What Latimer ruling means to Catholics

By  Donald Bidd, Catholic Register Special
  • March 19, 2008

As a father of a severely mentally disabled and autistic 21-year-old son (Justin) who suffers from a rare and incurable neurological disease, I would like to share a few reflections on the highly publicized Robert Latimer case and its implications for us as Catholics in our local parishes. 

Robert Latimer is a Saskatchewan farmer who in 1994 killed his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who had cerebral palsy. Although he claimed it was a “mercy killing,” that he was putting her out of unbearable pain, he was convicted of murder, sentenced to life in prison and just recently let out on day parole.

What do I think about Robert Latimer?  Of course I believe what he did was terribly wrong since he was playing God with life, which is sacred and inviolable, however wounded or disfigured that life is. What is troubling is that Latimer doesn’t appear to have any moral insight or remorse about the depravity of his action. He still thinks he was right in killing his daughter. 

I don’t believe Latimer himself is dangerous; I believe the idea he represents (that someone can be in judgment over the life and death of a suffering, disabled person) is very dangerous. Opinion polls show that an increasing number of Canadians are favourable to euthanasia.  In a “culture of death” where over 100,000 unborn children are killed in abortions each year and self-interest reigns supreme, Latimer can be seen by some, perhaps many, as a model to be followed. Do we need reminding that the Nazis sought to eradicate the mentally disabled?

Did I ever want to kill my own seriously disabled son? No, but I recall a very dark time over several years when Justin was in the depths of very aggressive behaviour and self-mutilation (resulting from an inability to communicate intense physical pain we now know he couldn’t express), that I did wish many times for his death. I said to myself: “Is this human? Is my son really human or something less than human? Wouldn’t death be better than this, a release from a life of suffering?”

Caring for a disabled child is extreme living. Parents require high levels of support. If not, they can easily become isolated, burned out, desperate and get stupid ideas in their head. A good friend of mine, mother to a deeply mentally disabled, autistic and hyperactive daughter, committed suicide. She was very depressed, lacking support from her spouse and increasingly desperate. I think now she did not realize how completely depleted she was. 

I can see how Latimer, isolated as he was in his twisted emotions and distorted, self-righteous and amoral thinking, could have done what he did. If I had not had the presence of a supportive spouse and extended family, a caring parish, support group, and most of all my faith which helped me make some sense of this reality, I could have easily considered something extreme during those dark days. And I did come frighteningly close on one occasion to doing something hurtful to my son.

What are the implications of the Latimer case for us in our local parishes? Most parents of severely disabled children simply avoid going to Mass, either through embarrassment, fear, or fatigue. Parishes (clergy and laity) need to consciously search out these families, invite themselves into their homes, welcome them to the parish and make some creative liturgical accommodations. (How can an agitated autistic man with a cognitive age of a seven- year-old sit through a homily directed to adult understanding?) Does your diocese or  parish have a pastoral strategy for the disabled, as it often does for youth, the elderly and shut-ins? 

Second,  the answer to the isolation of the families with mentally disabled members is building Christian community through the solidarity of shared struggle. Faith and Light is a beautiful ecumenical movement rooted in the church and founded by Jean Vanier (renowned for L’Arche) that seeks to break down the solitude of parents by creating small parish-based communities of sharing, support and celebration. Parishioners can volunteer to develop friendships with our intellectually disabled children, sending a strong signal to parents that their children are not burdens but gifts. I think the days may be coming when the intellectually disabled person will be seen as the centre of spirituality of our parishes, a tabernacle of God’s tender presence.

My son Justin is both mystery and gift. When I think of him now, I say: “Who am I to have been blessed by the presence of such purity?” After many years of asking “Why me? Why him?” I now have a sense that Justin’s disability has something to do with his irreplaceable mission in the world and God’s plan for me to grow through deeper acceptance. 

Pope Benedict XVI said it so well in his recent inspiring encyclical on Christian hope: “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of new life.” We parents of severely mentally disabled children and the friends that reach out to our children are witnesses to hope, the hope for healing in this life (even if that is the healing of a broken heart), and the hope for complete healing in the life to come, where we will dance and laugh with our children, free forever and ever from their terrible disabilities.

(Bidd writes from Montreal. For more information on Faith and Light call (514) 631-3427, e-mail donaldbidd@gmail.com or visit www.foietlumiere.org.)

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