Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

Debates around MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) and the pending revisions and amendments to Bill C-7 are raging across the land.  And so they should be.  This is a matter of the highest consequence as it pertains to what we, individually and as a society, understand human dignity, human meaning itself, to consist of.  At heart, at core, the debate(s) should be philosophical and theological because they address what we see as the foundational understanding of human life itself and this raises the contentious issues around personal autonomy, life as gift rather than life as possession, a rights issue not an ontological one, a theocentric as opposed to an anthropocentric appreciation of all matter and its inherent sacredness.

But these are not at the forefront of national discussion as the arguments being marshalled are driven by considerations of compassion, and no one person, collective, or institution has a monopoly on compassion.

I have been moved by the impassioned and yet soundly reasoned positions being put forward by advocates of those with disabilities, especially Toronto writer Andray Domise, who wrote in the Globe and Mail:

We laud our progressive approach to “dignity in death” even while the United Nations stands alarmed at the potential for “subtle pressure” being applied through “lack of services or lack of community living options” in such legislation.

All this has put me in mind of my much valued friend, colleague and co-author, Peter Kavanagh.  A lawyer by training but by vocation a public broadcaster—he was an associate producer for Peter Gzowski’s storied CBC Morningside and then a senior producer for the equally storied Sunday Edition with Michael Enright—and he was a regular contributor to such Catholic publications as The Tablet (London), Commonweal (New York) and The Catholic Register (Toronto).

We worked together for decades; he was the producer and I was the writer or interviewee; and then we wrote a book drawing on our respective expertise that won an ethics award in the United States: Suffer the Children unto Me:  An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal.

 On one occasion we travelled together to Rome for a major conference organized by the International Federation of Catholic Universities (I was on the Executive at the time) and I recall that Peter and I were running behind time, that we needed to be at the inaugural gathering at the Gemelli Clinic, and that Peter was moving at such a slow pace that we arrived late to the palpable annoyance of my academic colleagues.  I was irritated and angry.  But these feelings passed, at least I thought they had.

Many years later Peter published his medical memoir, The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times, and I was full of admiration for his candour and insight and full of shame for my insensitivity.  For in that book Peter outlined at length his lifelong struggle with polio, the constant pain, the agony of confinement, the numerous surgeries to fix his leg, the abiding limitations on mobility and access.

I realized I had no right to be irritated or angry with him and that I had failed him as a friend by being imperceptive, not noticing his pain.  I remember apologizing to him and I remember his response: “No need, I never told you about the pain; I just lived with it.”

And Peter did for several more years, dying eventually of a heart attack during treatment for a recurring cancer.  He taught me more than he ever knew.

People with disabilities often just live with it and do so with quiet dignity, affirming the gift of life, negotiating their value in a society that prizes quantifiable worth at all costs.  As columnist and author John Ibbitson observes:

Our utilitarian society appears to accept that the good of ending unbearable suffering for some surpasses the harm of needless deaths for others.  It’s a hard bargain we’re making.

Too hard and with a payout that diminishes us all.


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