The Language is Important: Michael Coren and the Problem of Pastoral Insensitivity

This is my response to The Reverend Michael Coren’s CBC opinion piece regarding Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), posted on February 4,2020. (You can find his article here). Let me be clear about what this response is and is not.  This is not a position paper wherein I pose a counterargument to Coren’s support of MAID.  My intent is not to convince anyone of a certain ethical stance regarding this complex issue.  Coren’s support of MAID will go unchallenged. I do, however, wish to highlight how Coren discusses MAID, and suggest why, I believe, Coren’s piece is unhelpful and harmful.

Before I jump in, let me first tell you who is writing. I am someone who was born with a rare congenital heart condition.  I had open heart surgery when I was 6 months old, and while I have largely lived my life without complication, at 41 years of age, my heart has begun to decline in function.  Every passing year brings more reduced functionality. To put it bluntly, my heart is failing. Due to the rarity of my condition, my cardiologist cannot tell me how my condition will progress or what awaits me in the future.  All of this is to say I am not someone unconcerned with how this conversation is occurring.  Furthermore, while I am not someone who would choose MAID for myself, I understand why someone would, and I recognise that, in the future, I may be in the situation where this is presented as an option to me.  Now, onto my issues with Coren’s article.

Most disturbing is Coren’s position that the alternative to assisted dying is “unassisted dying.”  Coren writes that unassisted dying amounts to “dying in pain, anguish, and often totally alone.”  This is simply not true.  For starters, I would hope that as a clergy person Coren doesn’t believe that someone is alone when they die. More to the point, however, Coren completely dismisses the valuable ministry provided by Hospices throughout the world.  It is as if he assumes that MAID is the only resource available in which one can manage how they die.  Again, this is simply not true.  Coren ignores the simple reality that every single day there are countless medical staff who lovingly and ardently attempt to make an individual’s journey toward death as easy and painless as possible. I have had the privilege of visiting many people in Hospices over the years, and I am constantly touched by the care taken to ensure that no patient feels alone or abandoned.  Furthermore, letting “death come like a thief” does not equal dying alone.  My mother died in a Hospice room after her cancer ran its course.  She was surrounded by all her children, and her husband holding her hand.  We all had a chance to say our goodbyes and to trust her into the hands of God.  To suggest that opposition to MAID amounts to willfully condemning our loved ones to a painful, lonely, and agonizing death is ludicrous, and I would add, pastorally insensitive.

This brings me to another point. Apparently, Coren doesn’t believe that other people have adequate experience with death and dying.  Coren writes: “I have to wonder, how many of these people have sat with an ailing loved one and heard them beg and plead to be permitted to go just a little early” (my emphasis).  Does Coren really believe that people are living in blissful ignorance of death and dying?  Does he really believe that anyone who opposes MAID do so because they have never experienced the death of a loved one?  Frankly, I don’t believe that Coren thinks this way.  This sentence obviously is a rhetorical device designed to bolster Coren’s own position.  It suggests that Coren alone has done the hard work of journeying with people as they die, and no one else has.  But again, this is simply not true.  Personally, I have sat with parishioners as they have relayed to me their sense of frustration that death was taking too long.  I have held the hands of the dying; I have watched life-support be removed from a comatose patient.  I have been called to the bedside as someone breathes their last.  And in each of these situations I was never alone.  I was but one of many. Every day, millions of people spend time at hospital beds and hospice wards as they surround the ill and dying. Coren doesn’t have a monopoly on these experiences, and to suggest otherwise is disrespectful.

Lastly, let me touch on how Coren ends his opinion piece.  Coren, who has not spoken of matters of faith at all during his post, concludes this way: “Pray God – and I use the name of the deity purposefully – we will all come to our senses.”  Obviously Coren is suggesting that God agrees with him, that he somehow has an inside track on God’s view on life and death.  Without typing the words, Coren essentially concludes his opinion piece with “thus saith the Lord.”  It is always dangerous for a clergy person to suggest that he or she has an inside track on how God views matters of morality and ethics. “Who can discern the mind of the Lord?” the scriptures say (Romans 11:34).  Don’t get me wrong, we can have our positions.  We can even believe that our position is a faithful response to God and the scriptures.  But we cannot suggest that disagreeing with my position is akin to disagreeing with God. This does not convey respect to others, or to the God we serve in humility.  By using the name of God “purposefully” here, Coren is labelling those who disagree with him as godless fools.  As a clergy person tasked to help others seek and serve Christ in all persons, this is uncalled for. At best the statement is misguided, at worst it is manipulative clericalism.

The very manner in which Coren speaks of MAID is detrimental to any discussion of the complexity of this matter. Coren caricatures those who disagree with him in the most ungraceful, unchristian, and insensitive of ways. The language he uses does not convey the spirit of humility, respect, grace, or love that we as Christians (or as clergy) are to evidence in the world.  In the future, may we all do better in listening to others and respecting the various complexities of our life together.

 

 


6 thoughts on “The Language is Important: Michael Coren and the Problem of Pastoral Insensitivity

    1. Hi Just Farmers. Thanks for reading and responding on my post. Not sure exactly what you mean by your comment or if you were being sarcastic. Subtelties are hard to pick up in written communication. Clericalism is when clergy believe that they have an exalted sense of superiority, honour, or prestige, simply because they are clergy. Manipulative Clericalism is when clergy knowingly enforce such a thought, or engage in rhetoric or actions to enforce that perception. And with all respect to the local clergyperson your spoke to . . .I believe Christian History (and Anglican History for that matter) proves that this exists.

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