National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  April 9, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

In sadness, Easter morning

This issue is rich with the elements of the season. We mourn the death of a great -- and that word is not used lightly -- pastor, Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., but we recognize immediately the Easter morning in the sadness. Untener’s Catholicism converted by example, brought people together compassionately and spilled into the public square in a fearless, transforming embrace of the wider world. (See story and editorial.)

We follow a group of students, through the photos and words of Greg Tarczynski, on a pilot program deep into the desert where their spring break brought them face to face with the culture’s foremost temptation, a blind devotion to ever greater power and dominance. That temptation is symbolized in the ongoing development of the fiercest weapons of mass destruction the planet has ever known. The students went for an “immersion program,” conducted by the longstanding Nevada Desert Experience, that connected peace, economic justice and ecological balance. The desert is a place where the effects of massive violence stand out starkly. It is a place where the words of Peter Ediger, “I think the world is pregnant with nonviolence,” make sense. Deserts are places of transformation, and so it was with this tiny band of seekers.

~ ~ ~

Publisher Tom Fox attended the wake for Untener at St. Stephen’s Church in Saginaw. There he found diocesan staff, as one said, in a state of utter shock. It was only Feb. 10 that Untener was diagnosed with a form of leukemia. On Feb. 13, it was announced to the diocese that he had a life-threatening disease. He died March 27. “We haven’t had time to digest this,” said one long-time associate. “We never got to say goodbye.”

~ ~ ~

Medical ethics and end-of-life issues are both problematic and contentious. Deliberation is vital to the preservation of civilized conduct.

The Catholic church’s contribution to this fertile dialogue is to ensure the preservation of human dignity.

Fortunately, a healthy and lively debate exists in Catholic circles on what actually preserves human dignity as the end of life approaches and what rights are inherent when end-of-life issues involve someone in a persistently unresponsive state.

As if those incendiary situations were insufficient to the day, insert the time lag between a newspaper (NCR) going to press and its actually hitting the streets, and confusion can abound.

On March 16 Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, spoke strongly in favor of continuing hydration and nutrition for patients in a persistently unresponsive state.

Some U.S. bioethicists promptly took issue with Sgreccia. Both positions were contained in a story in the NCR issue of March 26. Between Sgreccia’s statement and NCR being available to its readers, Pope John Paul II March 20 issued his own statement on hydration and nutrition withdrawal, which supported Sgreccia.

But the time lag made it appear to some that the U.S. ethicists were directly challenging the pope.

That was not the case.

However, the discussion is far from over. Next week NCR will carry a response to the statement from the pope by two leading Catholic experts on matters of bioethics and medical ethics, Thomas A. Shannon of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and James J. Water of the Bioethics Institute at Loyola Marymount University. They lead the reader through the thickets of Catholic moral tradition and teaching on the matter of artificial nutrition and hydration and say that some conclusions drawn from the recent papal statement “appear to represent a major reversal of the moral tradition of the Catholic church.”

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004

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