Sunday, November 16, 2014

Brittany Maynard and the Message of the Parable of the Talents

Kara Tippetts

Maggie Karner

Philip Johnson

(Thirty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 16, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 25: 14-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-third Sunday 2014]

Question: What’s the difference between Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Brittany Maynard?

Answer: Bishop Sheen promoted the idea that “life is worth living” through a long running television program by the same name (a few of you, I know, are actually old enough to remember that show!).  Brittany Maynard, on the other hand, did her best to promote the idea that life is often NOT worth living!

And she had most of the people in the mainstream media doing their best to help her promote that idea.

Sad, but not surprising.

For those who may not know, Brittany Maynard was the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, who killed herself on November 1st in Portland, Oregon—with the help of a “compassionate” doctor who gave her the pills she needed to do herself in.

Now because she announced her intention to kill herself so long in advance, she received quite a bit of national media attention, and she very quickly became the “poster-girl” for all those in our country right now who would like to turn the medical profession into a killing profession.  I’m speaking here especially about groups like “Compassion and Choices”—which used to be known as “The Hemlock Society.”

Gee, if what they stood for was so great, why did they feel the need to change their name?

Please keep in mind, my brothers and sisters, that a skunk by any other name still stinks.  How that applies to “Compassion and Choices” should be obvious.

If it’s not obvious to you, please see me after Mass.

As for Brittany, even though we as Catholics do not approve of what she did, we still pray for her.  We pray that she was not fully culpable for her sin of self-murder, and that God will judge her mercifully.  The Catechism tells us that suicide is “contrary to love for the living God” and “gravely contrary to the love of self” and “offends love of neighbor.” (CCC, 2281)  It’s a sin, in other words, against EVERYONE: God, yourself and other people.  But the Catechism also adds this in paragraph 2283: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

And since we are the Church, the body of Christ, that’s what we should do.

Jesus, in this gospel parable about the talents, makes it clear that God expects us to use the gifts he has given us for his glory and for our neighbor’s good.  As we heard a few moments ago, those who used their talents were commended, and then invited to “share [their] master’s joy” (that’s a clear reference to heaven); whereas the man who buried his talent was thrown out into “the darkness” (that’s an equally clear reference to “the other place”).

The message of this parable certainly applies to the individual gifts and talents that each of us has, but first and foremost it applies to the gift of life itself!

Life, after all, is the Lord’s first gift to us, as well as the necessary precondition for every other gift.  For example, you can’t have a talent for singing or teaching or writing—or anything else, for that matter—if you don’t first exist!

And this is exactly what makes something like suicide so wrong: it takes God’s greatest natural gift—life itself—and hurls it back at him.

“I don’t want it, Lord; take it back!”

Thankfully not everyone who wrote about Brittany (and to her) during the days and weeks before her suicide did so in a positive way.  Some were very critical—although they did express a lot of compassion for her and the terrible trial she was going through.

Here are some of the more noteworthy comments that I came across:

This was from a 38-year-old mother of 4 named Kara Tippetts.  She wrote:

Brittany, your life matters, your story matters, and your suffering matters.  Thank you for stepping out from the privacy of your story and sharing it openly.We see you, we see your life, and there are countless lovers of your heart that are praying you would change your mind.Brittany, I love you, and I am sorry you are dying …I think the telling of your story is important.I think it is good for our culture to know what is happening in Oregon.It’s a discussion that needs to be brought out of the quiet corners and brought brightly into the light.  You sharing your story has done that.  It matters, and is unbelievably important.  Thank you. …Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known.In choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths. …Brittany, when we trust Jesus to be the carrier, protector, redeemer of our hearts, death is no longer dying.  My heart longs for you to know this truth, this love, this forever living.You have been told a lie.  A horrible lie that your dying will not be beautiful.  That the suffering will be too great. …The doctor that prescribed you that pill you carry with you that will hasten your last breath has walked away from the Hippocratic Oath that says, ‘First, do no harm.’  He or she has walked away from the oath that has protected life and the beautiful dying we are granted.  The doctors agreeing to such medicine are walking away from the beautiful protection of the Hippocratic Oath.

This next comment was written by a 30-year-old man named Philip Johnson:

There is a card on Brittany’s website asking for signatures ‘to support her bravery in this very tough time.’  I agree that her time is tough, but her decision is anything but brave.  I do feel for her and understand her difficult situation, but no diagnosis warrants suicide.  A diagnosis of terminal cancer uproots one’s whole life, and the decision to pursue physician-assisted suicide seeks to grasp at an ounce of control in the midst of turmoil.  It is an understandable temptation to take this course of action, but that is all that it is—a temptation to avoid an important reality of life.  By dying on one’s ‘own terms,’ death seems more comfortable in our culture that is sanitized and tends to avoid any mention of the suffering and death that will eventually come to us all.May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life, and that if she chooses instead to fight this disease, her life and witness would be an incredible example and inspiration to countless others in her situation.

And finally we have this insight from 51-year-old Maggie Karner:

When I was a young mother, my father had a traumatic accident that severed his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the neck down.  The last five months of my father’s life, which he lived as a paraplegic, were filled with utter helplessness.  He wasn’t productive in any meaningful way.  He couldn’t even shave his own face.  Would … [Brittany] Maynard find my dad’s life useless?  I didn’t.  My siblings and I soaked up our father’s presence, realizing that caring for the needy person we loved so dearly showed each of us some unexpected things about ourselves.  As writer Cheryl Magness says, caregivers get a chance to grow in compassion, responsibility, and selflessness as they care for those in need. …I watched Maynard’s six-minute video.  I cried, and my heart broke for her and her family.  I pray she changes her mind and decides to allow others to care for her in her illness.

Now you might respond to those 3 quotes by saying, “Well, Fr. Ray, those are very nice statements from some very nice people (I’m sure); but, quite frankly, it’s easy for them to say those things.  They don’t have terminal cancer.”

Oh yes they do!  Those 3 people I quoted to you just now ALL have cancer, and, barring some kind of miracle, they will all die of the disease.

Perhaps in the very near future.

The first woman, Kara Tippetts, has stage 4 breast cancer which has metastasized throughout her entire body.  The other woman, Maggie Karner, was diagnosed earlier this year with the same form of brain cancer that Brittany Maynard had.  And the 30-year-old young man, Philip Johnson, also has a very severe form of brain cancer.  He’s a Navy war veteran who’s now studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina.  He’ll be ordained a priest in 2016—if he lives that long.

The Lord has given Kara and Maggie and Philip the precious gift of life, and they refuse to throw it away.

God bless them!

May Almighty God have mercy on the souls of those who have thrown it away (like Brittany Maynard); and may his grace help the rest of us NEVER to throw it away, so that, when the end of life finally does come, the Lord will say the same thing to each and every one of us: “Come, share your Master’s joy—forever!”