In his encyclical “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis writes about “throw away culture.” While much of the encyclical discusses themes about the environment, “throw away culture” refers to much more than littering or the wasteful nature of consumerism. Lucia Silecchia, a law professor at Catholic University of America, has argued that Pope Francis intends the phrase as “a critique of a mindset and world view that discards people, promises, values and community bonds when they seem to lack immediately obvious or quantifiable value in the eyes of the world.” This mindset does not recognize anything as having intrinsic value, but only in relation to things like usefulness. Once something – or someone – is no longer seen as providing value, according to some contrived standard, it is understood that it is better for it to be eliminated or discarded.
For example, last week (8/11/22) there was an article by Maria Cheng in Associated Press about the growing practice of euthanasia in Canada. Since 2016, it has been legal for doctors and nurse practitioners in Canada to use drugs to kill patients who meet certain criteria. Cheng describes the law in this way: “Today, any adult with a serious illness, disease or disability can seek help in dying.” This seems to include a 61-year-old man named Alan Nichols, who had a history of seizures and recently suffered a stroke, but whose application for euthanasia listed “hearing loss” as the sole condition motivating his desire to die. His case worker noted that, although he had been living on his own, he was “frail” and not “thriving.” Thus, authorities deemed his euthanization justified, to the dismay of his family. In another case, a 41-year-old man named Sean Tagert, who suffered with ALS, applied to be euthanized when confronted with the financial costs of continued treatment. There was also a woman named Sheila Elson, whose 25-year-old daughter had cerebral palsy and spina bifida. When Elson took her daughter to the hospital for treatment, a doctor told her that her daughter was a candidate for euthanasia, and that it would be “selfish” not to let medical professionals kill her. Tellingly, the article notes: “Medical authorities in [Canada’s] two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, explicitly instruct doctors not to indicate on death certificates if people died from euthanasia.”
The advocacy group Death with Dignity argues that legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide are not just compassionate ways to end suffering, but also necessary to ensure personal autonomy. They claim that people must be able to determine for themselves whether their lives are worth living. But in a “throw away culture,” which has adopted the idea that certain human lives have no value, the tendency will always be towards the expansion of categories of those who lack sufficient quality of life to justify continued existence. Neglect is normalized, and killing becomes best medical practice.
This is, of course, evil. Life is a gift, and we do not have the authority to determine that any human life, including our own, is only good to be thrown away. Pope Francis calls upon us to reject the “throw away culture” in favor of a “culture of encounter” by being attentive to those who are forgotten and suffer in any way, and reminding them with our words and actions (and our laws and public policies) that they are precious because of what they are, not because of what they can do.