06/28/2011 08:31 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2011

Catholic Political Operatives Follow the Bishops

As I wrote last week, Compassion & Choices welcomes the affirmation by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that religious objection is the foundation of their opposition to aid in dying. The bishops' battle against the medical practice of aid in dying has been vigorous in the past, though cloaked in secular arguments about protecting the vulnerable or promoting palliative care. The statement the USCCB adopted last week asserts "suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ's sacrifice for the salvation of others." It's refreshing and important to see that theological rationale established at the forefront of political opposition to aid in dying.

Never would I intrude in another person's expression of religious faith and belief. I have no desire to interfere with those who wish to emulate the Passion of Christ on their death bed. Thomas Lynch wrote eloquently about his mother embracing this framework for her suffering in his delightful book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. His deeply respectful and loving description is enormously moving.

The Conference of Bishops was already clear in its opposition to aid in dying. So one wonders about the purpose of this new statement. As LifeSiteNews reported:

During a 2004 meeting of the bishops of the United States an agreement was made to sanction Catholic politicians who support abortion.  At a press conference today at the 2011 Spring General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), LifeSiteNews asked if those same sanctions would apply to Catholic politicians who support assisted suicide.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities replied that the question of sanctions has not "been completely addressed internally."  He did, however, stress that once approved, the new policy statement on assisted suicide - which is to be voted on by the bishops Thursday - would be made known in the public square, "and the political square as well."

As soon as the Bishops voted, lower level operatives went to work in "the political square." It got personal. "AID IN DYING" CROWD LOVES ABORTION wrote Catholic League president Bill Donohue, characterizing our supporters as "those who delight in helping people die," and slandering some - by name - with epithets like "gay phenom" and "notorious." No facts accompanied these accusations. Donohue falsely calls me "a champion of abortion rights," when I've taken no public position on access to abortion. I can think of no reason to link me and other aid-in-dying supporters to abortion except to tap into a ready-made pool of anger, hate and violence.

The policy statement itself claims, "Leaders of the 'aid in dying' movement in our country have also voiced support for ending the lives of people who never asked for death, whose lives they see as meaningless or as a costly burden on the community."

This kind of reckless, unsubstantiated accusation, and demagogic attacks on the character and loyalty of political adversaries is what we call McCarthyism. If it alarms you to see the Catholic Bishops playing this kind of slanderous hardball, consider what happened next.

Five days after the bishops spoke, Patrick Reilly, in Crisis Magazine, named five aid-in-dying sympathizers within the Church: theologians, bioethicists and law professors on the faculty at Jesuit universities. Because their views conflict with the bishops' on end-of-life choice, Reilly says "they violate the mission of a Catholic university" and recommends censorship. Do such accusations of impurity in thought not echo our nation's darkest history of blacklisting intellectuals? Will tenure track interviewers soon inquire, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of any organization that supports aid in dying?"

Many religious scholars believe Catholic teaching derives not only from the Bishops, but also from the wisdom of the faithful (sensus fidelium), and the wisdom of theologians. "Real people bear both the grace and the burden of thinking," wrote John J. Hardt in America, The National Catholic Weekly, "as the church does about the meaning of living and dying." Or as Lisa Fullam has written in Commonweal Magazine,

[O]ur tradition has been enlivened time and time again by dissenters who voiced positions in tension with that of current magisterial teaching. I'm not referring to mere cranks, but informed and faithful dissent which serves to call the Church to reexamine itself on matters of importance.

Dismissing all dissent within the Church as immature and unbalanced hardly contributes to our reputation as a tradition of fearless inquiry. Rather, we are seen as people who think in mindless lockstep. Why should people outside the Church engage in dialogue with a magisterium which disallows dialogue and respectful disagreement internally?

Some, however, see such dissent as disloyalty. Mr. Reilly, whose Crisis article named names, is president of the Cardinal Newman Society, "a national organization to advocate and support the renewal of genuine Catholic higher education." "Genuine" I gather means "without dissent."

Unsubstantiated character assassination. Lists of disloyalists. These are the tactics that in the '50s led Americans to wonder, as Army attorney Joseph Welch asked aloud of Joe McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"