Catholic Bishops Take College Professors to Task on Pro-Life Teachings

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 31, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Catholic Bishops Take College Professors to Task on Pro-Life Bioethics Teachings

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 31
, 2008

Washington, DC ( — Articles written by a pair of college professors have prompted a rare public correction by the leading American bishops responsible for pro-life activities and Catholic doctrine. One of the professors in question is a bioethics professor at Loyola University of Chicago.

John Hardt, assistant professor of bioethics at Loyola University of Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, and Thomas Shannon, emeritus professor of religion and social ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute as the teachers involved.

They both wrote articles in the Jesuits’ America magazine that argue for exceptions to Church teaching, thereby allowing the removal of a feeding tube and hydration from such patients.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia and chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, took issue with the articles.

They raise their concerns in the August 4 issue of the magazine.

The bishops write that the professors “appear to misunderstand and subsequently misrepresent the substance of Church teaching on these difficult but important ethical questions” about “our moral obligations to patients who exist in what has come to be called a ‘persistent vegetative state.’”

In his January article, Hardt cites a 2007 statement by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which teaches that artificial nutrition and hydration may be withheld from a patient when “in some rare cases” the treatment “may become excessively burdensome.”

Using the example of his father, who has asked not to receive artificial hydration and nutrition should he enter a vegetative state, Hardt writes, “[M]y father has judged that the burden of persisting in a vegetative state far outweighs the benefit of being sustained that way."

"This, in my view, is a very Catholic way of thinking," he claims.

Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Lori responds that Hardt wrongly defines excessive burden as “a simply dislike for survival in a helpless state.”

The bishops write, “that claim has no foundation in the text [and] is actually contradicted” by the CDF.

Furthermore, the bishops write that Hardt ignores the Church’s teaching on euthanasia by “omission."

“The Church insists on the important distinction between validly withdrawing a life-sustaining means because the means itself is burdensome, and wrongly withdrawing it because (in someone’s view) life itself has become burdensome," they wrote.

The latter action is “always morally wrong,” and providing food and water is almost never a significant burden to the patient.

“By omitting food and fluids, what are we trying to achieve?” ask the bishops.

“Whose ‘burden’ are we trying to ease? Assisted feeding is often not difficult or costly to provide in itself, but the housing, nursing care and other basic needs of a helpless patient can be significant. To discontinue assisted feeding in order to be freed from such burdens puts the caregiver’s interests ahead of the patient’s," they said.

Patrick J. Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a pro-life group that monitors Catholic colleges, says the articles by Hardt and Shannon echo the public advocacy by many college professors, some Catholic, in support of the withdrawal of food and water from the Florida patient Terri Schiavo in 2005.

Those sentiments came despite Vatican opposition to taking her life.

The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) identified several professors at Boston College, Georgetown University, Marquette University, Seattle University and elsewhere who publicly contradicted Vatican officials on the Schiavo case.

In the June 2005 issue of Crisis magazine, Reilly surmised, “The danger is obvious: If the Church is going to face up to a growing movement for euthanasia and assisted suicide in the United States, Catholic universities must help in that important battle."

Related web sites:
Cardinal Newman Society –


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