The General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for life has been meeting in Rome for the past few days, discussing issues that affect the elderly and the disabled, two groups that Pope Francis has said are marginalized in today’s “throwaway culture”.
Established by Blessed John Paul II in 1994, the Pontifical Academy’s purpose is “to study, instruct and proceed according to the principal problems of law and biomedicine regarding the advancement and defense of life.”
Although abortion has been the dominant life issue for many years, the increasing threats against the lives of the elderly and disabled have gained traction. Legislation in many Western countries that favor euthanasia is on the rise. The recent law passed in Belgium that allows for children under 18 to request euthanasia has put a spotlight on the issue of what lives are and aren’t worth living.
Bishop Anthony Fisher OP of Parramata (Australia), a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, believes that the Church’s stance is clear: every life deserves to be lived. Bishop Fisher spoke to ZENIT on the Pontifical Academy’s General Assembly and the work of defending those who are considered a burden to the world but are a treasure of the Church.
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ZENIT: In his message to the Pontifical Academy, Pope Francis describes a “tyrannical dominion forced upon us by a logic of economics that discounts, excludes and at times even kills our elderly.” For you what are the most serious concerns that are threats against the culture of life?
Bishop Fisher: Well with respect to the elderly and the disabled, who are the two groups we are looking at in this conference, the most obvious threat is the movement for euthanasia in many parts of the world. It has only grown gradually, much more slowly in fact than abortion: though a number of jurisdictions now allow euthanasia, in one form or another, most countries still do not. And there is a reasonable hope that this will continue to be resisted in many places. The battle against abortion has proven much harder. Now there are many reasons for that, but one might be the love, gratitude or respect for the elderly that most people feel: we’ve known them for a long time. Many people don’t feel the same way about an unborn child they’ve never known. But whatever the drivers behind the push for euthanasia, it’s an obvious threat to the elderly and disabled.
There are also more subtle threats to the elderly and disabled. We know, for instance, that in the area of healthcare and aged care, very often the elderly do not receive the care their particular health conditions would want. In general, older people have less access to or are less likely to avail themselves of appropriate care than younger people have and do. The same could be said for people living with disabilities.
Sometimes it’s systemic: in many places caring for the elderly is regarded as “wasting resources”; they are said to have already had “a fair innings” and their share of resources; or they are categorized as “soon to be dead”, “not contributing”, “burdensome”. Whatever the argument or feeling, the end result is that people and systems are inclined to invest less of themselves or their resources in the elderly and disabled.
Sometimes, as I said, it’s systemic: it reflects a widespread attitude, even a policy. But at other times this discrimination is more indirect or unconscious or hidden. Consider, for instance, the way most of us gain access to professional healthcare: we go to a doctor. But if you’re frail, confused, sore or less mobile and you notice that something new is wrong with you, you’re less likely to have it seen to. It’s not that anyone has set out to deny you care but the effect of the way our system works is that you miss out. There is plenty of evidence of failures of this less conscious kind in our care for the elderly and disabled.
I think these are just symptoms of a bigger issue: What is our whole attitude to old age? Do we see that as normal life, one of the phases we all go through – God willing? Despite the over-medicalising of reality in our culture, the fact is that adolescence, pregnancy and menopause are not sicknesses and neither is old age. Why do we so readily problematize the elderly, as if they were a series of sicknesses and burdens? Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, take a more positive approach to old age? The Popes have been saying this for some time.
ZENIT: Essentially what Pope Francis describes as a “throwaway culture”…
Bishop Fisher: Exactly! His point is that cultures that are focused only on production and consumption undervalue those who are no longer “profitable” and are inclined to treat them as disposable. Christian wisdom on old age is very different. It talks of the virtue of pietas, of piety. When they hear that word people often think it’s about saying your prayers. But what the word means is a kind of grateful reverence for those who are the cause of our being and who have sustained us: God, first of all, and the things of God; but also our ancestors, especially our parents and grandparents; they are why we exist at all, they brought us into life, protected, nurtured and educated us.
Our attitude to those older people, even as they become less able to look after themselves, should be one of grateful reverence. And that seems to be missing in many contemporary settings. Pope Francis talks a lot about the people “on the margins”; he’s identified different groups of alienated people; and this week he has focused on the way the elderly and disabled can be marginalised, even lethally so.
That’s very different to traditional societies in which the elderly were at the center of things. They were seen as the bearers of wisdom and culture, as honored members of the community, the natural leaders and examples to others. Now we’re in a world where “the young and the beautiful” are the ones that are honored and privileged and the elderly are increasingly marginalized.
So I think part of what has to happen, if we are to relate better to older people, is to stop thinking of old age as a problem and elderly people as burdens. In Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II talked about the need to recover “the covenant between the generations”: the idea that each generation owes and gains certain things from the generations before and after it. Those who brought us into being and brought us up rightly look to us not only to do the same for the next generation but also to do some similar things for them in due course. This “covenant between the generations” idea seems to be lacking in many societies and the Popes have been calling us to recover it.
ZENIT: What then is the Pontifical Academy for Life doing to promote this culture of life that defends the elderly and the disabled?
Bishop Fisher: Well, at this present meeting the academy has brought together people of various backgrounds and academic expertise to focus on some medical, legal, theological and ethical issues around ageing and disability. We are also considering how Church and society can better respond. How, for instance, can we ensure that our legal systems, healthcare systems and social security systems don’t disadvantage the elderly and disabled? How, as a Church, can we better provide for them spiritually, emotionally and in other ways? And again we ask these questions not because we see elderly or disabled people as a problem, but because we see them as ordinary members of our community who have particular needs and gifts, as we all do at different stages of our lives.
ZENIT: What are your hopes for this Plenary Assembly that will help the elderly and the disabled at a diocesan level?
Bishop Fisher: For twenty years now the Pontifical Academy for Life has brought together top professionals from different areas to reflect on particular life issues within the context of Catholic teaching: this year it’s ageing and disability. One important result is it gets us thinking; it poses important questions and hopefully we keep thinking about them long after the meeting is over. Sometimes some more concrete, practical proposals comes forward as to what the Church might do or what we individually might do when we get back home to our respective countries. We’ll see what comes of this week’s very rich discussions.