We have no worldly princes to whom we can defer
It’s in his first paragraph. Doctors, Robert Jay Lifton notes, can “with relative ease … be socialized to killing.” In the article that follows he doesn’t make the obvious applications, though he does apply his insight to the physicians and psychologists who colluded in torture during the Iraq war, and especially the two psychologists who helped the CIA create their program for torturing prisoners.
Lifton, a psychiatrist, wrote the classic book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. It appeared in 1986 to wide praise. The comment about doctors appears in his new preface to a reprint of the book, just published in the progressive magazine Dissent.
Doctors, our princes
We tend, I think, to defer to our betters in other fields, and not just to their expertise, but to their morals. We trust them to have the right and final answer. The psalmist warns us not to put our trust in princes (Psalm 146:3), because the prince will die. “He returns to the earth and on that very day his plans perish.” In him, the psalmist says, “there is no salvation.”
If I may add to the psalmist’s insights: Not only will the prince die, as the psalmist warns us, he will lie and cheat and steal and hurt while he is alive. There is no salvation in him because he is not a savior. He will not save us, even with our limited ideas of salvation, not just because he is mortal but because he is fallen.
Doctors are among our princeliest princes. No one in his right mind trusts politicians or CEOs as a class, but almost everyone trusts doctors. From them we expect a kind of salvation: not just healing of a particular sickness, but a guide to health and the good life. We expect from them a serene benevolence and objectivity. The postmodern cynicism — or, if you will, realism — that has replaced the optimistic mythology of the fifties has affected doctors much less than others, than policemen, for example.
Princeliness is a role for which they are not now suited, if ever they were. The American Medical Association approves of abortion as long as the doctor ends the unborn child’s life “in accordance with good medical practice and under circumstances that do not violate the law.” They who should be moral authorities themselves leave their moral judgments to the law and rely upon a very flexible and conveniently adjustable idea of “good medical practice.” They do not see, or refuse to see, the reality that the unborn child is a child they cannot kill.
The AMA still firmly opposes physician-assisted suicide, but for how long? How long till American doctors join their Belgian, Dutch, and other brethren in killing even those who might want to live? We cannot trust them not to go there. If a man will kill an unborn child, he has crossed a line. Having crossed it, he may eventually kill a sick old man, or a sick young man, or even a healthy young man tired of living.
Wesley Smith’s Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine offers a chilling review of current medical ethics and practice around the world. (You can find my review of the book in the Human Life Review. Flip through to page 75.)
Lifton himself, a fiercely moral voice when writing about torturers, does not see abortion or euthanasia as killing. The man who so astutely analyzed the moral corruption of German doctors cannot see the same process at work among his peers. Still, I commend the article as a short review of how people come to believe evil good.
Put Your Trust in God
Do not put your trust in doctors as if they were moral princes. A doctor might be one, but because he is a wise man, not because he’s a doctor. We have no worldly princes to whom we can defer. But we are not left without a prince to trust.
The Church is the prince we can trust. It has its princes, but I don’t mean them first. Every prince of the Church is a fallen human being. Pope X or Bishop Y or Father Z may say foolish or even heretical things. (I do not, by the way, mean that as a veiled criticism of Pope Francis, whom I admire.)
The Magisterium is our prince. It is a prince who speaks with Divine insight and authority. It is a prince who has not been and cannot be corrupted. It speaks with serene benevolence and objectivity. It often speaks against the princes of this world, including American doctors.