Florida Bishops Accused of 'Deafening Silence' in Euthanasia Case

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - A Catholic media organization Wednesday criticized Florida's Catholic bishops for not speaking out in the case of a Catholic woman who is disabled and whose husband is seeking court permission to let her die of starvation and dehydration. In response, the office of the Florida bishop in whose diocese the woman lives re-released a nearly 10-month-old statement explaining that the church "will refrain from passing judgment."

Cecilia Martin - editor of The Catholic Advocate in the St. Augustine, Fla., Diocese and a member of the Catholic Media Coalition (CMC) - said she finds "inexplicable" the inaction on the part of Florida's bishops in the matter.

"The silence on the part of the Florida bishops is deafening. Catholics across the state are justifiably outraged at this act of cowardice," Martin said in an e-mail Wednesday. "The Florida bishops have made no less than 10 appeals to the governor for criminals on death row, asking that their sentences be changed to life in prison. For Terri Schiavo, there has not been one single public word."

As CNSNews.com previously reported, attorneys for the parents and siblings of 39-year-old Theresa "Terri" Schindler Schiavo - who suffered brain damage under uncertain circumstances in 1990 - asked the Florida Supreme Court Monday to stop her husband from discontinuing her feeding and hydration.

The husband, Michael Schiavo, and his medical experts claim that Terri is in a "Persistent Vegetative State" and that there is no chance for recovery. Michael's attorney argued that Terri had previously expressed a desire not to be kept alive by artificial means should she ever become disabled.

But medical experts supporting Terri's parents dispute those claims. They have said that Terri is alert, responsive and attempting to communicate with the world around her to the best of her limited ability. With rehabilitation and therapy, they argue, her condition could improve significantly.

Bishop cites 'significant disagreement' for lack of involvement

The office of Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Terri's diocese, originally issued a statement on Oct. 15, 2002, regarding her situation.

"Some of the members of Terri's family believe that her condition is irreversible and inevitably deteriorating towards death, while others do not," the statement noted. "As there is significant disagreement among the family of Terri Schiavo, the Catholic Church would prefer to see all parties take the safer path.

"The Church, however, will refrain from passing judgment on the actions of anyone in this tragic moment," it continued.

But, according to the signatories to a July 18 letter written to all of the Catholic bishops in Florida by 18 members of the Catholic media, the Catholic Church has already "passed judgment" on all euthanasia cases.

"According to Catholic doctrine human life has inherent value and dignity regardless of its condition," the Catholic media members wrote. "Medical records show that Terri Schiavo is not in a persistent vegetative state nor is her death imminent. Therefore, the removal of her feeding tube has the sole purpose of causing her death."

The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines euthanasia as, "An action or an omission which, of itself or by intention, causes the death of handicapped, sick, or dying persons -- sometimes with an attempt to justify the act as a means of eliminating suffering."

The Catechism's text states that euthanasia "violates the fifth commandment of the law of God."

"Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable," the document states beginning in paragraph 2277. "Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.

"The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded," it adds.

Bishop says court, public debate not the place to resolve dispute

Bishop Lynch's statement acknowledged that the debate over the legal and medical issues has reached inside the local church.

"The public discussion of Terri Schiavo's right to life touches the lives of many people in our Church and in our community," Lynch's statement said. "It is important that the Catholic faithful keep in mind that this is a serious moral issue, and that it can be resolved adequately neither in a court of law nor in the public forum."

The Catholic Catechism also addresses such controversies, as well.

"The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected," states paragraph 2278. Whether Michael Schiavo is acting on behalf of the "reasonable will and legitimate interests" of his wife, or in his own interest is also a topic of controversy.

Previous written comments by the bishops of the Florida Catholic Conference also seem to contradict the "hands-off" approach in Bishop Lynch's statement.

"Clearly, nourishment or hydration may be withheld or withdrawn where that treatment itself is causing harm to the patient or is useless because the patient's death is imminent, as long as the patient is made comfortable," the bishops wrote in an April 27, 1989, statement on "The Life, Death and the Treatment of Dying Patients."

They noted that the phrases "death is imminent" and "terminally ill" are intended to imply that a physician can predict that the patient will die "within a few days or weeks, regardless of what life prolonging methods are utilized."

Medical experts agree that Terri Schiavo is not terminally ill, nor is her death imminent, unless her feeding and hydration are stopped. The dispute over whether she is in a "coma" or "Persistent Vegetative State" is also irrelevant, according to the bishops' statement.

"Thus we can say as a general rule that artificial sustenance should not be withheld or withdrawn from these patients," they wrote.

Martin believes the written statement is even stronger evidence of the bishops' hypocrisy, speaking out against the execution of criminals while remaining silent about what she calls the potential murder of Terri Schindler Schiavo.

"Starvation is not legal for executions, or for animals; it is deemed too cruel," Martin wrote. "When will the Florida bishops speak?"

If the appeal to the Florida Supreme Court is unsuccessful, Probate Judge George Greer will set a new date to end Terri Schiavo's feeding and hydration. The current stay by an appellate court mandating her continued care will expire Aug. 25.

E-mail a news tip to Jeff Johnson.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.