Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 12 issue 1

The Madman's Speech

by Tim Madigan

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 1.

"To Life"

Last July 20-22, I attended the first meeting of the newly-formed Ibero-American Ethical Humanist Association, which will promote humanism throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The conference was held at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, in that country's capital city, San Jose. Over one hundred people were in attendance, including representatives from Spain, Mexico, Chile and several European countries. Since my grasp of Spanish ended with my high school education, I had to rely upon the excellent services of a translator. The topic I addressed was "John Paul II and the Culture of Death." In several recent encyclicals and papal pronouncements, the current pontiff has denounced the growing movements toward legalization of abortion and euthanasia. Western culture, he bemoans, is gripped by a life-denying tendency which must be fought at all costs.

It so happens that I was a student in a parochial high school (struggling with my Spanish lessons) when Karol Woytla was elected pope, in 1978. Like many of my fellow Catholics, I was elated, and looked forward to the policies this no-nonsense Pole would implement. If someone had prophesied then that, 17 years later, I would be delivering a talk strongly criticizing the pope, at a conference to promote organized unbelief in Latin America, I would have told them they were muy loco.

The substance of my criticism was over John Paul's description of Western society as a "culture of death." Certainly during my parochial days I would have agreed with this view. I can still remember, as a grammar school student, attending a "Pro Life Conference," where I was shown gruesome photos of aborted late-term fetuses, and was lectured on the growing devaluation of human life at both its beginning and end (and this was well before the time of Jack Kevorkian — if you'll pardon the pun, euthanasia was not such a live topic then). What unspeakable monsters, I wondered at the time, could ever perform such perfidious acts as aborting a fetus or giving a fatal injection to a dying patient? This demonization process, however, was not complete, for I suppose that even then I must have speculated on the intent behind such actions. Where they done to promote death, or were they performed out of the beneficial desire to decrease earthly suffering? Such speculations were the impetus for my eventually leaving the world of pontifical influence.

Ironically enough, in June of 1995 - one month before the Costa Rican conference - I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with two physicians whom John Paul would surely consider to be at the forefront of the "culture of death": Henry Morgentaler, the honorary president of the Humanist Association of Canada and that country's leading advocate for abortion rights; and Pieter Admiraal, the primary spokesperson for the Netherlands' enlightened euthanasia policy. What is it that motivated them to challenge their country's laws and become vocal champions for change? It was witnessing the suffering of their patients — women who were forced to carry to term unwanted pregnancies, and terminally-ill individuals dying in pain — and desiring to do something to alleviate this situation. It is not surprising that both men are also actively involved in the humanist movement, for organized religion has always been the key social force opposing the legalization and implementation of abortion and euthanasia policies.

Thanks to my involvement in the humanist cause, it has been my privilege to get to know Morgentaler and Admiraal, two of the most compassionate and life-affirming human beings I have ever met. It is a travesty to categorize them, and others like them, as merchants of death. Rather, they are exponents of the humanistic virtues of self-determination, beneficence and the improvement of life here-on-earth. I would have been flabbergasted, in 1978, to learn that I would some day be on close personal terms with people I had been taught to demonize. Life does take some unexpected turns.

(P.S.: I wrote this column on my new office computer. When I ran it through the "Spellcheck" function, "Madigan" was not in its dictionary - the alternate words offered were "Madman," "Madison," and "Madonna." If I were in a superstitious frame-of-mind, I might suppose that the first gives some validity to the title of this column, while the second denotes the influence of James Madison, the founding father most supportive of church/state separation. I'm not so sure about the third: it's either calling me home to the Mother Church, or leading me further astray down the path of wicked materialism and hedonism. I'll bank on the latter interpretation!)

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