FaithWorld

Vatican denies it’s trying to redefine death

L’Osservatore Romano with death article (right column), 3 Sept 2008 The Vatican has caused a stir by appearing to want to redefine death and then denying any such thing. If where there’s smoke, there’s fire, we haven’t heard the end of this yet.

It all started with a front-page article in the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano challenging the widely-accepted concept that brain death — the irreversible end of all brain activity — is the right standard for determining that someone has died. The article argued that doctors developed that standard 40 years ago to enable them to harvest organs for transplantation. The article by Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian history professor and bioethicist, argued:

“The scientific justification of (the brain death standard) rests on a peculiar definition of the nervous system that is now being questioned by new research, which casts doubt on the fact that brain death leads to the disintegration of the body … The idea that the human person ceases to exist when the brain no longer functions, while the body is kept alive thanks to artificial respiration, implies an identification of the person with brain activity alone. This contradicts the concept of the person according to Catholic doctrine and thus contradicts the directives of the Church in the case of patients in a persistent coma.”

German nurse prepares brain-dead woman to donate liver and kidneys for transplant, 20 May 2008/Fabrizio BenschThe Vatican accepts organ transplantation and the brain death standard, which is widely used in Catholic hospitals. Declaring the brain death criterion un-Catholic would mean those hospitals would have to revert to the cardiac death standard alone. But that leaves a much smaller window for removing viable organs and would make one kind of transplantation — heart transplants — all but impossible. As it is, there is already such a shortage of organs for transplantation that scandalous black markets for them exist and some experts want to see organs sold like commodities on an open market.

The Vatican has not changed its view on brain death despite holding two scientific conferences (in 2005 and 2006) to discuss it, but there are dissenters among Catholic bioethicists like Scaraffia who want to keep the debate going. She used the 40th anniversary of the pioneering Harvard Report that advocated the brain death standard to call for a reassessment.

Dutch play probes “mercy killing” as euthanasia deaths fall

Alzheimer’s patient in Dutch nursing home, 7 May 2008/Michael Kooren“The Good Death,” a play about euthanasia, has brought the issue of “mercy killing” to Dutch theatres at a time when such deaths are falling. They dropped to 2,325, or 1.7 percent of all deaths in 2005, from 2.6 percent in 2001. Playing to packed houses throughout the Netherlands, which legalised euthanasia in 2002, the play shows the law has not removed the moral dilemma for many involved.

In fact, part of the reason for the drop in euthanasia deaths could be that agonised doctors are opting to give patients heavy sedation until they die, rather than putting an end to their lives. Even some patients who have asked for euthanasia are given continuous deep sedation instead. This feature by our Netherlands chief correspondent Emma Thomasson looks at the issues involved.

This raises the question of whether deep sedation, while being presented as palliative care that is ethically acceptable for many faiths, is not in fact “euthanasia lite.” Or at least whether it is being used as such. The British Medical Journal has suggested this in a report that prompted an editorial and a lively reader discussion. “Although the exact cause of this trend is unclear, there are indications that continuous deep sedation may in some cases be being used as a substitute for euthanasia,” a report in Science Daily said.

Sat-TV obit channel to go live soon

Tomb in a cemetery in BudapestObituaries on TV? Satellite broadcasts of cemetery visits? It may sound morbid, but a German television producer plans to launch a satellite TV channel dedicated to obituary videocasts, features on famous graveyards and practical advice for those nearing death. And he thinks he’s got a huge target audience that can only get bigger in coming years.

Etos TV had planned a launch this year but put it back to early 2008 because of all the interest shown in the project in Germany and abroad, its founder Wolf Tilmann Schneider told the German media magazine DWDL.de. That will give it time to integrate suggestions from new business partners, he said. “Every country has a different (funeral) culture, but all have the same problem — the decline of this culture,” he said.

There are 485,000 obituaries published in (German) newspapers every year, but there’s nothing about the people in them,” Schneider told the Financial Times Deutschland. “With our service, people will be able to contribute obituaries for anyone who dies, with pictures and texts that are professionally produced.”

Do Christian paradigms work for Islamic problems?

Bishop Margot KässmannOctober 31 was Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther issued his famous 95 Theses, and as such a fitting occasion for Lutherans around the world to reflect on the reforms he brought to Christianity. It was probably inevitable that a Lutheran cleric somewhere would comment on the relevance of the Reformation to a major issue in today’s religious world — the future of Islam. Margot Kässmann, the Lutheran bishop of Hannover in Germany, told the local newspaper: “Something like a Reformation would also be good for Islam.”

Bishop Kässmann is one of the most prominent religious leaders in Germany, an effective preacher and a popular talk show guest. It’s clear that she means Muslims should question their traditions and shed abuses, much like Luther did in Christianity. That’s a view that Muslim reformers can also support in principle. It leads to the question, though, of how far the paradigm of the Reformation is applicable to Islam. Has the term “Islamic Reformation” become a soundbite that brings more confusion than clarity?

The Reformation in 16th-century Europe ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly of religious authority and led to a multitude of Protestant denominations. One of the driving forces was the liberating effect of questioning traditions, Kässmann said in her interview. The result was the de-centralisation of Western Christianity. By contrast, Islam already has a multitude of different schools and interpretations. Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden are not religious scholars, but they issue fatwas on their own that reinterpret traditional views of Islam. So part of the religion’s problem today, some Islam experts argue, is that there is no central authority that can settle disputed issues. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest — and only partly in jest — that Islam actually needs a Luther or a pope to bring about the reforms Kässmann refers to.