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O Canada! Assisted suicide, the Christian meaning of defeat, and King Alfred the Great

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 10, 2015

Last week’s news that the Canadian Supreme Court had struck down Canada’s law against assisted suicide is an object lesson. The justices have become the latest poster children for what is wrong with the world. I wish to consider just two of these serious wrongs, and to identify one inevitable consequence. Finally, with help from King Alfred the Great, I will suggest that there is only one way forward.

Democracy Is Dead

When a country has a law passed by its representative legislature which prohibits assisted suicide, and a court summarily overturns that law based on nothing but its own interior lights, then democracy has died in that country. Of course, democracy has already died in quite a few countries which used to be quite proud of their democratic heritage. Canada’s large neighbor to the south, the United States, has already provided numerous indicators of the same.

I admit that democracy is hardly essential for a political order to be conducive to the common good. In fact, I doubt that democracy has actually ever been achieved. Has there ever been a society in which everyone was permitted to vote, and in which every vote counted equally? More to the point, different people in different cultures may establish all kinds of arrangements for the conduct of public affairs, of which democracy (including its step child, the republic) is but one. In any case, the common good itself depends upon far more than politics.

Nonetheless, there are many who ought to find the death of democracy troubling, especially if they live in a kind of cultural mind warp. One such “warp” is the loud and constant insistence that our nations are truly democratic societies. To live in this “warp”, we need only to assume that a few justices in a high court represent the will of the demos (the people) better than the people represent themselves.

Paganism is the Official Religion

But now we come to something far more important. The absence of democracy may or may not hurt anyone, depending on all the circumstances, but the absence of God ought not to be so easily tolerated. Unfortunately, the Canadian Court has followed the latest trends and proclaimed that assisted suicide for the seriously ill is “critical to their dignity and autonomy”.

The modern world now considers the ability to control the manner of one’s own death to be a key element of dignity. This is based on the premise that a person has dignity only when he denies his intrinsic worth (i.e., dignus, from which the word “dignity” dervies). Dignity depends, as the Court makes clear, on the reality that a person’s being is in no sense significant in and of itself. In other words, a person is intrinsically precious to exactly nobody.

This self-contradictory delusion about “dignity” ought to give us pause, but I think we must admit that “dignity” in modern usage is a rather imprecise word. So let us concentrate instead on the other key word in the court decision, the one that has even now a fairly precise meaning—autonomy. Let us ask how “autonomy” signals that paganism is now the official religion of Canada.

The answer is that the human person can reasonably claim complete autonomy only if he does not, in any meaningful sense, belong to someone else. One would think it a potent clue that no human person can bring himself or herself into existence. In more popular terms, as Gandalf sagely advised Frodo, if we cannot give life, we should not be quick to take it away. The wizard said this of an enemy, but it ought to apply even more to ourselves.

Each of us belongs to the God who created us. It is one of the most solemn and liberating gifts of true religion to insist that God is the author not only of life but of our own personal being. We belong to God. But the pagan does not think he belongs to God; rather, he intuits that he is controlled by “the gods”, which is to say by the “fates”, or the “three spinners”, or evolution—that is, blind chance.

Because there is no sense of belonging to God in paganism, nearly all pagan cultures approve of suicide as the ultimate assertion of human autonomy. Whether there is any real belief in divinity or not in a particular culture, the approval of suicide (and of discarding the weak) is one of the most common hallmarks of paganism. In this present case, it would appear that paganism has been officially enshrined in Canada. The high Court has made it so.

Persecution Is Inescapable

The lack of adherence in all this to any law or governance higher than the human should be evident. Yet for either democracy or religion to contribute to the common good, conformity to a higher law is essential. Usually we call this the “natural law”, which is where we get our universal ideas of right and wrong, and even where Christianity gets its understanding of morality—that is, from a proper vision of the nature of things, a vision which is enormously clarified by Divine Revelation. Only such an adherence can create space for legitimate differences within a well-ordered society. Only such an adherence permits a successful marriage between law and justice.

Indeed, the absence of adherence to a higher law is always disastrous for human justice, including any reasonable grasp of human duties and human rights. Notice the rapidity, following the Canadian court decision, with which the fears of medical professionals have escalated. While the Supreme Court has, for the moment, opined that doctors should not be forced to assist in suicide, what do we suppose will happen if willing doctors prove to be thin on the ground, or even if a patient cares about which doctor provides the needed assistance?

It has already been reported that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (the largest medical licensing authority in Canada) is considering amendments which would make it impossible for a physician in good standing to refuse any requested medical care, personal conscience notwithstanding. And really, why should any good and rational person refuse to perform a professional service on which the “dignity and autonomy” of the human person has been proclaimed by the highest political authority to depend?

In such matters, it is always a short step from permission to coercion, and from coercion to persecution. Remember the saying that “those who do evil hate the light” (Jn 3:20). They invariably seek to snuff it out so as not to be exposed by it. Before long, a doctor who wants only to save life will be ordered to kill; he will be barred from the profession, fined or imprisoned if he refuses to do so.

But this too is nothing new, at least wherever the values of the modern West hold sway. Already husbands who do not wish their children to die are forced to bow to the State’s pronouncements on the “dignity and autonomy” of the pregnant woman. And many medical personnel who do not wish to accommodate this “dignity and autonomy” must give up their own dignity and autonomy instead. Fathers who refuse are forcibly restrained, fined and imprisoned. Medical personnel are disciplined and, if necessary, driven from their profession.

These are only examples of a much broader trend. We all know that the same things are happening to those who do not wish to cooperate with gay marriage, or who speak out from certain positions against any number of politically-correct violations of the natural law.

A Weak and Broken Culture

Even now a few Canadians will be working on new political strategies to stem the tide, to minimize the damage, or even to reverse course. I am not sanguine. We have been down this road repeatedly in every contemporary Western society. Our grand achievement is that things have deteriorated at (pick a number) only 60% or 75% or 90% of the intended pace! We are loath to admit this; we pretend that victory is just around the corner. We put our faith in one thing after another (typically anything that takes advantage of what others already believe without our having to preach the gospel). It may be the silent majority, the universal yearning for the good, the next election, the Catholic moment, or any compromise that can be spun to look like a victory.

We seem unwilling to recognize our personal and cultural poverty. Unfortunately, what was once a Christian culture in the West has grown far too weak to form the numbers of men and women necessary for political success, or even for a significant social push-back. It seems to be axiomatic of our time that (1) a new evangelization is absolutely essential, (2) its success will depend on our own radical openness to grace, (3) our radical openness to grace is unlikely to be achieved without deep suffering; and (4) widespread openness to grace is unlikely to be achieved without widespread suffering.

So what are we to do? Many readers already know that I do not think the time is ripe for politics, but in fact there is no one particular strategy. There is, however, one and only one meta-strategy. Each of us must cling a little less each day to worldly prosperity and peace. Instead, we must keep our minds and hands more firmly on the plow, readying the soil so that good seed can grow. For what else can Our Lord have meant when He said: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62)? Or, as the proverb says, he who hesitates is lost. Or again, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Lk 17:32).

We are all given different work to do, and our own prayerful prudence must lead us to more fully discern the mission Our Lord has assigned to us. But if we are honest, we already know that any discernment which too highly values the peace and prosperity of the world is really a fearful hesitation, a deadly over-the-shoulder glance at what lies behind the plow.

Still there is no one particular path, no obvious route to create greater traction for Christ in the world. In such times, I believe it is useful to recall again G. K. Chesterton’s epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse. It was written nearly a century ago in a time not so unlike our own, and it hearkens back over a thousand years to a time also not so unlike our own. I recommend especially the words of the defeated Christian King Alfred, in response to the bragging songs of the victorious pagan Danes, when he disguised himself as a minstrel to scout out the enemy camp. It is not the first time I have quoted them; nor do I expect it to be the last.

The Song of Alfred the Great in Disguise

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;
“He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.
“But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.
“What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?
“Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without a home.
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,
“I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord's broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.
“That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.
“That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.
“That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again;
“Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing.
“Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;
“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.
“Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.
“Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.
“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”
And the King, with harp on shoulder,
Stood up and ceased his song;
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,
And the Danes laughed loud and long.

King Alfred’s disguised reconnaissance of the Danish camp, posing as a minstrel, is a favorite legend of English history, a scene which has been repeatedly described, dramatized and painted down through the centuries. It may have really happened, but we do not find it in the historical record until at least 200 years later, after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

What is known for certain is that at this moment of Alfred’s desperate humiliation, while he was barely surviving with a small number of followers in an impenetrable swamp, he found a way to mobilize support throughout the region. His worldly triumph was not guaranteed because he served his Lord, but he did discern his mission and hold to it faithfully. And within six months he had defeated the Danes.

They in turn accepted baptism. King Alfred stood as God-parent to “the mighty earl”, receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 11, 2015 9:48 AM ET USA

    “Our monks go robed in rain and snow, But the heart of flame therein, But you go clothed in feasts and flames, When all is ice within..." Not the words of today's ecumenist; not the sensitivity of contemporary vocation. Perhaps a time "not unlike our own," but in a very real sense a time not so much at all like ours.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Feb. 10, 2015 8:45 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, you report a defeat, but that's the most inspiring article that I have read in months.