As Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel Lord of the World moves toward its shocking conclusion, a naïve young woman who has placed simple-minded faith in the utter goodness of the Antichrist figure at the center of the story awakens to the fact that her hero has artfully constructed a regime of violence, oppression, and thought control.
Profoundly disillusioned, she turns to one of the new state-run euthanasia “homes” for help in ending her life. As she ponders what has happened and what lies ahead, she thinks of the humanist belief system that has brought here: “There seemed no way out of it. The Humanity-Religion was the only one. Man was God, or at least His highest manifestation; and he was a God with which she did not wish to have anything more to do.”
It’s easy to see why Benson’s century-old tale is one of Pope Francis’s favorite books. Driven by a compelling narrative, the story depicts the frightening reality of a dystopian society without religion that in many respects resembles Western secular society now.
I thought of Lord of the World while absorbing the news from California that Gov. Jerry Brown—who the media obsessively kept reminding us is a “lifelong Catholic”—had signed into law a bill making his state the fifth in the United States where assisted suicide is legal. The others are Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana. Proponents of assisted suicide were quoted as saying they would turn next to New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Curiously enough, though, around the same time California was joining the ranks of states where doctors can help their patients do away with themselves without falling afoul of the law, Britain’s House of Commons was overwhelmingly rejecting an assisted suicide bill. The vote against was 330 to 118.
Our British cousins have hardly been slouches when it comes to endorsing whatever the secular establishment is currently pushing as the application du jour of utilitarian morality. Is it possible, then, that the lawmakers discerned some flaws in assisted suicide that have escaped the attention of Governor Brown and others like him?
Although even advocates of the right to die generally concede the need for safeguards against abuses, the dynamic of the underlying ideology encourages step by step movement in a radical direction. Perhaps the MPs who voted no were impressed by a medical journal report containing—along with other disturbing facts—the information that in one recent year a right-to-die clinic that had been set up in the Netherlands to serve people whose regular doctors wouldn’t give them lethal injections approved the killing of eleven whose only complaint was that they were “tired of living.”
Reviewing this and similar cases, the authors of the article in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that European trends in euthanasia and assisted suicide were “very worrisome” and “should give us pause.” Really? That’s a bit like saying that you wonder if the neighbors have a problem while you watch the smoke and flames pouring out of the windows of their house.
Is America bent on going the same way? Are the rise of moral libertarianism and the decline of religious faith having the predictable result of making Americans increasingly vulnerable to an ideology of self-destruction promoted under the banner of liberation? Should we expect sooner or later to see the Supreme Court deliver a 5–4 decision announcing that the court has discovered a constitutional right to assisted suicide—complete with paper-thin safeguards, of course? This isn’t scare talk. I only wish it were.
Russell Shaw is the author or coauthor of twenty-one books and numerous articles, columns, and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and former Secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.