Orthodox Christians and the Presidential Election

I think this commentary is weak but I’ll post it anyway. Fortunately (or maybe not depending on your point of view), I have an article that addresses the same issues appearing in Again which should be out this week. I can’t post it here however until October 5. I take a different approach than what Dr. Bouteneff offers.

http://www.oca.org/pages/news/news.asp?ID=660

Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff

Americans are approaching an important election this fall. All presidential elections are important, but few have been this close or this polarized. Those of us who seek to live and act in a way that is consistent with the life and theology of the Orthodox Church do well to reflect upon how we will act on November 2. Some Orthodox I know believe that the only way an Orthodox Christian could possibly vote is Republican/Conservative. Others whom I know have exactly the opposite impression. Where do we find ourselves in the political landscape today? There may not be a single answer for all Orthodox Christians, but we can at least clarify the questions.

1. Church and State
The relationship between Church and State has always been a delicate matter. History has seen experimentation with many possibilities, and the truth is that none have really worked. There is too great a variety of religious views among the governed and the governing. Looking at our own faith, Christ never set up a system of governance, but rather acknowledged that there is Caesar and there is God, and that we owe a different kind of obedience to each.

Neither is there any one system of governance, be it monarchy, democracy, plutocracy, or theocracy, which the Church would sanction as such to be the Christian way of establishing and maintaining a state. It is also quite evident that, given history, geography, and culture, different kinds of government are appropriate in different places. The Church isn’t non-committal in this sphere; it has taken stands against forms of government, such as totalitarian dictatorship or anarchy, which are unacceptable to Christianity.

But Christians are not ipso facto socialists, capitalists, or monarchists. And much as we Americans are accustomed to the logic of democracy, democracy is neither the way in which the Church governs itself, nor is it the only or the obvious Christian kind of state government. Christians are Christians, and that makes us people who have to decide in each particular case what best meets the criteria of Christian life.

2. To Vote or Stay Home?
The canons which forbid an ordained person from holding public office indicate the Church’s ambivalent relationship to government. The Church is aware of the inevitable conflicts of interest that arise when a visible representative of the Church is asked to represent an electorate of diverse religious and moral principles. But does this ambivalence mean that we should keep out of the process entirely?

The answer to that question will not be the same for everyone. All of us are called to be “not of this world” and yet also to be “in the world,” and the way in which those two are balanced in our own lives will vary. Monastics have a particular vocation, a particular way of consecrating their lives, and a particular kind of obedience which will in most cases lead them away from voting, even if they may be very much involved in other aspects of contemporary life and society.

Some outside the monastic life opt out of the process as well, either because they feel the candidates are unacceptable, or out of principle. Whether we vote or not, our decision must be conscious and deliberate, and the result of prayerful consideration. Orthodox Christians are called to take a stand on matters that affect how people live and how they are treated, and on how the natural world is treated. We are called to care about, to arrive at, and defend principles in terms of our fundamental beliefs.

3. How to Vote?
The question of whether to vote is much easier to address than the question of how to vote. Part of our problem here is the nature of the options before us.

a. Liberal and Conservative
Politically as well as theologically, many conservatives will use “liberal” as a swear-word, and many liberals return the favor. We Orthodox Christians often consider ourselves to be a conservative church ≠ and so we are, when we compare some of our theological and ethical principles to others. Our key doctrines about God and about Christ, as well as our positions on human life and human sexuality, are based on principles whose absolute and unchanging character are repulsive to some other Christians.

On the other hand, Orthodox theology and ethics admit a freedom that can seem downright liberal. I recall a conversation with a certain Presbyterian whose positions on matters of church and ethics alike were far more “liberal” than I as an Orthodox could accept. But when she started talking about her belief in the “total depravity” of the human person, our Orthodox voice began sounding to her like the more open, the more joyous, the more free. More generally, our approach to ethics and the canons provides a unique blending of absolute principles with particular, personal applications which can never be branded as sheer conservatism.

The terms “liberal” and “conservative” have only a limited use. Orthodox Christians should not let themselves be pigeonholed into either category, either within Orthodoxy, with regard to the wider Christian landscape, or politically. Our province is not conservatism or liberalism, but truth.

b. Republican and Democrat
This still leaves the question of how we are to position ourselves politically. And here we are placed in a serious bind for two reasons. One is that there are some questions for which Orthodox Christians are so far unable to identify a single right answer. For example, we have been divided as to how to approach the war on Iraq, and both sides have offered sound theological arguments. We do not often take two sides of the same fence, but the living character of our Church does allow it to happen.

The bigger reason for our difficulty in siding with one or another political party is that the parties today each advocate unacceptable positions alongside admirable ones. Considering the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, it is not at all clear which party has a better platform. We must consider their positions not only on abortion, but also on capital punishment, war, and human rights. We need to look at each party’s position on education and the environment. Each party must be examined in terms of how wealth is distributed, especially in terms of what effects will be felt by the nation’s poor. We need to examine the candidates’ views on ethical and bioethical issues such as stem-cell research, euthanasia, HIV/AIDS, and same-sex marriage.

Neither party has a monopoly on life and family values: both parties are inconsistent in both areas.

The voting Orthodox Christian today is effectively stuck being either a “Reluctant Republican” or a “Reluctant Democrat.” We are, as is often the case, left with a choice between the lesser of two evils. This doesn’t take us off the hook, for we must choose. We have a compass to guide us in our choice and that compass is our understanding of Christ’s Gospel and how it is lived in the world.

http://www.oca.org/pages/news/news.asp?ID=660

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42 thoughts on “Orthodox Christians and the Presidential Election”

  1. Hmm. Kushiner gets it right. I know (or at least knew) Dr. Bouteneff personally some years ago, and find it distressing that he wrote this piece as he did. Sadly, it partakes of the style and approach of Fr. John Breck: fence-straddling; appearing to say everything while in truth saying little. Kushiner rightly highlights Dr. Bouteneff’s puzzling statement that the stances of the two major parties regarding abortion are indistinguishable. I wish Dr. Bouteneff had gone into more detail.

  2. The question that should be asked is whether George Bush is just paying lip service to the anti-abortion cause. Unlike the gay marriage issue, he has made no indication of his support for a Constitutional amendment to protect the unborn. How is this less urgent an issue? In addition, he has made the statement that he doesn’t think the country is “ready” for a ban on abortion.

    If the goal is to reduce abortions through teaching abstinence and education funding, then I could perhaps see where one would support Bush. However, what actions has he taken as President to actively reduce abortions through criminalization (besides promising to appoint pro-life judges which would in essence take the responsibility off his shoulders)?

  3. Another question that should be asked is “How can we get those annoying messages from Texas Holdem Poker and the like off the site?”

    As for the pro-life judges, I believe the delay there can be attributed to filibusters, not to the president.

    Dean, any thoughts?

  4. The Holdem Poker comments are probably posted through a bot. I need to look into a spam plugin for WordPress that can prevent this. (What they do is fake a message so that they can list their website and thus get a higher ranking in Google.)

    James, the Bush record on abortion is outstanding in many areas, particularly in foreign affairs (no funding of abortion, etc.). I’ll see if I can find some info. The Clinton administration was pro-abort everything concerning foreign countries. Thankfully this has been reversed.

    Given the current political climate and makeup of the Supreme Court, a pro-life amendment would be virtually impossible.

  5. I find myself moving closer to Father Jacobse’s views on abortion. I attended a presentation Tuesday night by a woman who runs a shelter and adoption agency for pregnant single girls who decide to carry their babies to term. What struck me was the woman’s use of the word “reproductive choice”. When she said, “we have to teach young women they can exercise reproductive choice”, she meant teaching them that they can chose abstinence and responsible sexual behavior over pregnancy and abortion. In other words the time to exercise reproductive choice is before, not after, becoming pregnant.

    The statistics she quoted regarding pregnancies in our largely suburban school district last year were appalling: 642 pregnancies and 218 live births. Requests for STD testing by girls in “junior high”, especially after school dances, are not unusual. My daughter will be attending those schools in a few years.

    Father Jacobse wrote an excellent article on improved race relations in the United States and how they were as much the result of a change in human hearts and attitudes as they were the result of changes in legislation.

    Similarly, a major change in attitudes among our young people regarding sexual behavior, needs to take place along with changes in laws regulating abortion. I don’t think that we should totally prohibit all abortions, but we need to set a goal as a nation of reducing the number of abortions by 10-20% every year, and then implement specific policies to help us reach that goal.

    Most importantly our churches and schools need to be out front in leading the discussion with our young men and women and men about responsible sexual attitudes and behaviors. We can’t be squeamish about this anymore.

  6. Dean, I’m surprised but I agree with everything you say. Sometime I’ll tell you how I talk to teens about sex at summer camp. I’m the “sex talk” guy, which means I do the heavy lifting on these issues. That’s how I know teens are starved for straight-up moral guidance.

    And yes, STD rates among teens are at epidemic (epidemic!) levels. I wrote a review on this a while back. Teen Sex is Killing our Kids.

  7. Dean, I’m glad I asked for your thoughts. You hit at the real issue, which is the attitudes people hold going into the decision whether or not to have sex, not what to do about it afterwards.

    In my short career as a church youth director, and inspired by Fr. Jacobse’s example, I did the “sex talk” exactly twice, once with my parish’s GOYA and once with a group at summer camp. The summer camp talk was marred by one of my counselors, no less, arguing that if she did it with her boyfriend and it felt special, then why not? (Gee, thanks for the help!) Before the GOYA talk, I decided to avoid squeamishness and talk to them as if they were adults (it’s the best way to talk to adults-in-training). I had their completely undivided attention through the talk, and nobody laughed or got uncomfortable. They listened intently and seriously. I have a hunch that I was giving them a way out of caving to the pressure they felt at school and with other teens.

    I am convinced that the average teen is starving for good advice about this issue. This in turn leads me to believe that the major attitude change has to occur not with them, but with the adults who instruct them. Again, Dean (or anyone else), any thoughts on this?

    Fr. Hans, I hope I didn’t steal any of your thunder!

  8. No, not at all. You have to be upfront and direct when talking about sex with teens. And yes, if an adult represents clear morality, simple right and wrong, you end up strengthening the teens to make the right decisions for themselves. Confession too, heals the spiritual harm of past sins, another great benefit that comes out of the straight-up “sex-talk.”

    One grave weakness, as illustrated by your example, is that too many adults are either compromised in their own lives, or lack the moral courage to explain simple right and wrong. This lack of adult leadership is one reason why so many teens get hurt by sexual sins. Why, for example, aren’t our parents resisting the sexualization of children more, ie: Abercrombie and Fitch, MTV, etc.?

  9. Bill: I think what you are doing is great. Have you ever heard the song “I know about love, I read it in a magazine” by British folk/rock singer Richard Thompson? It perfectly captures the dangerous and wrong headed attitudes teenage boys have about sex, and the absence of good information, that were prevalent when I was younger and probably exists today.

    I just read a great quote. “The two most frightening years in a woman’s life is when she turns thirteen and when her daughter turns thirteen.” It was in a review of the movie “Thirteen” which traces the decent of a 13 year-old honor student into promiscuity, durgs and crime.

  10. Dr. Bouteneff does what many so-called Orthodox leaders have been doing lately, try to avoid offense. The trouble with such an attempt is that it is not only impossible, it violates the very nature of our faith. I am offended daily by myself, by my inability to come close to what our Lord commands us to do. If Christianity were not offensive, Christ would never have been crucified and we would not have the long and continuing history of martyrdom, confessors, and fools for Christ.

    Truth is a two edged sword, it not only highlights the someone else’s short comings and sin, it shines a brighter light on our own.

  11. Vocation!

    I, as have all of you, have been struggling with finding clear, morally acceptable, and theologically sound answers to many of the questions raised here. It is often difficult to apply broad statements of the Church’s teaching in concrete and culturally specific ways. With the help of my wonderful 18 year old son, I think I may be arriving at an answer. Vocation. Vocation is not just the call to monasticism or the clergy, it is the call each of us has from Jesus throught the Holy Spirit as to how He wants us to witness to Him and His grace.

    The lack of both a clear understanding of vocation and a dearth of teaching on its function accounts for much of the seeming confusion of the Church on many of the social issues we face, particularly war.

    My son, by the grace of God, has discovered early what appears to be his vocation (at least at this time in his life). He has done this after many years of thought, contemplation, discussion, and prayer. The depth of his decision goes far beyond anything I was remotely capable of when I was his age that it is breath taking. He has a vocation to protect and defend. At this stage in his life he has chosen to exercise that vocation by enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard. As part of his senior year in our homeschool, we have required him to write a paper on the Orthodox Church’s understanding of war and military service. He has done the research and has a clear working thesis after sorting through such seemingly contradictory theological positions as those taken by Fr. Alexander Webster and Fr. Stanley Harakas among others.

    For my son, it is clear that the path of pacifism and the path of military service are not two different paths based upon two different understandings of the Gospel, they are different vocations stemming from the same Gospel principal, i.e., “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends” One vocation calls on the Christian to witness to the truth and suffer the consequences without resistance and in love. The other vocation calls upon the Christian to offer his life in the defense of those unwilling or unable to defend themselves against physically aggressive evil without hate.

    In the area of sex, if we were to teach and model vocation for our kids, sex would fall into its proper place quite easily. My wife and I have always been open and honest about sex with my son. He has real friendships with several young women, that seem surprisingly devoid of sexual tension. When we talk about sex, drugs, and drinking these days, his response, which will serve him well as he goes into the world, is “Why would I want to do that?” Again, I think my son is able to clearly order his life (still largely in theory I understand) because of the work he has done in discovering his vocation.

    Oh, Dean, you really don’t need to sacrifice your daughter to the whims and temptations of public school, there are a plethora of other options.

  12. Kushiner is most emphatically NOT right. He deliberately miscontrues Bouteneff’s position. Bouteneff is not try to make pro-life views and pro-choice views morally equivalent. And I think thoughtful reflection will reveal that both parties have strengths and weaknesses. The Democrats are wrong on abortion, on gay marriage, on a host of other issues. However, the Bush administration is wrong on the environment, wrong on the war in Iraq, wrong to make the rich richer and deprive the poor of health care. Further, Cheney has made wishy washy statements about gay marriage. On the other hand, Bush has done a very good job combatting those who traffic in human beings on the international level. On the other hand, every time I hear that outsourcing is good for the economy, as stated by some guy with a good job, I want to puke.
    I think that what Bouteneff is trying to say is that he, too, is confused about which catidate is the better choice. I don’t think that the issue is clear. And frankly people who can’t see the truth of this – that we a choosing the lesser of 2 evils – frankly scare me.

  13. We always choose the lesser of two evils. As long as we live in a fallen world we will always be faced with two radically imperfect people who seek power. Power to do what? Power for what reason? Even the best of the people who want to be President have a basic corruption in their heart or they would not want to be President.

    We are faced with a decision based upon a hierarchy of values and the best judgement we can make on which person will handle the temptations of power the more responsibly. Do we have enough information? No.

    Such issues as war, poverty, the environment, health care, health insurance, taxes, and education will always have a degree of ambivalence to them and questions about which policy does the most good or the least harm. Even gay marriage is not quite as clear cut as it is made out to be on a social level (it certainly is on a spiritual level).

    Abortion, cloning, and slavery however should arouse no political or social opposition, but even slavery does. The black Baltimore Sun reporter who first started reporting on the modern slavery in Africa was pilloried by his peers and many in the black community. Why? the slave masters were black and largely Muslim so it was politically incorrect to indicate they had serious moral flaws, that and many of the slaves were Christian. The preponderance of Democrats are IMO on the wrong side on these issues despite what sometimes appears to be a more compassionate policy toward the underclass.

    The fact that George Bush is taking heat from both the left and the right means he has the middle. The middle in American politics is usually a clear winner, whether the candidate is really in the middle or not doesn’t matter, its the perception that counts. John Kerry does not have the middle. Should American poltical history hold true, he will loose and it may not even be close. I say this without prejudice, just a utilitarian observation.

    If one believes that our society, culture, and way of life are under serious, continuing attack by an organized Jihad AND that our society, culture, and way of life are worth fighting for, AND that superior physical force is the only way to prevail against the Jihad, then one will likely vote for Bush. If not, then the choice will be much more difficult and in all likelyhood the choice will be for Kerry or a third party candidate.

    All of this begs the question, Is our political organization and expression amenable to full Christian participation? The good Dr. asks a good question, and tries to give a good answer, but his answer fails because he fails to ground his answer fully in the Church AND the response of each individual believer to his/her calling.

  14. Fr. Hans;

    If I have done anything, I managed not to damage my son too badly. For that I thank God. I certainly did not make my post to bring attention to myself, but as a concrete demonstration of the power of diligently looking for and responding to one’s vocation. Until the last several months, I had no idea of what my son was doing or the depths he was plumbing. We fail our children badly by expecting far too little of them spiritually and by offering them up to the cultural wolves with no protection. Our primary reason for homeschooling was to offer such protection. By the grace of God that seems to have suceeded.

    In addition, my son had the God given good fortune to have been raised within the loving protection of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, a benefit I did not have.

  15. Dr. Bouteneff’s article seems to sympathize with a conscientious decision not to vote in the elections. His “fence-straddling” on the topic of how to vote seems to indicate a position which sees voting itself as problematic. At the same time, he doesn’t forbid people from voting, but rather makes an appeal for people to be conscientious. I think one of the more interesting comments he makes about voting is that people seeking monastic vocations usually move away from engaging in it. He doesn’t go into detail why this is usually the case, but it would be interesting to find out.

    There are many who want to exploit politics to bring about morality. Political parties are certainly aware of this and use this knowledge for gaining power. They engage their constituents to focus on certain moral issues so as to distract from the periphery and what may be much more spiritually important. In the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem, we pray “deliver me from … a lust of power”. Even a lust of power to bring about something which we see as good can be corrupting. Engaging in political battles over issues of morality can create a weak and bastardized morality.

    We are obligated to “give to Caesar what it Caesar’s” by paying our taxes and serving our country, but we are not obligated to bow to caesar by playing his political keep-your-eye-on-the-moral con-games.

    In the early Christian Church, the pagan Roman government of the time was supportive of far worse atrocities than ours including abortion, pedophilia, homosexuality, and the feeding of Christians to lions. What was the political stance of the early Church? Certainly they didn’t have an option to vote, but rather they did see the pagan government of their time as “the servant of God”. Their differences with government were spiritual and moral, but not political.

  16. We always choose the lesser of two evils
    Well, there you have it. Like you had no choice but choosing evil. Or seeing the good in the other candidates. Seems impossible. The USAns could decide not to vote for Bush or Kerry and instead vote for another candidate. In 2000 if all the people who didnt vote voted for Nader, or any other candidate than Bush or Gore, there wouldnt be a deficit, an unjustified war, allies turning into enemies and so on.

  17. Dean,

    When posting an article, take the first paragraph or two and link the rest. This is for copyright and space considerations.

    I don’t think Doctorow’s piece speaks to the man either. It only speaks to how Doctorow would like to see the man, like so many others of the self-fashioned cultural elite.

  18. Dr. Bouteneff throws all the vegetables into the pot, boils it for five hours, and then decides all vegetables are the same because all he created was mush.

    The fact is that there is a world of difference between candidates and parties.

    Take Terry Schiavo for example. This week the Florida Supreme Court decided she should die. Would the result be the same if the Justices held to an ethic that values life? Forida judges are elected. Informed votes matter.

    The Bush administration is very active on the human rights front in areas like Sudan, rolling back the pro-abortion politics of the left in international affairs, to name others. If the Clinton administration is the example, a Democratic win would roll back these initiatives.

    People of good will can disagree about many issues. Christians can be Democrats or Republicans. But to posit, as Dr. Bouteneff does, that no real differences exist between parties in the great cultural questions of the day is naive.

    And no, it is not a choice between the “worst of two evils.” Politics, society, culture, can be a messy business (human affairs generally are), but to call this business “evil” provides a convenient excuse for not engaging the many important matters that need the engagement of thoughtful and clear headed people more than ever.

    There is a kind of moral equivalence in Dr. Bouteneff’s piece but it’s construed by his idea of how social discourse functions, rather than by any concrete engagement with the issues themselves. It’s the old relativist shibboleth albeit with an ecclesiastical spin: absolute good trumps relative good; since perfection can’t be reached, there is no real use in trying to make things better.

    Dr. Bouteneff leaves unsaid his assumptions that define such things as what human rights policy should be, the abortion policies of prominent Orthodox politicians, the failure of the Great Society, among a whole host of very crucial questions. No political party has the lock on these questions for the simple reason that politics follows culture, not vice-versa. To reduce these grave cultural questions to a political mush however, only muddles the debate at a time we need moral clarity.

  19. Fr. Hans writes: “Take Terry Schiavo for example. This week the Florida Supreme Court decided she should die. Would the result be the same if the Justices held to an ethic that values life?”

    That was not the issue before the court, and I’m sure you know that. The issue was the constitutionality of a particular Florida law. Are you actually suggesting that the court should make decisions so as to bring about a particular outcome regardless of the legal considerations? I thought the folks on the right didn’t like “activist” judges.

  20. It’s not being an “activist” judge to impartially uphold a citizen’s constitutional rights . Terry Schiavo’s rights have been stripped away and she is being treated as a “thing” .

    The constitutionality of “Terri’s Law” which was passed as an emergency reaction to the original death sentence Terri Schiavo was under shouldn’t be an issue, I’ll agree with you there, but who made it an issue ? Why was it necessary to pass a special law ? The reason was because the constiution of both Florida and the United States were being ignored in Terri’s case .

    The burden of proof is on the pro-abort , pro-euthanasia crowd who want so badly to murder this defenseless woman . When did she give up her basic rights ?
    Because they say so ?

  21. David writes: “Terry Schiavo’s rights have been stripped away and she is being treated as a ‘thing’.”

    Not at all. As far as I can tell, this case has been handled in accordance with standard medical ethics and state law. While it is true that a lot of people don’t like the outcome, that doesn’t meant that the law wasn’t followed. You claim that the Florida and federal constitutions have been ignored? In what way? I have yet to an explanation of how this case could have been handled differently without effectively dismantling the way that end-of-life decisions are typically handled.

    There’s nothing unusual about the Schiavo case. Every day across the country probably hundreds of families are confronted with end-of-life decisions in which the family member in question did not sign an advanced directive and did not talk to a large number of people about his or her wishes in such a case. At that point things are pretty much up to the spouse or other close relative. If you don’t like that system, with what would you replace it?

  22. phonono,

    Perhaps the question can be phrased, Who will do the least harm, rather than which is the lesser of two evils. We all have evil in our hearts, the sad fact of living in a fallen world is that all of our choices, even the best intentioned ones, come from mixed motives. I am not saying by any means that there is not good in both candidates as people and in their intentions. The reality of politics, however, means that attack campaigning works (aggressively focusing on your opponent’s perceived negatives). There are some elections i.e. Ronald Reagan against Carter and again against Mondale, when the electorate overwhelmingly accepts the positives one candidate brings. In some others, the vast majority of the electorate perceives one candidate as a negative (Johnson vs Goldwater). No matter who wins, mistakes will happen, lies will be told, and even bad things will be done in the name of the American people.

    Evil cannot be overcome in someone else, or in a culture. Evil can only be overcome through the asceticism and repentance of the individual person and that is only possible because of the sacrifice of our Lord, Jesus Christ, on the Cross. Even when God chose the Nation of Israel, He worked through individuals to deliver His message and act as guides. The individual, empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit then effects others for good. That is why St. Seraphim of Sarov told us that when one acquires the Holy Spirit, i.e., salvation, thousands around will be saved. By continuing to concentrate on the masses and mass solutions, we miss the boat. We are each of us called to do something for God, if we discover what that something is and responded to His call, the world will change. However, if we set out to change the world without reference to or foundation in God, we will wreck havoc. If you want an argument against the war in Iraq, I’ve just given you the best one. Be warned thought, if you use it, it is also the best argument against all of the liberal social engineering programs and all of the movements for “social justice”.

    I have no faith in social movements at all as social movements. The civil rights movement achieved what it achieved because the principal leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, saw the battle as one of faith, repentance, and salvation, not just for blacks but for whites as well. Unfortunately, in today’s world such a perspective has been lost.

  23. No, I’m suggesting that the ruling of the judge presiding over the case is arbitrary and capricious and violates Schiavo’s constitutional right to life. David is correct. Judicial activism forced the hand of the Florida Legislature, an unfortunate occurance but nevertheless necessary until the judge either changes his mind or is removed.

  24. Jim, you need to study the particulars in the Schiavo case. This is not a case about end of life decisions, but a case of deliberately trying to kill someone who, with proper therapies, shows great promise of improvement.

    Start with my article The Martyrdom of Terri Shiavo. Read another by Wesley Smith The Assault on Terri Schiavo Continues.

    If you still believe how the judge handled this case should be the rule for disabled people, you might want to make sure you never end up disabled.

  25. Mr. Holman writes,”There’s nothing unusual about the Schiavo case.”

    No, there is nothing “unusual” about the Schiavo case, unless of course you think the behavoir of Michael Schiavo is unusal. Forbidding his wife’s family access to their daughter and sister, entering into an adulterous relationship with another woman and having two children with this woman, and fighting to deny your wife hydration which would produce a painful and horrific death, makes for the run of the mill “end of life” case.

    The point still remains. The Florida Supreme Court are elected officials and given that they are also politicans with a political agenda. The majority of the Court is composed of liberal Democrats. It is fair to ask whether they are making their decision based on law or on their political philosphy which does not respect the sanctity of life.

  26. Fr. Hans writes: “Jim, you need to study the particulars in the Schiavo case. This is not a case about end of life decisions, but a case of deliberately trying to kill someone who, with proper therapies, shows great promise of improvement.”

    I have studied the particulars. The issue of her possible recovery has already been reviewed several times by the court:

    “The evidence is overwhelming that Theresa is in a permanent or persistent vegetative state. . . . Over the span of this last decade, Theresa’s brain has deteriorated because of the lack of oxygen it suffered at the time of the heart attack. By mid 1996, the CAT scans of her brain showed a severely abnormal structure. At this point, much of her cerebral cortex is simply gone and has been replaced by cerebral spinal fluid.
    Medicine cannot cure this condition.” — Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal, January 2001

    “In the initial adversary proceeding, a board-certified neurologist who had reviewed a CAT scan of Mrs. Schiavo’s brain and an EEG testified that most, if not all, of Mrs. Schiavo’s cerebral cortex–the portion of her brain that allows for human cognition and memory–is either totally destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Her condition is legally a “terminal condition.”

    765.101(17), Fla. Stat. (2000). Although it is conceivable that extraordinary treatment might improve some of the motor functions of her brain stem or cerebellum, the Schindlers have presented no medical evidence suggesting that any new treatment could restore to Mrs. Schiavo a level of function within the cerebral cortex that would allow her to understand her perceptions of sight and sound or to communicate or respond cognitively to those perceptions.” — Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal, July 2001

    “Viewing all of the evidence as a whole, and acknowledging that medicine is not a precise science, the court finds that the credible evidence overwhelmingly supports the view that Terry Schiavo remains in a persistent vegetative state. Even Dr.
    Maxfield acknowledges that vegetative patients can track on occasion and that smiling can be a reflex. . . .The [Court’s] Mandate requires something more than a belief, hope or “some” improvement. It requires this court to find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the treatment offers such sufficient
    promise of increased cognitive function in Mrs. Schiavo’s cerebral cortex so as to significantly improve her quality of life. There is no such testimony, much less a preponderance of the evidence to that effect. The other doctors, by contrast, all
    testified that there was no treatment available to improve her quality of life.” — Trial court, November 2002

    Fr. Hans: “If you still believe how the judge handled this case should be the rule for disabled people, you might want to make sure you never end up disabled.”

    In considering her a “disabled” person capable of recovery, you assume the issue in question. This issue has been before the court a number of times, and always with the same finding. Again, I have to ask: if you don’t like the current system, with what would you replace it?

  27. Jim, you fall into the trap of “I think, therefore I am” rather than I am because God created me.

    Once someone goes on life sustaining equipment and does not recover, we have a real conundrum. We are faced with a conscious decision to kill a human being. It is a form of capital punishment, yet the only crime the individual has committed is to be in a persistent vegitative state and those responsible for the care are either out of money or out of emotional resources or both.

    The state has the authority to end the life of its citizens with due process of law, but the criteria have to be reasonable, just and the punishment neither cruel nor unusual. In “end of life” cases the punishment is cruel even if it is increasingly usual and the criteria frequently arbitrary. If you object to capital punishment, consistency demands that you object to the type of treatment Ms. Shiavo has received.

  28. Michael: You should be proud of your son. Young people like him, serving our country, represent the best of our nation.

    However I would want your son commanded by a leader who has demonstrated competency and the ability to make wise decisions. George W. Bush has failed to demonstrate either. His decisions have hurt this country and caused needless loss of life.

    We must take a President’s moral positions into account, but we also have to consider their fitness for office and their record of succes or failure.

    (1) Before September 2001 the CIA survelience was picking up so much “chatter” of an impending attack on US soil that CIA chief George Tenet remarked that “the dashboard was flashing red all summer.” In August Bush received a Presidential Briefing entitled “Bin Ladin determined to strike in the United States” and without taking a single action to safeguard this nation, left for a month long vacation.

    (2) The months preceding our March 2003 invasion of Iraq represent a textbook example of how not to conduct diplomacy or go to war. As result of arrogant and gratuitously insulting comments by Bush adminsitation officials squandered the worlwide good will and sympathy our nation enjoyed following September 11th. In order to demonstrate that a “Preemtive War”, is not an immoral and illegal war off aggression the evidence that there is a need for self defense must be clear-cut, solid and reliable. The Bush administration embarked upon it’s own war of aggression with ever-shifting claims that were dubious, unsubstantiated and false. As result we went in without a coalition that would have enjoyed legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqis or been able to share the cost.

    (3) The Bush admisitration had no plans for managing Iraq’s transition from Baathist to democratic government and ignored and discarded plans that were offered by our own Defense and State department experts. We had too few troops to maintain order in the country. We allowed looting, crime and chaos to ensue. We allowed terrorists and radical fundamentalists to establish havens for terrorism. We have not rebuilt the Iraqi infrastucture or given the iraqis a better life. he occupation has been a failure in every sense of the word, and that failure has cost over 1,000 American servicemen their lives and caused grave injury to 8,000 others.

    (4) The Bush administration’s fiscal and tax policies have turned a $200 billion budget surplus that was needed to pay down the nation’s debt, into permanent structural deficits of a half trillion annually that imperil our nation’s economic security.

    (5) As result of the Bush administration’s economic policies, the number of jobs lost has been greater than the number of jobs created for the first time since the Great Depression. Wages are stagnating and the cost of health care soaring. The number of Americans without health insurance grew by 5 million under Bush’s Presidency.

    In the private sector a candidate with a record of failure would not have their contract renewed. It should be the same in government. George W. Bush who has shown himself so unfit to lead our nation should not be allowed to continue as our nation’s leader.

  29. Michael writes: “If you object to capital punishment, consistency demands that you object to the type of treatment Ms. Shiavo has received.”

    I think you’re looking to the wrong model here. This is not a criminal case but a medical end-of-life case. Any individual has the right to refuse any and all medical treatments. This refusal can occur personally, through an instrument such as an advanced directive, through a physician’s order such as a “no-code” order or a POLST (physician’s order for life-sustaining treatment) or through a surrogate.

    Michael Schiavo is the husband of the woman in question. In the absence of an advanced directive he serves as her surrogate decision-maker. His service in that role has been challenged by the woman’s family and rejected by the court. As the surrogate he initiated a court proceeding asking for a determination on whether her feeding tube should be removed. He took that position, based on what his wife had said to him and others, that she would not wish to continue life-sustaining treatments under those circumstances. Ms. Schiavo’s family took the opposite position. The court held with Mr. Schiavo, citing “clear and convincing evidence.” The court’s findings have been upheld through several appeals, including an appeal that included an extensive review of possible alternative or additional medical therapies.

    Ms. Schiavo suffers from what is defined in Florida as a terminal condition. The feeding tube, administered only upon a physician’s orders, is considered to be an invasive treatment that can be discontinued. In other words, were Ms. Schiavo conscious, she herself could request that the feeding tube be removed, in the same way that she could refuse any other intervention.

    My point is that in this case the process has been followed all the way through. And what I’m arguing for here is PROCESS, not for any particular outcome. Were the court to have held that Ms. Schiavo be maintained indefinetly in a vegatative state, based on the best understanding of what her wishes would have been, I would have supported that outcome.

    Again and again I have to ask: if you don’t like this process, with what would you replace it?

  30. Jim,
    Alternative model for unclear and/or disputed cases

    1st develop a model law that could be applied nationwide

    2nd: In a case when there is a unclear prior election or a disputed one the dispute would not be heard in the regular civil courts, but by an independent board made up of both appointed and elected members similar to the following:
    Appointment by Executive Branch, Appointment by Legislative Branch, elected at large. Panel to consist of experts in the field of medicine, law, and ethics along with reasonably qualified ordinary citizens, plus a chair. The panel would be rotating in nature, e.g., eight members, two in each category, with four only hearing each case. One appeal would be allowed to the other four members who did not hear the first case.

    3rd Once a person is placed on any kind of life support, no matter what the expected duration, a patient ombudsman is automatically appointed to represent the best interests of the patient and the patient alone.

    4th Clear guidelines as to who can act as guardian (in the Schiavo case the husband should have been ruled out because of his obvious conflict of interest due to the adulterous affair and the children).

    5th If the guardianship guidelines are not met, specific process for transferring guardianship to either other family, close friends, or the state.

    6th Mechanism for the state to assume the financial burden for care of patient if family is unable.

    7th Chance of recovery has to beyond any reasonable doubt with the burden of proof resting on those who wish to terminate the life, not the other way around.

    I would also make it a requirement for every licensed health practitioner be required to have state approved DNR’s[Do Not Resuscitate] and Living Wills available in their offices, make them obviously and readily available (driver’s license outlets too, similar to organ donor).

    One other issue that needs vigorous debate is the manner of death. I do not have a good solution here.

  31. Michael writes: “In a case when there is a unclear prior election or a disputed one the dispute would not be heard in the regular civil courts, but by an independent board made up of both appointed and elected members . . . ”

    I think you’re making a good stab at this, but I think there are a number of problems. First, what counts as a “dispute?” In other words, in any end of life case you could always have some friend, relative, nurse, physician, or bystander who disagrees with whatever decision is made. So the concept of the “dispute” would need to be filled in. Also, it’s not clear to me what exactly this board is supposed to do. More to the point, what you’re talking about seems to be very similar to a hospital medical ethics committee, except that their decisions are not legally binding. Another question is why you think such a board would be better able to determine what the patient’s wishes were than a judge.

    Michael: “Once a person is placed on any kind of life support, no matter what the expected duration, a patient ombudsman is automatically appointed to represent the best interests of the patient and the patient alone.”

    In end-of-life cases the task is to determine what the patient would want done, not to determine what the “best interest” of the patient is. For example, if you expressed a wish to be/not to be kept alive indefinetly on a ventillator, it would not be my job as a physician or surrogate or whatever to impose some other outcome on you. It’s your life and your choice, and whether I agree with it is irrelevant. Also, in the absense of an advanced directive, on what would the ombudsman base an opinion except on the statements of family and friends? This is exactly what the trial judge did, and found the husband’s account persuasive.

    Michael: “Clear guidelines as to who can act as guardian (in the Schiavo case the husband should have been ruled out because of his obvious conflict of interest due to the adulterous affair and the children).”

    In the Schiavo case the husband actually did not make the decision to terminate his wife’s care. Rather, he instituted a court proceeding the purpose of which was to determine the course of action that was consistent with his wife’s wishes. Another thing to consider is that every spouse is going to have some kind of actual conflict of interest.

    In general, I think you would find that many of your suggestions would open up yet other cans of worms. The system that we currently have is certainly far from perfect, but I think it does work well. I’m not sure that the other committees and entities that you advocate would add much to the current process.

  32. Jim, you didn’t study the particulars. You only quoted the decision of the court, But the bias of the court is precisely the issue in play. (You put a faith in judges that renders them almost infallible, btw.)

    The research is out there if your interested. I’m not going to reproduce it here. Start with the index of articles I listed on my site.

    Read Nat Henthoff’s article as well. Henthoff is an authentic liberal and one of the few left that has refused to jump on the culture of death bandwagon. Too bad most modern liberals have abandoned what liberalism once stood for.

  33. Fr. Hans writes: “Jim, you didn’t study the particulars. You only quoted the decision of the court, But the bias of the court is precisely the issue in play. (You put a faith in judges that renders them almost infallible, btw.)”

    I have read the articles you reference in addition to others. In my reading of these articles, virtually all of the substantive issues have been addressed in the decisions of the court, sometimes more than once.

    Please understand that I’m not saying that the parents of Ms. Schiavo don’t have a case. They do have a case, and they have been able to present that case to the courts. But the courts have not found that case compelling.

    As far as the bias of the judge, I suppose every judge has a bias. Having read the actual court decisions, I don’t detect any obvious bias from the judges, except a bias in favor of the standard decision-making process that is accepted in such cases.

    I don’t think that judges are infallible at all; they certainly can make mistakes. In this case it seems to me that the judge has made a good faith reading of the evidence and has come to conclusions based on the evidence. The Schiavo case presents us with various difficulties that make the conclusions less certain than we would like. In addition, it would be a rare end-of-life case in which you could not find dissenting opinions. But all things considered, I think that the decisions in this case have been reasonable and that they have been based on a preponderance of the evidence.

    No one is guaranteed a perfect decision, in either the realm of medicine or of law. Given the complexities of this case I think the courts have delivered a reasonable decision, even though it is not the decision that many would have wished.

  34. The problem with the Schiavo case is that the judge relied solely on the doctors supplied by the husband’s lawyers who are euthanasia advocates (both lawyers and doctors). In fact, the lead doctor employed by the husband has a history of advocating death in Minneapolis/St.Paul. He is not respected there.

    Other doctors, who studied the charts and videos but were not allowed direct access to Schiavo testified that she was not PVS.

    The judge, in other words, based his decision on doctors of his choosing, but only when they fit the husband’s agenda.

    The entire process is a mockery of justice. Michael Schiavo’s agenda is to kill his wife. The parents of Schiavo want to save her. The parent’s doctors, however, are not allowed to see her.

  35. Fr. Hans writes: “The problem with the Schiavo case is that the judge relied solely on the doctors supplied by the husband’s lawyers . . .Other doctors, who studied the charts and videos but were not allowed direct access to Schiavo . . . The judge, in other words, based his decision on doctors of his choosing, but only when they fit the husband’s agenda.”

    I’m not sure where you’re getting this. This is from the trial court record that is posted at http://abstractappeal.com/schiavo/trialctorder11-02.txt

    ” . . . the court directed that a physical examination of Terry
    Schiavo be done by her treating physician [not one of the experts].”

    “All of the five expert medical physicians have very impressive credentials and resumes. . . All are board-certified which was a requirement of the Mandate. Several teach or have taught in medical colleges, several are prolific writers for medical
    journals, some are young and some are not so young but, by and large, the court heard five days of excellent medical testimony concerning the issue of persistent vegetative state, possible treatment options and how these may or may not have an effect on Terry Schiavo. They were all well prepared, generally having reviewed all of the available medical records, videos, etc.”
    [This does not sound like bias to me, nor does it sound like the judge did not consider the testimony of all the physicians.]

    “Those who felt she was not in a persistent vegetative state placed great emphasis upon her interaction with her mother during Dr. Maxfield’s examination and the tracking of a balloon.”
    [An exam by one of the dissenting physicians.]

    “Another issue involved the piano music played via cassette tape in her room during Dr. Hammesfahr examination.” [Another exam.]

    “Dr. Hammesfahr feels his vasodilatation therapy will have a positive affect on Terry Schiavo. Drs. Greer, Bambakidis and Cranford do not feel it will have such an affect. It is clear that this therapy is not recognized in the medical community. . . .what undemises his creditability is that he did not present to this court any evidence other than his generalized statements as to the efficacy of his therapy on brain damaged individuals like Terry Schiavo. He testified that he has treated about 50 patients in the same or worse condition than Terry Schiavo since 1994 but he offered no names, no case studies, no videos and no tests results to support his claim that he had success in all but one of them. . . . he has only published one article and that was in 1995 involving some 63 patients, 60% of whom were suffering from whiplash. None of these patients were in a persistent vegetative state and all were conversant. Even he acknowledges that he is aware of no article or study that shows vasodilatation therapy to be an effective treatment for persistent vegetative state patients.”

    “Neither Dr. Hammesfahr nor Dr. Maxfield was able to credibly testify that the treatment options that they offered would significantly improve Terry Schiavo’s quality of life. While Dr. Hammesfahr blithely stated he should be able to get her
    to talk, he admitted he was not sure in what way he can improve her condition although he feels certain her can.”

    “Dr. Maxfield spoke of a “chance” of recovery although he stated there was a significant probability that hyperbaric therapy would improve her condition. It is clear from the evidence that these therapies are experimental insofar as the medical community is concerned with regard to patients like Terry Schiavo which is borne out by the total absence of supporting case studies or medical literature.”

    The text of the court order also discusses at length the video evidence and the interpretation thereof. Without quoting it at length, I’ll just say that the judge did not find it compelling.

    So I have a hard time understand why you think there was bias. The judge acknowledges the expertise of the physicians. The record discusses examinations by the physicians. The judge acknowledges that there are disagreements. In the case of possible therapies he looks for corroboration and documentation that the therapies will actually work, and finds none.

    Furthermore, in reviewing the findings of the trial court the appeals court in 2003 noted that “Each physician reviewed her medical records and PERSONALLY CONDUCTED A NEUROLOGICAL EXAMINATION of Mrs. Schiavo. [emphasis mine]

  36. Jim, the trial record includes only the testimony Judge Greer allowed into evidence. To quote the trial record alone doesn’t resolve the question of bias, since bias can only be understood by looking at a context broader than what the record provides.

    The discussion of bias is by necessity editorial commentary, since commentary is the only other venue by which the case can be publically examined. Remember, this commentary was compelling enough to get the Florida legislature to overturn Judge Greer’s ruling. (The technical points, the legality, of this move is irrelevant to the question of bias.) Word is that Gov. Bush may even bump the most recent ruling to appeal. Obviously he and his advisors think that evidence of judicial malpractice is clear enough to warrant such an appeal.

    So, here a few editorials that question Judge Greer’s action (and also show that the lawyers for Michael Schiavo, who wants to remove Terri’s feeding tube are affiliated with the euthanasia movement).

    Killing Terri Schiavo.

    Ruling on Terri’s Live.

    The Right to be Killed (the Disability Rights organization).

    Running through some editorial I came across Ann Coulter’s very good advice on what not to do in situations like this:

    In the absence of a living will, I would think the courts ought to be erring on the side of life. But short of that, couldn’t we at least all agree that the courts should not defer to the pull-the-plug demands from anyone who:

    1. expresses an unseemly enthusiasm for another person’s death;
    2. was the only person present when the incident leading to the persistent vegetative state occurred;
    3. stands to make money off the person’s death; or
    4. is wearing a “W.W.C.V.B.D.?” (what would Claus von Bulow do?) bracelet?

    The most comprehensive site is TerrisFight.org.

    What I really hope for however, is that liberals like yourself would return to the moral and political precepts that value human life. The embrace of the culture of death by modern liberalism may be the revelation of something that always existed in the heart of cultural liberalism (Malcolm Muggeridge argued years ago that it was based on his observations that liberals went to great lengths to deny the crimes against humanity of Lenin and Stalin).

    On the other hand, Nat Henthoff has managed to stay morally coherent and true to traditional liberal ideals. See: It’s Not Only About Terri Schiavo.

  37. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate whether marriage should grant a spouse the power to make medical decisions for the other should they become incapacitated when a living will is absent. Spouses may be acting out of selfish financial or other motives as seems to be the case with Mr. Schiavo. This living will should be a required addendum to every marriage license, in my opinion, and clearly state the individual’s desires in this regard.

    Why should one person have the ability to speak for the life of another?

  38. James, it’s hard to know what processes can be implemented to provide absolute assurance of fair play. The Schiavo case makes two points crystal clear however: 1) (quoting Coulter) watch out for anyone who expresses an unseemly enthusiasm for another person’s death and was the only person present when the incident leading to the (alleged) persistent vegetative state occured; and 2) watch out for lawyers who also are euthansia ideologues.

  39. Fr. Hans writes: “Jim, the trial record includes only the testimony Judge Greer allowed into evidence.”

    The trial record includes discussions of the substantive issues. For example, one of the web sites you recommended says that “[t]he most convincing medical testimony comes from Dr. William Hammesfahr, a neurologist specializing in the treatment of brain injuries, who has spent approximately twelve hours examining Terri.” But the judge discusses his testimony at length, and also evaluates the video evidence.

    The article also notes that “Judge Greer ordered the Schindlers not to photograph or videotape Terri in the future, under threat of legal sanction.” This is because of patient privacy concerns. In fact, one of the appeals court orders says that the court regrets having to put what otherwise would be confidential patient information into the public record. In other words you can’t just drop into a patient’s room and make videos whenever you feel like it even if you’re doing it for a good cause.

    The article criticizes Dr. Cranford at length. But Judge Greer found that the doctor appointed by the court, not Dr. Cranford, to have the most compelling testimony: “Perhaps the most compelling testimony was that of Dr. Bambakidis who explained to the court the agony and soul-searching which he underwent to arrive at his opinion that Terry Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state. He concluded that all the data as a whole supports permanent vegetative state.” [Note – not “persistent,” but “permanent.”

    As to the many other allegations in the articles, I can only say that some of them are addressed in the various court decisions and some are not. But inasmuch as the various allegations are true, they show that Mr. Schiavo is not the ideal surrogate. Unfortunately, this is what the court has to work with, and it demonstrates the importance of the advanced directive.

    Fr. Hans: “What I really hope for however, is that liberals like yourself would return to the moral and political precepts that value human life.”

    In this situation I think that my view are quite moderate, not liberal. I say this as someone who has worked in a university medical center for over twenty years, and who has volunteered in various roles during that time in the medical ethics community. I’ve lived through the death of my mother, suffering from a terminal illness, as she starved to death in a nursing home. As I hope you know by now, I think that the *process* by which these decisions are made is vitally important, and I am extremely reluctant to interfere in that process, even when the process is not as clear and clean and we would like it to be — as, unfortunately, it is in many cases.

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