Cardinal Peter Turkson was in Toronto March 21 to deliver the 2016 John M. Kelly Lecture at the University of St. Michael’s College. Photo by Michael Swan

Progress is not always a good thing, says cardinal

  • March 23, 2016

TORONTO - We have the technology to extend life beyond its natural limits, so why not apply our technological resources to end a life when natural death eludes us? Why not take full responsibility for the control humans already exercise over life?

For an African Christian, or any sort of Christian really, the idea that humans should engineer the end of life — or its beginning — is dangerous thinking, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana told The Catholic Register

Turkson was in Toronto March 21 to deliver the 2016 John M. Kelly Lecture at St. Basil’s Church on the campus of the University of St. Michael’s College. The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace used his lecture to promote Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ by questioning our definition of progress.

“We cannot live as a human society in our interconnectedness, in our interdependence, if we are not able to support and uphold one another,” Turkson said.

Whenever people decide to take charge over the end of life they act as individuals outside of society and without regard to the common good. To elevate individual will above every other consideration, making individual autonomy the only consideration, breaks the common bond of humanity. In the Catholic view and in the African view, humanity and human dignity are common property which all people share as human beings.

“The thing about assisted suicide or euthanasia or whatever you call it, how does it make for the due recognition of the dignity and the character of human life?” Turkson asked.

“No individual is an island,” he told his audience. “This is true in every aspect and phase of human life. Relationship is fundamental to being human. End-of-life provisions must not neglect this point.”

It’s not as if the Catholic Church runs away from the struggle, pain and suffering that can accompany death. Nor does the Church promote some sort of ideology of suffering, Turkson said. Palliative sedation and other forms of pain management which may hasten death but whose purpose is to keep patients comfortable and at peace are more than acceptable. But deciding that some forms of human life, some kinds of disability, make human lives disposable, used-up and undignified subtracts from the value and dignity of all human life.

“Compassion is misplaced when it intentionally hastens death, in fact, it discards. It is the ultimate form of exclusion, marginalization and throwing away,” said Turkson.

Laudato Si’ is about much more than just the environment or climate change, Turkson said. Pope Francis is attempting to reframe our thinking about progress, culture, technology and economics by asking how human beings should live together on a planet with limited resources.

“We are on the brink. We are on the precipice. It’s almost like suicide now,” he said.

Catholic social teaching, which elevates the common good over individualism, is not an attempt to limit freedom or stifle liberty.

“We don’t force anything. This is offered,” Turkson said.

In the 21st century, accepting the Church’s offering of social teaching means reconsidering our understanding of progress, he said. When progress is thought of exclusively in terms of another point of GDP growth or the bit technology on the market it limits our ability to think about how communities advance collectively to build a better society, he said.

“Yes, there is the material side of a person. But there’s also the spiritual side.”

The spiritual isn’t necessarily confined to monasteries, monks and meditation. It relies on a culture that values human flourishing — that elevates the ways in which we collectively provide for everyone, including the poor, the marginal, the disabled and the heartbroken, to discover the possibilities of human life.

“Access to education, access to health care, access to information, these are ultimately what determines how well people live,” said Turkson.

Education is pointless in a culture that does not value knowledge. Health care is meaningless in a society that does not guard public health. Elevating the individual at the expense of our collective good can only undercut our freedom in the long run, Turkson argues.

Catholic social teaching, on the other hand, is all about the common good.

“The common good for us as a Church is the ultimate objective and aim of any decent human progress,” Turkson said. “That all of us be enabled to experience the flourishing that belongs to all human beings allows the corresponding development of the dignity of every human being.”

The Church isn’t against economic progress or advances in technology. It only argues these must serve a purpose.

“A technocratic mentality has come to dominate all aspects of life,” said Turkson. “It reduces all of reality to objects that can be manipulated limitlessly... This technocratic paradigm is the conviction that all reality, including human life, can be reduced to objects which people can endlessly manipulate for the sake of profit and without the slightest ethical consideration.”

The issues of human trafficking and modern slavery which women’s religious orders have highlighted over recent decades are a key area for Catholic social thought, said Turkson. Greed is not good and the global traffic in women for sex and men and children for the anonymous labour on the underside of the global economy only shows how the paradigm of profit can lead us away from progress.

“When one man is trying to step on another man’s head and neck, it’s always the gain. People think there’s gain to be made and then they are ready to do all of that,” Turkson said. “The fraternity of humanity would have us recognize and accept and affirm the dignity of each person, dignity which may not be compromised and reduced in any way by lifestyles such as enslavement or prostitution or any of those forms. There’s a big challenge there.”

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