Monday, April 18, 2005

The pope, Terri Schiavo, and moral consistency

By Jim Wallis
Source: Sojourners (c) 2005,

It's sadly rare for a church leader, or for the leaders of most of our dominant institutions, to demonstrate a spirituality that attracts millions of people around the world - particularly so many young people. But the scene of millions lining up to simply pass by the body of John Paul II in Rome this week is remarkable indeed. The enormous attraction to this pope goes far beyond agreement with all the positions of the Catholic Church or even all of the decisions of his papacy. Indeed the "ecumenical" and even "interfaith" attraction to John Paul II reflects his own practice of reaching out to more people in more faith traditions than any other pope ever has.

One of the great attractions of Pope John Paul II's spirituality was his consistency. At the core of Catholic social teaching is the idea of a "consistent ethic of life," an ethic that seeks to protect and defend human life and dignity wherever and whenever they are threatened, and which challenges the selective moralities of both the political left and right.

As I've been watching the non-stop coverage of the pope's death, I have been struck by how many people - especially political leaders - would like to claim the pontiff as their own, as someone who affirmed their causes and commitments. At the same time, they tend to ignore the other things this pope said and did that directly challenge their own political decisions.

Many conservatives are pointing to the pope's clear teachings on abortion, euthanasia, and sexual morality, which are often contrary to the positions of many liberals. But they seem to forget the strong and passionate opposition of this pope to the war in Iraq, capital punishment, and the operations of a global economy that neglect the poor and deny human rights for millions. This pope helped bring down communism, but also was no capitalist and constantly lifted up a vision of economic justice. Promoting a "culture of life" was the language of John Paul's papacy before it became the rhetoric of President Bush, and its meaning goes far beyond the narrow interpretations of the Republican Party. Yes, Pope John Paul II certainly opposed John Kerry's views on abortion, but the White House did not get the photo op they wanted when the president visited the Vatican and the pope shook his finger disapprovingly at George W. Bush over the American war in Iraq.

Consistency is deeply attractive to people who long for public integrity - particularly to a new generation. The same lack of consistency in the politically selective eulogies of the pope also characterized the highly politicized responses to the sad story and death of Terri Schiavo.

Personally, I cannot understand why parents willing to take care of their disabled daughter were not allowed to by a husband who had moved on to another life and family. Terri Schiavo was severely mentally disabled but was not dying, and we don't decide to end the lives of many similarly disabled people, even children, whose mental capacities greatly diminish their quality of life. As my wife, Joy Carroll, put it, "the issue is not their quality of life, but the ethical quality of our society." And in situations of medical, scientific, or legal complexity, the morally safer course is always to err on the side of life. However, it became painfully clear that for many political partisans the issue wasn't so much the life of this young woman but other related political issues and agendas. And a leaked Republican memo about firing up the conservative base of the party and even defeating Democratic opponents in Florida were way out of line.

Again, the issue is consistency. Will Schiavo's defenders now also care more about the loss of civilian lives in Iraq or prisoners (even innocent ones) put to death on death row? Will they refuse to accept the silent tsunami that takes the lives of 30,000 children every day due to hunger and disease, or even support the Medicaid funding for vulnerable people that helped sustain Schiavo's life for many years? Somehow I doubt it.

Consistency is spiritually and morally attractive. We didn't see much of it in the tragic drama of Schiavo. But the life of John Paul II is a lesson of its truth and power for all of us.