Is New Zealand really a secular state?

Martin Hanson

COLUMN

New Zealanders like to think that religion and government are quite separate, but in view of the right-to-die vs. right-to-life debate, one is entitled to wonder. One reason is that Simon O’Connor, National MP for Tamaki has, for the past two years, been chairman of the Parliamentary Health Select Committee which has been taking representations on voluntary euthanasia.

This is in the context of David Seymour’s bill, which aims to give people autonomy over their own lives by giving them the statutory right to end their own suffering.

The chair of any Parliamentary select committee investigating such a contentious issue should be neutral, so on learning that someone who spent nearly 10 years training as a Catholic priest should be appointed to such a position, I blinked. He is on record as saying: “I unambiguously oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in this country” and “There is no such thing as a right to die. There is a right to life.”

Whoever decided to give the hot potato of assisted dying to the Health Select Committee must have known that it would fall into Simon O’Connor’s lap, thus leaving a fox in charge of the chooks. It would be nice if we could be reassured that this person wasn’t our Catholic Prime Minister.

In this context, it’s appropriate to examine the Vatican’s moral and intellectual qualifications to advise on legislation affecting how the rest of us should live. In the context of its historical track record, the following terms come to mind: bigoted, evil, hypocritical, stupid, ignorant and sadistic. Readers who think these words are over the top are invited to suggest alternatives, but I think the following evidentiary examples speak for themselves.

Bigoted. The Catholic doctrine on contraception and HIV has been spectacularly blockheaded. To give just one illustration, when speaking about HIV while on a visit to Cameroon in March 2009, Pope Benedict said: “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

Evil. The sexual abuse of thousands of children by Catholic priests in at least 37 countries is extensively documented. Appalling though this is, what’s even worse is the fact that in many cases the Church hierarchy not only failed to report abuse to the police, but moved abusers to other parishes where they continued to abuse more children. If aiding and abetting child rape is not evil, we need a new definition.

Hypocritical. The Catholic Church constantly inveighs against homosexuality, yet it is widely known that many Catholic clergy are homosexuals. Moreover, some of these men are not quietly hiding their sexuality; in July this year the world’s press reported that Vatican police broke up a drug-fuelled sex orgy at the home of the secretary to Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers.

Stupid. 350 years after Galileo published his thoughts about the Earth orbiting the sun, the Vatican publicly admitted in 1992 that Galileo was right after all!

Ignorant. Evidence that male homosexuality is not a “choice” because it is strongly influenced by genes has become absorbed into the public consciousness in scientifically advanced nations, and is now considered by scientifically literate people to be no more abnormal than left-handedness. Once again the Vatican puts dogma before scientific evidence.

Sadistic. The Catholic Church believes in the “dignity of suffering” and that “suffering takes us closer to God”. In an op-ed piece in the New Zealand Herald titled “Let’s stop on euthanasia’s ‘orange light’ ”, columnist John Roughan wrote: “There is in fact dignity in living with pain and incapacity and we should not take it away. Euthanasia would remove the one shred of dignity left to those who need the most personal and intimate care, which is that they cannot help their condition.”

And this widely reported quote from Mother Teresa: “Suffering is not a punishment, not a fruit of sin. It is a gift of God. He allows us to share in His suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.”

If glorifying in suffering isn’t sadism, we need a new definition.

In what has been an unintended but nevertheless spectacular own goal, Right to Life achieves the morally gymnastic feat of attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable: praising palliative care for reducing pain, and the concomitant taking away of this wonderful “gift from God”. In view of this contradiction, can we now look forward to Right to Life rectifying the contradiction by restoring “God’s gift” by mounting a campaign against palliative care?

With no rational arguments in their toolbox, right-to-lifers misrepresent the intent of the legislation by resorting to rhetorical sleight of hand, using such emotive and grossly misleading phrases as “enabling the strong to kill the weak”, and “doctors killing patients”. It’s therefore abundantly clear that the Catholic Church should have no influence on the legislative process.

■ Martin Hanson is a retired science teacher who lives in Nelson.

New Zealanders like to think that religion and government are quite separate, but in view of the right-to-die vs. right-to-life debate, one is entitled to wonder. One reason is that Simon O’Connor, National MP for Tamaki has, for the past two years, been chairman of the Parliamentary Health Select Committee which has been taking representations on voluntary euthanasia.

This is in the context of David Seymour’s bill, which aims to give people autonomy over their own lives by giving them the statutory right to end their own suffering.

The chair of any Parliamentary select committee investigating such a contentious issue should be neutral, so on learning that someone who spent nearly 10 years training as a Catholic priest should be appointed to such a position, I blinked. He is on record as saying: “I unambiguously oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in this country” and “There is no such thing as a right to die. There is a right to life.”

Whoever decided to give the hot potato of assisted dying to the Health Select Committee must have known that it would fall into Simon O’Connor’s lap, thus leaving a fox in charge of the chooks. It would be nice if we could be reassured that this person wasn’t our Catholic Prime Minister.

In this context, it’s appropriate to examine the Vatican’s moral and intellectual qualifications to advise on legislation affecting how the rest of us should live. In the context of its historical track record, the following terms come to mind: bigoted, evil, hypocritical, stupid, ignorant and sadistic. Readers who think these words are over the top are invited to suggest alternatives, but I think the following evidentiary examples speak for themselves.

Bigoted. The Catholic doctrine on contraception and HIV has been spectacularly blockheaded. To give just one illustration, when speaking about HIV while on a visit to Cameroon in March 2009, Pope Benedict said: “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

Evil. The sexual abuse of thousands of children by Catholic priests in at least 37 countries is extensively documented. Appalling though this is, what’s even worse is the fact that in many cases the Church hierarchy not only failed to report abuse to the police, but moved abusers to other parishes where they continued to abuse more children. If aiding and abetting child rape is not evil, we need a new definition.

Hypocritical. The Catholic Church constantly inveighs against homosexuality, yet it is widely known that many Catholic clergy are homosexuals. Moreover, some of these men are not quietly hiding their sexuality; in July this year the world’s press reported that Vatican police broke up a drug-fuelled sex orgy at the home of the secretary to Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers.

Stupid. 350 years after Galileo published his thoughts about the Earth orbiting the sun, the Vatican publicly admitted in 1992 that Galileo was right after all!

Ignorant. Evidence that male homosexuality is not a “choice” because it is strongly influenced by genes has become absorbed into the public consciousness in scientifically advanced nations, and is now considered by scientifically literate people to be no more abnormal than left-handedness. Once again the Vatican puts dogma before scientific evidence.

Sadistic. The Catholic Church believes in the “dignity of suffering” and that “suffering takes us closer to God”. In an op-ed piece in the New Zealand Herald titled “Let’s stop on euthanasia’s ‘orange light’ ”, columnist John Roughan wrote: “There is in fact dignity in living with pain and incapacity and we should not take it away. Euthanasia would remove the one shred of dignity left to those who need the most personal and intimate care, which is that they cannot help their condition.”

And this widely reported quote from Mother Teresa: “Suffering is not a punishment, not a fruit of sin. It is a gift of God. He allows us to share in His suffering and to make up for the sins of the world.”

If glorifying in suffering isn’t sadism, we need a new definition.

In what has been an unintended but nevertheless spectacular own goal, Right to Life achieves the morally gymnastic feat of attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable: praising palliative care for reducing pain, and the concomitant taking away of this wonderful “gift from God”. In view of this contradiction, can we now look forward to Right to Life rectifying the contradiction by restoring “God’s gift” by mounting a campaign against palliative care?

With no rational arguments in their toolbox, right-to-lifers misrepresent the intent of the legislation by resorting to rhetorical sleight of hand, using such emotive and grossly misleading phrases as “enabling the strong to kill the weak”, and “doctors killing patients”. It’s therefore abundantly clear that the Catholic Church should have no influence on the legislative process.

■ Martin Hanson is a retired science teacher who lives in Nelson.

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Olwyn Musgrove - 1 year ago
This thoughtful article is one of the best I have read. It deserves to be widely distributed.

Scott McCallum, Sydney - 1 year ago
Religious medical professionals have a lot to answer for. They will not put you into a coma even if every breath you take is agony. "We propose that there is an ethical basis, in rare circumstances, for the use of neuromuscular blockade to suppress prolonged episodes of agonal respiration in the well-sedated patient in order to allow a peaceful and comfortable death." https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1733591/

Louise Spicer, Whangarei - 1 year ago
Excellent article. I found recently that 11 percent of New Zealanders are Catholic, while a third of National MPs are. They should be representing the wishes of the majority, not controlling us with their own views.

Moira, Nelson - 1 year ago
A well-written and comprehensive article. Listening to our Catholic PM when he was asked questions about euthanasia and abortion was most unhelpful. He just argued that these were conscience votes; trouble is, as politicians, our MPs are meant to represent our views too. We have had a referendum about a new New Zealand flag - but it has been consistently turned down for these vital issues.

Gary Bakker - 1 year ago
Beautifully set out, irrefutable arguments.

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