Monday, 9 February 2009

When Church meets State

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Anyone searching for reasons why Church and State should never cross paths need look no further than the constitutional crisis currently engulfing Italy as a result of Silvio Berlusconi's Vatican-backed intervention in the sad struggle to allow the end of treatment for Eluana Englaro, a now 38-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state for 17 years as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash.

For an in-depth look at this story, I recomment this excellent report that appeared in yesterday's Observer but to summarise, Eluana's father Beppino has spent the past 12 years campaigning for the legal right to have doctors cease treating his daughter. Finally, in November last year, Italy's highest court ruled that to remove feeding tubes would be lawful. This was begun this weekend, but now Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, following a great deal of direct consultation with the Vatican, has issued an emergency decree that would ban the withdrawl of treatment from coma victims like Eluana, with a view to the later passage of legislation on the matter. But the country's president, Giorgio Napolitano, has refused to sign the decree into law, causing a constiutuonal crisis that encapsulates questions not only over the powers of the prime minister, but also the complex relationship between the Vatican and the Italian state.

It's an issue that feels familiar, given the interventions we've had from the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords over issues like assisted dying, though we've never had an instance like this where a political leader has backed the clerical line so firmly and publicly. What feels particularly familiar is the emotive language being used by those opposing Englaro's right to die – Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, the Vatican's spokesperson on "health issues" described the planned removal of feeding tubes as "monstrous and inhuman murder", while Church newspaper Avvenire accused the court of "necrophilia". Meanwhile, Berlusconi ensured the award for 2009's most disgusting comment was tied up in early February by stating that physically Englaro is "in the condition to have babies", adding "This is murder. I would be failing to rescue her. I'm not a Pontius Pilate."

It reminds me of the debate we had in Britain over the Embryology Bill, where clergy from both the Church of England and the Catholic Church (notably the Bishop of Durham and Cardinal Keith O'Brien) used phrases like "grotesque", "hideous" and "of Frankenstein proportions" to describe elements of scientific practices such as stem cell research. Few secularists would deny that there are legitimate debates to be had over issues like assisted dying and abortion, but such emotive language only serves to frustrate mature, rational argument and provide further evidence of the need to separate religion from the politics.


Ralph Dosser said...

Here in the states we had the appalling Terry Schiavo case regarding the removal of a feeding tube from a woman whose brain was literally gone. Mostly right-wing government officials danced to the "Pro-Life" racket's tune, from Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the state legislature all the way up to President George Bush and U.S. House and Senate to prevent Schiavo's husband from exerting control over her medical care. It was one of many, many revolting spectacles of church control over the state that a lot of us here would rather forget, but dare not.

Anonymous said...

As if Berlusconi was not disgusting enough.....what a combination, bent politician and a selfish church. Sickening.

Anonymous said...

Ms Englaro has won the race - she died yesterday, though her doctors thought it would take as much as two weeks.

Anonymous said...

I'm a christian, and I agree. How is this having respect for life?