Compassion unto Death


Compassion unto Death

By John Mallon

From the Sooner Catholic, March 24, 1996

"In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness, and tenderness leads to the gas chamber."

So said the late American novelist Flannery O'Connor years ago in her introduction to a book called A Memoir of Mary Ann. Miss O'Connor, a devout Catholic, did not write the book, but was asked to write the introduction by a group of nuns who assembled the book about a very exceptional child named Mary Ann who was seriously ill.

But what a remarkable and mysterious quote. What did she mean? I suspect if Miss O'Connor were writing in today's parlance she would have used the word "compassion" instead of "tenderness." All sorts of things are done these days in the name of "compassion." If one attempts to suggest a reference to objective standards of right and wrong one risks, in today's society, being branded as "uncompassionate."

The late American novelist Walker Percy, who also happened to be a devout Catholic, discussed this quotation in an interview in the July/August 1989 issue of Crisis magazine. He speaks there of what he refers to as the "Christian scandal" in the eyes of the modern world: the emphasis on individual human life. "Absent that," Percy says, "What's wrong with improving the quality of human life? What's wrong with getting rid of people who are in the way? What's wrong with putting old, miserable people out of their misery? What's wrong with getting rid of badly handicapped, suffering children? Once you're on that slippery slope, where does it end? It ends in the gas chamber. If the consensus is that Jews are bad for the polity, what's wrong with getting rid of the Jews? How do you make the argument that we shouldn't get rid of Jews, or gypsies, or Catholics, or 'anti-social blacks?'"

How indeed.

We are now well along on that slippery slope in the United States of America of the 1990s, and have just made a quantum slide further down with the recent finding by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the terminally ill have a constitutional "right to die." This, like legal abortion, is ostensibly in the name of "compassion." We are, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, governing by compassion, in the absence of faith, and the result is death. Will it lead to the gas chamber? What is to stop it?

Percy commented in the same interview on a book produced in the days of the Weimar Republic of Germany called, The Defense of the Destruction of Life Without Value. I have also heard that title translated as The Defense of the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. He noted that during the Weimar Republic legal abortion and euthanasia became widespread in that society. Later, he was visiting Germany in the 30s before the war broke out, and found the people to be very tenderhearted. He wondered how the gas chambers could have been erected in a society of such kind, caring people.

In America today, religion, especially in its traditional forms which reject the moral relativism, is widely attacked as uncaring and uncompassionate. (Moral relativism is the attitude that says we invent our own truth-"whatever is true for you.") But if you think about it, what else besides the Judeo-Christian tradition is standing between you and the gas chamber? If we abandon a way of governance that considers itself accountable to God, and put in its place a system which makes up "truth" as it goes along, accountable to nothing but a vague concept of "compassion," who is safe? Whoever seizes power and decides how "compassion" is defined, that's who-until someone with a bigger gun comes along.

With this court decision we are one step closer to this scenario. We are that much deeper into the Culture of Death Pope John Paul warns us about. Compassion and tenderness are among our finest and noblest emotions, but when they are not governed by truth, and when they replace truth as governing principles-as if an "angel of light”—they can only lead into the jaws of death.