HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Pope, His Health and Thoughts about Death

William Buckley wrote a column last week in which he discussed some of his views about death and dying and the new technologies that permit us to prolong out lives and some of the harms that come about due to these technologies.   He specifically focused on the health of Pope John Paul and explained his reasons for no longer praying for his recovery.   His column concludes,

So, what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings? And for the opportunity to pay honor to his legacy by turning to the responsibility of electing a successor to get on with John Paul's work? Muriel Spark commented in "Memento Mori": "When a noble life has prepared old age, it is not decline that it reveals, but the first days of immortality." That cannot be effected by the hospital in which the pope struggles.

In response to that article, Phil Steiger of the "Every Thought Captive" blog provides some further insight into the use of new technologies to extend people's lives, perhaps in ways that are unhealthy rather than healthy.  He states,

I agree that one of the clear benefits of biotechnology is health-I am personally counting on science to save me from diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The current situation with the Pope, however, provides us with a possible example of life extending technologies not being an unqualified good. We might be up against a wall that will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome-the inevitability of aging and decay. There are two important and conflicting forces at play when we decide to extend life beyond what may be “natural.” On the one hand is the inevitable fact that as we age we decay and deteriorate physically, and on the other hand are technologies which seek to extend physical life. In other words, the promise of life extending technologies is that we will lead longer lives healthier-we will be younger longer. But the reality at this point is that we lead longer lives without our health-we are older longer. (emphasis in original).

The two pieces provide some helpful guidance on how various individuals with differing backgrounds view death and long life.  [bm]

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I admire William F. Buckley and I see his point about refraining from praying for the Pope to continue to live, but God may have further use of the Pope in mind. Even someone as brilliant as Buckley can't know whether God does or doesn't. I think that He does.

As for the thoughts of Phil Steiger about life extending techologies not being an "unqualified good", I wonder what he defines as "good".

In fact, I prefer Peggy Noonan's column on the issue especially where she says:

"What should the pope's suffering tell us? Several things, said Mr. Novak. He is telling us it is important in an age like ours to honor the suffering of the old and the infirm. He wants us to know they have a place in life and a purpose. He not only says this; he lives it. He was an actor as a youth; he teaches by doing and showing, by being. His suffering is a drama he is living out quite deliberately. John Paul stands for life, for all of life. He wants to honor what the world does not honor."

A "good" life is not limited to those where the life comfortable and easy.

Posted by: Jerri Lynn Ward | Feb 18, 2005 11:26:19 AM

I wasn't entirely sure from reading Buckley's piece whether he was praying for the Pope's death because a) death is preferable to suffering for anyone in the Pope's condition, or b) the Pope's decision not to abdicate in the face of crippling physical ailments is harmful to the Church.

Posted by: Carey Cuprisin | Feb 18, 2005 11:41:23 AM

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