Melbourne News

Mary Glowrey Lecture: Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli
 Above: Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli provides a lecture on Mary Glowrey to a large crowd of Melbourne Catholics
Let me begin with some flagrantly gratuitous advertising. In preparing for tonight’s lecture, I read the December 2015 edition of the Archdiocesan historical journal, Footprints, which focused on Mary Glowrey. It has a very helpful article in it on Mary’s life by Gabrielle McMullan (present here tonight). But it was something in another article that particularly struck me. In it the Jesuit, Paul Gardiner SJ, does not actually speak of Mary Glowrey, but instead sets out the journey of working on the canonisation process for our other great Mary, MacKillop. He had this to say at the end of the article:

Initiative and dedicated social service are praiseworthy, but canonisation is not about that. It is about union with God, the heart of holiness. This often expresses itself in notable achievement, but it is not identical with it… Mary MacKillop was just as much a saint in those last long years of inactivity, paralysed in her wheelchair, as she was in the years that made her historically noteworthy.

Gardiner’s comment could just as easily have been said of Mary Glowrey. Towards the end of her life of such dedicated service, Mary lived through “two years of immense suffering and disability from cancer.” This more hidden period of her life is just as significant as all the years of medical missionary care that we know and admire.

It should not be missed that the two most significant saintly women of our country (and we could add the third, Eileen O’Connor, who suffered terribly throughout her life) exhibited something of their holiness precisely in living their lives to the end God had endowed each of them, without resorting to taking their deaths into their own hands.

Since my arrival in Melbourne a little over a year ago, matters of life and death have come up often. There is a fundamental question about where in our Catholic community are we to find sources of life, springs of living water, examples of that new life promised by our Lord to his disciples; and conversely, there is talk of where do we find death or the absence of life, where are the sources of decline, spiritual malnutrition, signs of hopelessness.

Across Australia there have also been renewed pressures in beginning and end of life matters, for the encouragement of abortion, fewer restrictions on the destruction of human life, political pressures for euthanasia. Meanwhile, we have let children languish in detention centres offshore, looked the other way while some elderly have suffered in places of care, and generally been selective about which lives are worth our time and which deaths we should worry about. Ours is a society fraught with self-contradiction. Everywhere we look, death and life demand serious attention and reflection.

In such a context, I’d like to reflect on life and death from a Catholic perspective, with special reference to our new context in Victoria. Since 19 June 2019, when the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act came into effect, we have found ourselves in a situation where state-sponsored euthanasia is a reality.

Tonight I suggest that the way our Catholic reflection takes place must change, because we have moved from common ground in our society to one in which conscientious objection is the foundation for our reflection and our action. The old assumptions, the prior shared perspectives, the earlier ways of doing things, have passed. A new question has arisen: what does ‘living one’s life’ mean, as distinct from ‘taking one’s death,’ for a society that has allowed the State to determine the answer?

1. What do I mean by common ground?

We have assumed, perhaps for too long, that when we talk about life and death in Australia, we stand on common ground with our neighbours. In more recent years we have discovered increasingly that there is major disagreement with our colleagues, our leaders, in our communities, on these topics. In political terms, there are often more acute differences within political parties than between them. Across the kitchen table we can discover that our children or our parents have a different view from us on the significance of life and death decisions, and on what is appropriate for a Christian to endorse and in which we participate.

Whether or not we actually had common ground in the past, we certainly assumed it. Today, however, we cannot assume this anymore. While the old rivalries remain constant – we continue to debate economics, politics, laws and footy – we seem to have fragmented on the one which once held us together: What does it mean to be human, and how is our humanity to be lived out well?

Shifts in religious practice is a backdrop to such change. In Australia, religion remains important. Specifically, Christianity remains the largest and most influential religious grouping. According to the 2016 Census data, 45% of Australians identify as being Christian, while 32% indicated they had no religion. It is worth comparing our situation today to a century ago. In 1911, 0.4% of Australia said they had no religion, whereas in 2016 it has grown to 30.1%. But even beyond the question of religious commitment and identity, there is the question of ethical common ground.

In 1911, when 0.4% of people had no religion, a Catholic medical student would be faced with a few difficult questions, and would have to work extra hard to shape their work according to a Catholic conscience, just as Mary Glowrey (1887-1957) had to do. However, by and large, the Catholic doctor would not be asked to break with their conscience with any regularity, nor would the State impose a different ethical framework upon the work of the doctor, or the nurse, or the midwife, for example. Sectarianism would rise in various ways, but in medical ethics there wasn’t too much variety prior to the end of World War II.

In 2019 things are different. One obvious example is that the Abortion Law Reform Bill 2008 now compels Victorian doctors to refer a patient to a doctor who has no objection to performing the abortion of a child, even if the doctor has a conscientious objection. Stories have seeped out in the last 11 years of doctors being sanctioned for refusing to comply with the law. There are many personal stories from doctors who have been placed in professionally vulnerable situations, although you won’t hear about them in the pages of our newspapers.

Many raised their objections to such a law, and they did so reasonably and fairly, but unfortunately their balanced requests for the protection of conscientious objection were ignored. When laws change, the culture changes, and we must be vigilant in reading what these signs of the times means for the protection and flourishing of all human lives.

With Voluntary Assisted Dying, ‘VAD’, or what might be more accurately called ‘physician-assisted dying’, we have another new and chilling example of a push for new approaches to the determination of life and death which are, when all is said and done, reductionist visions of the future. Alongside the circumstances of individual lives, there always remains the deep question of what such a change for ‘the one’ will have on ‘the many.’ VAD has pushed aside this accompanying consideration.

In doing so, I am reminded of some words written by the internationally renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl:

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task… His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

As words such as ‘compassion’ and ‘dignity’ and ‘care’ were (mis)appropriated for the sake of justifying the VAD legislation, I have often thought of Frankl’s enduring insight that human life is essentially a quest for meaning. Advocates of VAD seem unable to grasp the deep meaning to be discovered by a person in that uniquely human project of embracing “the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.”

In the Victorian Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on this topic, of which I was a signatory, we made the point that VAD is a diminishment of the love that can be given and received in the final days of our loved ones. It is the intentional act of taking a human life. The reduction of end of life care to simply being about the cessation of pain overlooks the real experience of countless people, not just Christians.

At the end of one’s days, if a life is not cut short without warning, there is an opportunity for the social exchange of love and care, that marks out one’s final pilgrimage from this fallen and fragile world. It is telling that in other jurisdictions globally where something like VAD has been embraced, we have learned, such as in Canada and Oregon, that the avoidance of pain is not the most important reason people give for taking death early.

Rather, many are concerned about not being a burden on their loved ones, and they are frightened of losing control over their lives as their bodies decline. Such learnings do not describe a demand for euthanasia under any name, but a demand for love, time and attention, and for the resourcing of quality palliative care beyond the metropolitan zone.

People of the Abrahamic faiths believe that every person is made in the image and likeness of God, and that we are commanded by Our Lord to love every person. In the words of St John Paul II, every person is “unique and unrepeatable.”

The new world that VAD opens up to is one in which we will be accused of lacking compassion for saying no to euthanasia, and pressures will be brought to bear to emphasise VAD as somehow softer, warmer, more human than options of love, support and quality palliative care which Catholic doctors and nurses have been offering for centuries, including Mary Glowrey in an heroic way.

Many who now work in Catholic health services are like Mary Glowrey and her 12 fellow students, seeking the wisdom of the Church and Church leadership on bioethical issues in a climate when opposing ideologies are promoted, and when there is some confusion and much uncertainty. As Mary noted in her autobiography, “ethical principles were the same then as now. The difficulty was to find the correct practical applications.”

This too is our calling, to find the correct practical applications. For Mary Glowrey, it meant leaving the comforts and challenges of Melbourne and travelling to India, never to return to her Australian homeland. For most of us it will mean facing those comforts and challenges here with a new and vigorous commitment.

2. What is different about a Catholic reflection on life and death?

I want to return to a word I used a few minutes ago, that of being ‘reductionist.’ A genuinely Catholic reflection on life and death must certainly have a clear moral vision before it. Our moral vision is informed by a long and robust tradition of ethical consideration of practical realities, and we can call upon luminaries such as St Alphonsus Liguori and St Thomas Aquinas to do so. Over the last two years I have seen how Catholic hospitals in Victoria, working with Catholic Health Australia have brought that vision to light as they have responded powerfully and strategically to VAD.

To you who work in those services, you have my heartfelt thanks and appreciation, and my commitment to prayer, encouragement and ongoing support.

 As a moral theologian myself, I want to say tonight that our vision must be a powerful one of life and how a life can be lived well. We cannot lose sight of the need to respect a person’s right to love and be loved. To inspire such a Catholic vision in the present moment, we will need sound ethical application, good policies and structures, but we will require more than these things. We may need to draw upon a poetic sensibility, one that enriches hearts with what is good, beautiful and true.

In a culture in which it is getting that little bit harder to be a reasonable and calm voice, in which it is getting more difficult to practice a Christian ethic without constant interference, and in which a virtuous Catholic life will now draw undue attention and the loss of friends, the vision we have can only lead us forward if charity fills our hearts and our actions.

Consider the broader social environment in which this is being played out. There is generally a slow but unmistakable push to restrict public manifestations of our Christian faith. We have seen this in:

a.     Proposals to legally require priests to break the seal of the confession.

b.    The public vitriol – especially in the media, both social and print – against those who continue to express long-held views regarding marriage and human sexuality.

Mary Glowrey had a lot against her. And she became the first Sister Doctor, and the spark that lit a blaze of love for the poor, the broken, the marginalised, the wounded and the lost. Perhaps as Christians, it is when things look most bleak that our hour arrives.

 3. How will conscientious objection look in Victoria

While VAD is an issue of medical ethics, it is also a fundamental question for human dignity – the freedom of conscience and not being compelled to violate one’s deepest self before God. Mary Glowrey provides an extraordinarily strong example of this, in her resolute commitment to good ethical practice in medicine regardless of opposition. Mary was part of a group of young Catholic medical students who sought advice from the Church on ethical principles in medicine.

That early advice – bioethical advice – was, in her words, “not easily obtained.” Archbishop Carr was in Europe at the time, but he had written his booklet about medical ethics. They read those words, and in turn the Dean of the Cathedral gave them further encouragement. Those students had what they needed then to protest when they believed a practice was contrary with the Natural Law. Such actions of informed courage, and conscientious objection, led to the establishment of the Newman Society and eventually Newman College.

We should not overlook the close ties between Catholic scholarship and Catholic medical ethics, and it is no accident that here in East Melbourne ACU, St Vincent’s and CTC stand as neighbours. We have in these contemporary institutions critical avenues to exercise a voice – and accompanying actions – that focuses attention on matters of human flourishing and wellbeing. We are already faced in Victoria with laws that are restrictive and exclusionary in their intent concerning the exercise of one’s conscience within medical practices. These laws are already having regulatory implications

But the work of academics and medical professionals needs also the support and courage of people of goodwill to stand with them. All of us can exercise our conscientious objection to laws, actions and practices that do not promote the basic good of human life. When social, political and cultural forces combine to become coercive, it is all the more important that support for those on the frontline is forthcoming in positive and encouraging ways. Thank you to those of you who stand for the protection and good of fragile and vulnerable lives.

It occurs to me at this moment that it is a time not merely for experts and bureaucrats, but saints and scholars, poets and visionaries, healers and leaders in wisdom. We need people in the vineyard who toil diligently in the hard winter knowing there will be a warm summer.  Mary Glowrey, Servant of God, herself displayed these gifts, and we need the prayers of people like Mary as we give shape to an ethical vision in our work for the Gospel into the future.

Mary’s cause for canonisation has quite a way to go, but if it’s not too bold, I will finish now asking St Mary of the Sacred Heart JMG, with all the saints, to pray for us.

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