Articulating a Distinctly Christian Approach to Suffering

Someone has observed that when a revolutionary group wishes to wage war on what Christians hold to be sacred, the first--and most effective--strategy is to co-opt language in the service of the cause. It is therefore not surprising that proponents of physician-assisted death routinely speak in terms of "compassion" and human "dignity." As they seek to expand their agenda both on a popular level and in the context of policy debates, the rhetoric of compassion allows them to capture the moral high ground.

Current debates over bioethical and health care issues, to a large extent, are indeed battles over words and their meanings. Consider contemporary usage of the word "compassion." Like the term "dignity," "compassion," which means literally "to suffer with," is a word used often in both secular and Christian communities. Both groups invoke the term in articulating their response to human suffering. This is particularly the case in debates over sustaining and ending life.

On the one hand, secular folk will claim to operate in the name of compassion. To the extent that suffering constitutes the ultimate evil, the relief of suffering is seen as the greatest good. Suffering, in the eyes of contemporary culture, is meaningless and hence to be avoided at all costs and by all means. For this reason, abortion and euthanasia--and to a lesser extent, infanticide--receive substantial popular support. Why? Because they are perceived as necessary to end present--or prevent future --suffering. Each, therefore, becomes a "compassionate choice." As it relates to end-of-life issues, the reality of suffering imbues a person with both a moral and legal "right" to die.

From a technological and research standpoint, the elimination of suffering is typically touted as a primary goal in debates over genetics and end-of-life issues. The drive to eliminate suffering, however, does not necessarily spring from authentic compassion for people who are in pain or suffering. As Christians, we must beware. Such a drive may, rather, be the result of a utopian desire to rid society of its imperfections by means of technology. Not surprisingly, this unfettered optimism in technological advancement inevitably carries with it a deep-seated bias against traditional religion and moral codes. In a culture in which scientific and biomedical technology flourishes, disconcerting questions will need to be raised by someone. For example, is the desire to eliminate suffering in some cases misguided? Is it possible to find meaning in suffering? What if the desire to eliminate suffering bleaches society of its "humanizing" dimensions such as service of love, sacrifice, compassionate care-giving, community, and growth and development of character such that human beings come to lack these praiseworthy dimensions?

In contrast to its secular counterpart, the classic Christian understanding of compassion (eloquently articulated by Pope John Paul in Salvifici Doloris, and, more recently, in Evangelium Vitae) pleads for our consideration. The pontiff notes that while evil can cause forms of suffering, suffering is not viewed as an evil in and of itself. To illustrate, physical pain is a sensory experience that informs us that some defect has come upon the body. Individuals who lack the sensory ability to detect or feel pain are prone to constant injury and may die prematurely. Similarly, on a psycho-spiritual level, "pangs of conscience" inform us that something within the realm of the soul needs attending. Ultimately, then, the basic knowledge of pain itself is something that is good.

While acknowledging that suffering is not the equivalent of evil, Christian compassion calls us to "suffer with" those who are suffering, using Christ as our model, ever mindful of the redemptive element in suffering. Authentic compassion does not eliminate the sufferer as the means to alleviating suffering itself. The Christian moral tradition has always called us toward compassion for the sick, the unborn, the aged and the dying. It calls us to strive to alleviate suffering, but always with respect for the inviolable sanctity of all human life, irrespective of how fragile.

As people of faith we have a critical--indeed, an irreplaceable--role to fill in the public discussion of life and death issues. If the Christian community does not foster opposition to our "culture of death," no one will. And opposition to "death on demand" as a means of eliminating suffering must be the corporate expression of Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox working together with like-minded individuals in common-cause witness to our culture. We must also ensure that our passionate opposition to a culture of death, in which the redemptive character of suffering is fully denied, is validated by compassionate action. Only then will there be sufficient reason to choose life, even in the face of present or future suffering. CBHD

Adapted from "John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering," a paper presented at the "Aging, Death, and the Quest for Immortality" conference, July 19-21, 2001.