Dr. Catherine Ferrier, the CCRL's chosen Bishop Adam Exner Award winner, has been an active opponent to euthanasia since the mid 1990s. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Montreal

Peter Stockland: Pro-lifers fight on with a tireless spirit

  • May 28, 2018

When Dr. Cathy Ferrier was announced as the Bishop Adam Exner Award winner by the Catholic Civil Rights League last week, she responded with the deep grace familiar to all who know her.

She immediately characterized the award as “recognition (of) all my colleagues and friends in Quebec and across the country who have been working tirelessly to protect vulnerable Canadians from the euthanasia laws and to defend doctors’ freedom of conscience. It is in their name that I accept the award.”

Of course, we’re all accustomed to the pro-forma tip of the hat acknowledging the myriad of invisible “little people” who make big things happen. Indeed, anyone who has watched, oh, say, the Academy Awards has savoured the desire to use the toe of a concrete boot to usher some thank-you-thank-you-thank-you braying jackass off the podium.

Ferrier’s words are distinguished from such unseemly self-congratulation in at least two ways. First, in their simple plain-spoken sincerity. 

She does not waste words, which means she means what she says and says what she means. I go back, time and again, to a debate Ferrier once had with Wanda Morris, an accountant who was then executive director of Dying With Dignity. At a pivotal point, the measured physician asked the loquacious number-cruncher: “But Wanda, if (euthanasia) isn’t killing, what is it?” One day, a chapter of my book-in-progress, Nine Words That Devastate In Debate, will be devoted to unpacking that immortal rhetorical question.

The second distinction goes beyond Ferrier’s own character, however, to the very cause in which she was joined by those in whose name she accepted the award. Unlike winners of every award we might care to imagine, the friends and colleagues she recognized have been afflicted, by worldly standards, with unmitigated failure. It will come as news to exactly no one that the pro-life movement has suffered a debacle of defeat upon defeat for 50 years. 

Yet consider the spirit in which those losses occurred. Visualize its contrast with what the response would be in almost any other field of human struggle. It is the spirit of Christian hope sustained by the wisdom that, in the words of an infinitely wise friend, “we are not here to win but to witness. Christ has already won for us.” But even at a purely mundane level, there is the indefatigable spirit of being bound together by a gorgeous, world-defying stubbornness that one day “we shall, we shall overcome.” Defeat? Yes. Surrender? Never.

Think about it. In winning the Exner Award for excellence in Catholic public life, Ferrier recognized those who also work, formally or informally, in the pro-life vineyard. She did not blame. She did not point fingers. She did not criticize those who, every day in every way, are forced to take another step backward in the fight for life. Not a bit.

What did she do instead? She praised the tireless work of others. Tireless. How easily we forget how exhausting it is to fall back, hold, rally, press forward, only to have to fall back again. 

In the course of researching a story on medical killing over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered pro-lifers who manifest the tirelessness Ferrier pinpointed and praised. The pro-life doctor who is not so much burned out as burned in, his life consumed by the imperative to protect the vulnerable. The brilliant young Ottawa lawyer who took up the pro-life cause simultaneously with coming to Christian faith and who knows, but is unfazed, that his stellar potential might be circumscribed by both. The prosperous business owner who plunged into the anti-euthanasia fight regardless of the public backlash it might generate for her company.

Like Dr. Cathy Ferrier, like pro-lifers everywhere, they embody what G.K. Chesterton called “the faculty of attaching to … cause or community finally and tragically; for all finality must be tragic.” The finality of that attachment separates admiration, Chesterton said, from love: “For we admire things with reasons, but we love them without reasons.”

Love them, that is, with deep, abiding, tireless grace. 

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and senior fellow with Cardus.)

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