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It’s a culture war, stupid

To reduce a human being to an object whose value is measured by “utility” is to destroy one of the building blocks of the democratic order.

A woman holds up a sign during a rally against assisted suicide in 2016 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. (CNS photo/Art Babych)

Those who persist in denying that the Church is engaged in a culture war, the combatants in which are aptly called the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” might ponder this June blog post by my summer pastor in rural Québec, Father Tim Moyle:

Tonight I am preparing to celebrate a funeral for someone (let’s call him “H” to protect his privacy) who, while suffering from cancer, was admitted to hospital with an unrelated problem, a bladder infection. H’s family had him admitted to the hospital earlier in the week under the assumption that the doctors there would treat the infection and then he would be able to return home. To their shock and horror, they discovered that the attending physician had indeed made the decision NOT to treat the infection. When they demanded that he change his course of (in)action, he refused, stating that it would be better if H died of this infection now rather than let cancer take its course and kill him later. Despite their demands and pleadings, the doctor would not budge from his decision. In fact he deliberately hastened H’s end by ordering large amounts of morphine “to control pain” which resulted in him losing consciousness as his lungs filled up with fluid. In less than 24 hours, H was dead.

Let me tell you a bit about H. He was 63 years old. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters who are both currently working in universities toward their undergraduate degrees. We are not talking here about someone who was advanced in years and rapidly failing due to the exigencies of old age. We are talking about a man who was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We are talking about a man who still held on to hope that perhaps he might defy the odds long enough to see his daughters graduate. Evidently and tragically, in the eyes of the physician tasked with providing the care needed to beat back the infection, that hope was not worth pursuing.

Again, let me make this point abundantly clear: It was the express desire of both the patient and his spouse that the doctor treat the infection. This wish was ignored….

Canada’s vulnerability to the culture of death is exacerbated by Canada’s single-payer, i.e., state-funded and state-run, health care system. And the brutal fact is that it‘s more “cost effective” to euthanize patients than to treat secondary conditions that could turn lethal (like H’s infection) or to provide palliative end-of-life care. Last year, when I asked a leading Canadian Catholic opponent of euthanasia why a rich country like the “True North strong and free” couldn’t provide palliative end-of-life care for all those with terminal illnesses, relieving the fear of agonized and protracted dying that’s one incentive for euthanasia, he told me that only 30% of Canadians had access to such care. When I asked why the heck that was the case, he replied that, despite assurances from governments both conservative and liberal that they’d address this shameful situation, the financial calculus always won out – from a utilitarian point of view, euthanizing H and others like him was the sounder public policy.

But in Canada, a mature democracy, that utilitarian calculus among government bean-counters wouldn’t survive for long if a similar, cold calculus was not at work in the souls of too many citizens. And that is one reason why the Church must engage the culture war, not only in Canada but in the United States and throughout the West: to warm chilled souls and rebuild a civil society committed to human dignity.

Then there is the civic reason. To reduce a human being to an object whose value is measured by “utility” is to destroy one of the building blocks of the democratic order – the moral truth that the American Declaration of Independence calls the “inalienable” right to “life.” That right is “inalienable” – which means built-in, which means not a gift of the state – because it reflects something even more fundamental: the dignity of the human person. 

When we lose sight of that, we are lost as a human community, and democracy is lost. So the culture war must be fought. And a Church that takes social justice seriously must fight it. 

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About George Weigel 445 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. It doesn’t appear to be a culture war limited to Canada. Neither is it specific to single payer med delivery systems. Though cutting costs as you note is a valid critique. But that is true in any med delivery system. Euthanasia occurs in Am frequently. It occurred in Nazi Germany 1940 with similar response by Catholic bishops who protested. “The Fulda Conference [Cath bishops] apparently attempted to negotiate with those responsible for the killings. Bishop Heinrich Wienken discussed [with the Reich Chancellery] ways to permit priests to administer the sacraments to the euthanasia victims. But these attempts at accommodation failed when the Vatican rejected the compromise” (The Origins of Nazi Genocide, Henry Friedlander, Chapel Hill, 1995, pp 114-5). Friedlander survived Auschwitz and praised the stance of Pope Pius XII in refusing to compromise, which the Pontiff deemed a form of complicity. Oregon, Washington State, New Mexico, Montana permit physician assisted suicide equivalent to euthanasia policy in E Canada. If the Dem Party won the election euthanasia policy would likely have received universal Fed sanction. It is simply not a cultural issue. The flaw in this article is omission of the primary catalyst for the Church either promoting or inhibiting euthanasia in Canada.

  2. But, fighting the culture war would make you a “culture warrior” – that’s a bad thing according to the powers that be in the church… or is it maybe alright to be a culture warrior on euthanasia, as long as you don’t bother with abortion and have a “Who am I to judge” attitude about gay agenda?

    But, as we know we don’t mold society, we adapt to it now. We don’t preach we evangelize – so only talk about things that don’t effect laws or culture…

    The culture war was over when the church surrendered several years ago, now we have a leader who can’t apologize enough for ever having fought in the first place.

  3. But, thanks to the leading lights of the culture in conjunction with the mercy as defined by the euthanasia crowd, this along with abortion has been successfully compartmentalized into simply a “culture war” issue that the general public often sees as something of a battle between “equivalents”….and not the monstrous, ultimate issue of life and death.

    Also, while an undercurrent of euthanasia has always been in healthcare, there is a world of difference when it becomes naturalized via the law and a culture that has been conditioned to see its “utility.”

  4. The people around Pope Francis attack us for fighting this “culture war,” for our “obsession” with issues like abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, divorce, “transgenderism,” etc. The real enemy is not the pagan medical system. It is pagan Rome.

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