella, "Pope's illness prompts questions about succession": "The Pope has appointed all but three of some 120 cardinals who can enter the conclave, stacking the odds that the new leader will think like him and not tamper with his rulings like bans on contraception and women priests." Those who favor this line of thought consider Ratzinger to be the likely candidate, despite his age, as a kind of transitional figure, allowing some of the younger, conservative cardinals time to age (as many cardinals feel that a 60-year-old papal candidate is too young).

Because 65% of Catholics live in Africa, Asia, and South America, many believe it is time for a non-European Pope. The cardinals could choose an African, Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze, 72, who is known for his expertise on Islam and interreligious affairs. Latin America, which has never produced a pope, could entice electors with "Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 62, a telegenic Honduran; Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 68, of Argentina, who is known for his expertise on social issues; or Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 70, of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the largest diocese in the world's largest Catholic country," opines Julia Duin of the Washington Times in her February 3, 2005 article "Pope's illness stirs talk of succession."

Despite this common prognostication, longtime National Catholic Reporter Vatican correspondent John Allen, Jr., warns that we will be surprised by whom the College of Cardinals picks (Paula Doyle, "Next pope: 'We are going to be surprised,' says Allen," Tidings Online, March 4, 2005). Historically, he says, Popes who "stack" the College with their own appointees fail in getting a successor in their image: "[For instance,] Pope Pius XII appointed all but two of the 51 cardinals who elected his successor, [yet] the next pope elected was the 'strikingly' different Pope John XXIII." He believes that the cardinals will size up John Paul II's strengths and weaknesses and choose someone who will shore up areas that the present pope neglected. Writes Doyle: "Allen said a majority of cardinals that he has interviewed identify the top three challenges facing the church as: internal church governance, growing secularization and the relationship between Christianity and Islam."

Allen sees the College splitting into four voting blocs:

  1. "Border Patrol" — Cardinals who favor strong boundaries between the secular and religious;
  2. "Reform Party" — Cardinals who desire "moving forward with the reforms of Vatican II";
  3. "Social Justice" — Cardinals who "seek to promote understanding across cultural and ethnic divisions"; and
  4. "Integralists" — Cultural warrior Cardinals who "want to see the church's teaching on such issues as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research incorporated into civil law."

As each of these blocs consists of about a quarter of the eligible College members, alliances will have to be made, likely between the first and last groups and between the second and third groups. From that point, they will have to compromise to find a candidate that will "satisfy" the necessary two-thirds majority.

There is no telling when the enduring John Paul II will die, as he has already survived an assassination attempt, Parkinson's, and numerous illnesses. However, we could be in for an interesting papal election within the next year or so. We can be thankful that God is in charge, and the selection will move events forward toward the return of Jesus Christ: "For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God" (Romans 13:1).