Monday, March 28, 2005

Conservative Christians and Schiavo, One More Time

I have every intention of leaving the Schaivo tragedy alone for the foreseeable future, but there's one more point that needs to be clearly understood in the wake of the Catholic Church's tardy but emphatic embrace of the Schindler family's fight to oppose the withdrawal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.

As Manuel Roig-Franzia documented in an excellent backgrounder in yesterday's Washington Post, the Vatican's position on end-of-life issues has changed in important ways over the last few years, with the Schiavo case serving as a key catalyst in that shift. Here's the key graph:

Before this case, before the pope's statement, even conservatives such as [the U.S. Conference of Bishops' Richard] Doerflinger say there was enough of a debate about the Catholic position that a person could choose which side to take: continue or discontinue tube-feeding. But now the pope and the cardinals have made much more definitive statements that Doerflinger and his polar opposites agree seem to require Catholics to continue with tube-feeding, as long as it "provides nourishment" and "alleviates suffering."

Indeed, this new position arguably overrules centuries of theological precedent holding that withdrawal of food and water in "hopeless" cases, whether self-administered or decided upon by family members and medical personnel, represents a surrender to natural death, not suicide or homicide.

While the Vatican claims its current stance is simply a refinement of traditional teaching to reflect technological developments, it's hard to avoid concluding that what this is really about is an adjustment of end-of-life ethics to comport with the Church's bright-line, hard-lne position on beginning-of-life ethics, i.e., abortion. If so, that shift parallels the same sudden interest in end-of-life issues being exhibited by conservative evangelical Protestants (who are themselves relatively recent converts to the anti-abortion cause).

And that brings me to a broader issue of potentially momentous significance to American religious and political life: the ongoing reduction of theology among Christian conservatives of every stripe to ethical legalism. Check out Laurie Goodstein's useful review of this conservative Christian convergence in last Friday's New York Times.

Many centuries of differences over scriptural interpretation, church structure, liturgy, and every branch of theology other than ethics are rapidly being subsumed in the service of an interdenominational obsession with reproductive, marital, and now, medical ethics. Nearly all of this convergance, moreover, has happened in the last few decades. It's breathtaking.

Now, conservative Christians would argue that this ethical tunnel-vision is a prophetic (or in the case of Catholics, pastoral) response to a secularized modern world that is losing its moral bearings in a way that is unprecedented since the Christianization of Europe under Constantine.

This is, to put it mildly, a rather tough case to make when you consider the savage excesses of ostensibly Christian Europeans over the centuries, not to mention the belief of the early Reformers that Catholic Europe had become actively Satanic. But that's where both the Vatican and its erstwhile critics seem to be headed. And that's why some of us are worried that conservative Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, is being seized by a counter-secularization that confuses defense of traditional, worldly cultural values with fidelity to the Faith.

To be sure, there remain a number of obstacles to a full-fledged conservative religio-political alliance in this country, including the Vatican's increasingly vocal opposition to the death penalty, and to the idea that the United States can define "just wars" as it wishes. And there's plenty of ferment in conservative Protestant circles as well, particularly in terms of the ethical demands of the New Testament, which are not terribly consistent with conservative political orthodoxy on subjects ranging from the environment to care for the poor.

But for the moment, the Schiavo case looks like it may represent an historic highwater mark of the pan-Christian conservative movement, and all the Christian flock should take a good look at where its various shepherds are leading them.

UPDATE: The flip side of the "conservative convergence" I talked about in this post is the ongoing fracture of centuries-old denominations on terms dictated by ethical legalists. See this sad tale from WaPo's Colbert King, about a Ugandan Anglican bishop who refused desperately needed AIDS relief from an Anglican diocese in Pennsylvania as a protest against the ordination of a gay bishop in New Hampshire.
-- Posted at 11:53 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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