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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 05, 2022

The Church condemns euthanasia, a nice word for mercy killing:

[W]hatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction…all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 27)

Suppose, sometime soon, a small group of cardinals manage to elevate their favorite candidate to the papacy. Let’s call our imaginary Pontiff Pope Juan. Throughout his ministry, he privately questions the Church’s teaching on euthanasia. Our pretend Pontiff now uses studied ambiguities as a template to overturn the Church’s “ban” on euthanasia.

Juan conducts a synod on the culture of life and pens a post-synod apostolic exhortation—Requiem Aeternam. In a footnote, he writes: “Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of palliative care. There are complex situations where the choice of living in chronic pain becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm.”

The implications alarm several cardinals. They endeavor to “clear up disorientation and great confusion” and pose several questions (dubia) to Juan. They wonder whether euthanasia is intrinsically evil according to Vatican II; and whether those who staff euthanasia clinics are “in an objective situation of grave habitual sin.” Pope Juan ignores the formal queries.

During an airplane interview, Pope Juan explains: “If a person operates an assisted suicide clinic and seeks out the Lord, who am I to judge that person?” The Vatican reorganizes the Pontifical Academy for Life to include a section on euthanasia. The Academy collaborates with the Jack Kevorkian Institute of Palliative Care. Pope Juan mandates global “listening sessions” that provide the Vatican with tens of thousands of pages of comments.

German Catholic Church leaders overwhelmingly vote to adopt a draft statement supporting euthanasia. The declaration includes a resolution saying that terminally ill patients and others who want to take their own lives should be able to see themselves placed under the blessing of God. Juan privately nods approval but he worries that these bishops are moving too quickly, by failing to see the need for Vatican ratification of their stand.

A European cardinal who is instrumental in organizing the new synod is more astute. This prelate says, “I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching on euthanasia is no longer correct.” The cardinal says, “It is time for a fundamental revision of church teaching and suggests the ways Pope Juan had spoken about mercy killing in the past could lead to a change in doctrine.” Non-committal until papal ratification. Two steps forward, one step back.

One cardinal sounds an alarm but carefully avoids criticizing Juan. Many bishops and chancery officials are horrified but remain silent. Some pretend that when the papal statements are probably nuanced, all is well. Others fret about a vindictive Holy See, and too many for comfort eagerly foresee the prospect of a change in Church doctrine. Many dioceses establish “mercy killing ministries” to accompany the terminally ill in anticipation of papal approval.

Pope Juan befriends a prominent Jesuit in mercy-killing ministry. The Pontiff writes in a letter: “I encourage you all to keep working in the culture of encounter, which shortens the distances and enriches us with differences, in the same manner of Jesus, who made himself close to everyone.” Gibberish, of course, but expressing tacit approval.

During the “Synod to End All Synods,” Pope Juan, the cardinals, and bishops view the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson’s character plots his escape from a brutal mental institution with a friend. On the day of the flight, he discovers that his friend is unresponsive, physically limp, with lobotomy scars on his forehead. In a compassionate act of mercy killing, he smothers him with a pillow and makes his escape. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber” (Flannery O’Connor).

The participants of the “Synod to End All Synods” vote in favor of euthanasia, and Pope Juan issues a solemn decree that includes these assertions: 1) We cannot guarantee the exact words of Jesus, and Scripture is not even concerned with euthanasia as such. 2) Until now, the question of mercy killing did not find a definitive resolution in the Church. 3) Therefore, mercy killing can be a morally sound decision. 4) Chronic pain offends the quality of life and justifies mercy killing. 5) Mutual death pacts can be praiseworthy acts of accompaniment and are encouraged.

Orthodox Catholics are distressed. Theologians parse the teachings on infallibility. A minority of cardinals suggest Pope Juan’s pronouncements automatically excommunicate him. Ordinary faithful Catholics reject the new teaching. Others threaten to leave the Church and take their holiness with them.

Who are we to judge? We are Catholics who believe in the Catholic faith as it has been given and received for some 2000 years. Judge, we must.

George Tyrrell SJ (1861—1909) was an Anglo-Irish Catholic priest and a leading modernist theologian and scholar. Tyrrell became a Jesuit in 1880. He was a central figure in the modernist controversy raging in the late 19th century.

During his heyday, the story goes that a group of Capuchin brothers attended one of Tyrrell’s popular talks. Many thought he would succeed the great John Henry Newman. During the address, a simple Capuchin stood up in disgust. He tells his friends, “I’m leaving. The bloke is a heretic!” The Jesuits expelled Tyrrell in 1906, and the Church excommunicated him in 1908. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” (Jn. 3:8)

Never underestimate the faith of ordinary Catholics. But it may take some time for the intellectuals and the hierarchy to catch up.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Sep. 11, 2022 3:06 PM ET USA

    Perhaps one of the accomplishments of Fr Pokorsky‘s allegorical “Synod to End All Synods” would be to beatify George Tyrrell … Pope Fr… er… Juan would definitely approve!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 06, 2022 7:38 AM ET USA

    Plagiarizer! I already read this story. It stems from Amoris Laetitia. Sheesh!

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Sep. 05, 2022 2:50 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: Retired01 - Sep. 05, 2022 1:22 PM ET USA

    Touche! Thank you for your wit in exposing Pope Juan. And it may also take some time for the mostly orthodox, but naive and uninformed Catholic, to find out what is going on and catch up.