Bishops Betrayed on Assisted Suicide

Even as the nation’s bishops react with alarm to a recent Montana Supreme Court ruling allowing physician-assisted suicide, their efforts are being undermined by ethics and law professors at several Jesuit universities.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a statement describing assisted suicide as “a terrible tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent”:

With expanded funding from wealthy donors, assisted suicide proponents have renewed their aggressive nationwide campaign through legislation, litigation and public advertising, targeting states they see as most susceptible to their message. If they succeed, society will undergo a radical change.

But as with so many moral issues, the bishops need look no further than our Catholic institutions to find that the “nationwide campaign” in opposition to Church teaching has been ongoing for many years.

Suicide’s legalization has been advocated by prominent professors in Catholic universities including Georgetown, Marquette, Santa Clara, and Boston College. It is a particular irony that the bishops’ statement comes this year, even as the bishops are quietly reviewing the implementation of Vatican guidelines for Catholic higher education in the 1990 constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The professors’ efforts came to light during a Cardinal Newman Society investigation in 2005, following news reports of a legal brief filed by 55 bioethicists in opposition to “Terri’s Law,” a Florida measure that empowered Gov. Jeb Bush to ensure that the comatose Terri Schiavo received water and nutrition. As reported in “Teaching Euthanasia,” an exclusive report in the June 2005 issue of Crisis, multiple professors at Catholic universities had taken positions on end-of-life issues that seemed to conflict with Vatican teaching.


Today, some of those professors are no longer teaching at Catholic universities, but others remain perched in Jesuit law schools and theology and philosophy departments.

Tom Beauchamp is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and a senior research scholar at the university’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics. He is a superstar in the ethics community, and in May he was honored with the Hastings Center’s Research Ethics Award for “a lifetime contribution to ethics and the life sciences.”

Beauchamp also received Georgetown’s Career Recognition Award in 2003 — even while he was serving on the board of directors of the Compassion in Dying Federation, which advocated Oregon’s “death with dignity” law and has fought prohibitions against assisted suicide in other states. He served on the board from 1999 until 2005, when the organization merged with End-of-Life Choices (the renamed Hemlock Society) to form Compassion and Choices.

The latter entity was singled out by the U.S. bishops last week for particular criticism: “Plain speaking is needed to strip away this veneer and uncover what is at stake, for this agenda promotes neither free choice nor compassion,” the bishops wrote.

Even in its prior incarnation, the Compassion in Dying Federation was significantly at odds with the Church. For instance, in 2004, it joined with the pro-abortion National Women’s Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, Catholics for a Free Choice, NARAL, and other groups to demand that religiously sponsored hospitals notify patients whether they will honor patients’ refusal of artificial nutrition and hydration and requests for removal of life support.

Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion in Dying and now its successor Compassion and Choices, has long described her battles as “autonomy” versus “dogma.” Autonomy is the mantra of the ethicists who support physician-assisted suicide — like Beauchamp, whose 2006 article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy celebrates “the right to die… [as] an impressive example of the triumph of autonomy in bioethics.” Describing Oregon’s legalization of suicide as the “latest stage” in this process, he predicts “it will take another thirty years to get matters settled in the other forty-nine states.”

Beauchamp’s Principles of Biomedical Ethics — first published in 1979 with co-author James Childress, and now in its sixth edition — has become a classic work that is used in many college-level ethics courses. It is also cited by the Compassion and Choices amicus brief to the Montana Supreme Court in support of its legalization of assisted suicide: “If a person freely authorizes death and makes an autonomous judgment that cessation of pain and suffering through death constitutes a personal benefit rather than a setback to his or her interests, then active aid-in-dying at the person’s request involves neither harming nor wrongdoing,” argue Beauchamp and Childress.

Beauchamp also organized the amicus brief signed by 42 bioethicists in Gonzales v. Oregon, arguing for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law.


Also at Georgetown is law professor Lawrence Gostin, a longtime advocate of physician-assisted suicide who told participants in a 1997 symposium at St. John’s University in New York (another Catholic institution):

Some of us may believe passionately in the sanctity of life. If a person holds this belief, he or she will choose not to expedite the natural dying process. Others, however, may believe that living in anguish is not meaningful. If a person holds this view, he or she may seek assistance in dying at some point. It should not matter which choice a person makes, provided that choice is free and informed.

In a more recent article — “Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Legitimate Medical Practice?” in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association — Gostin argues against federal efforts to restrict assisted suicide, as was attempted by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. He chides President George W. Bush for lamenting the erosion of a “culture of life”: “However,” retorts Gostin, “deep caring and relief of suffering by physicians at the bedside of dying patients may be a far greater affirmation of life.”

Gostin twice joined amicus briefs defending Oregon’s law in Gonzales v. Oregon before serving as Georgetown Law’s associate dean for research and academic programs. He has since become a major player in health-care reform, co-directing Georgetown’s joint program on public health with Johns Hopkins University and directing the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights.

Another Georgetown signer to an amicus brief in support of Oregon’s assisted suicide law has likewise focused efforts in recent years on health-care reform. Law professor Maxwell Gregg Bloche co-directs the joint program on public health with Gostin and was a health-care advisor to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and transition team.

Bloche’s book published this year, The Hippocratic Myth: Why Doctors Have to Ration Care, Practice Politics, and Compromise Their Promise to Heal, is a broadside against the current health-care system in the United States. But he is also critical of the courts’ “intrusion into personal choice” when they uphold bans on physician-assisted suicide.


An attorney who sought the “mercy killing” of a disabled but allegedly functioning California man is today a “faculty scholar” at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the Jesuits’ Santa Clara University.

Fighting a challenge from the mother of Robert Wendland — who was severely disabled in a car accident in 1993 — Lawrence Nelson failed to convince the California Supreme Court to permit the removal of Wendland’s feeding tube. Wendland’s mother, Florence, presented evidence that Robert was not in a “persistent vegetative state” but could occasionally make limited movements, like writing the letter R. Nelson has since argued that “this was no life for Robert, no life he would ever want. The only experiences he seemed to have were negative.”

Not surprisingly, Nelson has also advocated the legalization of assisted suicide. In 1996, he joined an amicus brief in Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg, arguing that “the right of competent, dying patients to physician-assisted suicide is a negative right to be free from state interference.”

At Santa Clara University, Nelson has continued to work on end-of-life issues. In a Hastings Center Report article this year with significant application to the assisted-suicide debate, Nelson and co-author Brendan Ashby argue that doctors should have the freedom to decide whether they wish to participate in lethal injections for criminals who are condemned to death — a practice opposed by leading medical associations because it violates the mandate to heal and do no harm.

Nelson also delves into other issues in opposition to Catholic teaching. In a 2005 article on embryonic stem cell research for The American Journal of Bioethics, Nelson and fellow Santa Clara professor Michael Meyer argue for “the intermediate moral status of embryos” between the “extreme views” of full moral status and none at all. In 2003, the Markkula Center provided Nelson a grant to develop “a theory of constitutional personhood.” Perhaps resulting from that work, Nelson’s 2008 paper, “Of Persons and Prenatal Humans,” argues that the dubious personhood of “unborn humans” means that abortion must be protected by the U.S. Constitution:

The ascription of constitutional personhood to unborn humans results in women losing their fundamental rights to maintain bodily integrity and refuse medical treatment, to exercise autonomy over the conduct of their daily lives as all other persons, and to avoid subordination of their vital interests in order to preserve the interests of another. …This Article argues that the only way to avoid this anomaly is not to regard prenatal humans as constitutional persons.

Marquette University theologian Daniel Maguire shares a similar interest in both abortion advocacy and assisted suicide. The U.S. bishops publicly denounced Maguire in 2007 for promoting “false teaching” on abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, but the scolding did not address his views on end-of-life issues.

In 1974, Maguire wrote the book Death by Choice, as well as an article for the Atlantic Monthly in which he argued:

The present categories of the law do not encompass the realities involved in death by choice, that is… one’s own death or the death of another is opted for in preference to continued living. …The motives for these deaths are compassion and an unselfish desire to bring on death when continued living is unbearable for the patient due to physical and/or mental suffering. Mercy killings thus described do not fit into any of the categories of unjustifiable homicide available in American law.

In 2009, Maguire testified before the Wisconsin Medical Society in support of a resolution approving physician-assisted suicide and calling on the state legislature to legalize the practice in a manner similar to Oregon. He did so in his capacity as a Marquette professor and president of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, a nonprofit organization that publicly disputes Catholic moral teaching.


One of the leading advocates for physician-assisted suicide has taught at the Jesuits’ Boston College Law School for almost 40 years — though Charles “Buzzy” Baron has just retired and will be a visiting professor at Roger Williams University School of Law next school year.

The “right to die” is a primary focus for Baron, who serves on the board of directors of the Oregon Death With Dignity Political Action Fund. He authored the law professors’ amicus brief in the Supreme Court cases Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg and helped develop model legislation to legalize assisted suicide, which has become the basis for advocacy efforts in several states. He has joined other amicus briefs, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives and Britain’s House of Lords, and lectured in support of assisted suicide.

Baron charges many opponents of assisted suicide with “paternalism on avowedly religious grounds”:

In some religious systems, suicide is forbidden under all circumstances — even if it is to avoid unbearable suffering while facing imminent death from a terminal disease. Certainly, those who wish to follow such religious precepts by bravely bearing a long and painful dying process should have the right to do so — whether or not society believes it is good for them. On the other hand, why shouldn’t those who are not so committed have the same right to decide what is best for themselves?

While Baron’s efforts will no doubt continue, at least Catholics can be assured that he will no longer abuse his platform at a Catholic institution. We can hope that, in the coming years, as the bishops’ stand against assisted suicide is strengthened, other professors will retire and we will see a decline in right-to-die advocacy from our Catholic campuses.

But why does it happen in the first place? Certainly Baron was clear about his association with a Catholic university, even while he actively opposed the Church on fundamental moral issues. Was there no pushback at Boston College? No question about his commitment to the mission of the university?

Baron and the others cited here (there are more, of course) have done more than betray the Catholic Church when they advocated assisted suicide from their platforms at Jesuit universities. Their primary credentials are (or were) as Jesuit university professors. Their participation in academic societies and symposia and journals has depended on their teaching and research positions at major universities. When dealing with ethical issues, no doubt their affiliation with Catholic universities has opened many doors.

In no small way, then, Catholic universities are partly responsible for such professors’ influence by virtue of their employment. Academic freedom protects professors’ rights to seek truth according to the methods of their discipline. But when professors deny the truths of faith and disregard the common good — especially of those whose lives are snuffed out prematurely — they violate the mission of a Catholic university.

That’s of grave concern, of course, when Catholic universities truly value their mission. And there’s the rub.

Patrick J. Reilly


Patrick J. Reilly is founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization to advocate and support the renewal of genuine Catholic higher education.

  • kathy

    It is beyond me why this is tolerated. Who are the bigger whores? The ones who refuse to fire these people because they bring in money or the ones who continue to take their salary and spit in the face of the Church?

  • Jimbeaux

    Unfortunately, no implementation of Ex Corde (21 years after it was promulgated?) will effect the severe left wing bias of the law school faculty. It has seemed more and more over the last 20 – 30 years that law schools and the ABA see their role as assisting in the development and formalization of the “progressive” agenda. At Catholic schools, the law faculty has the added cover of being able to claim that it is merely putting Catholic social teaching into practice. The solution is more painful than merely insisting that the theology faculty adhere to the teachings of the Magesterium (something that any clever Dean worth his highly inflated salary can easily circumvent. Tnis is “religious studies” that we’re teaching — if you want theology go take a course at the nearby seminary.) Bishops will have to find the strength to say to colleges that flaunt the authority of the Church that they may no longer represent that they are “Catholic” schools. Moreover, they will need the full support of their brother bishops. Don’t hold your breath.

  • Unfortunately, the Land O’ Lakes Conference in 1968 and its aftermath put the bishops out of the picture. Most of the colleges and universities could not care less what the local Ordinary wants or says. When he (the Ordinary) does step in, he is ignored or vigorously resisted (example: Archbishop Burke and St. Louis University) And even when a college is declared to be no longer Catholic, it is still free to call itself so under US law. The only real solution is to support and promote those institutions which uphold the Magisterium (Christendom, Thomas Aquinas, Franciscan University, etc).

  • Douglas L Turner

    There is a clean remedy to all this betrayal of Catholic values….It works. Loyal Catholics should file an action with the bishop or archbishop in whose diocese the college is sited. Under canon law, it is called a ‘denunciation.’ It complains that the college has denied the civil rights of lay Catholics because the ordinary has failed to carry out his responsibility to ensure that the teachings of the church are faithfully taught. A hearing will follow, then a trial under canon law. If the laity are victorious in the suit, then the ordinary will prescribe a remedy in writing. The drawback is that this process makes enemies, of the kind that Jesus Himself warned us about. The ruling, or the failure of the ordinary to take action is appealable to Rome. Consult the Stl Joseph Foundation of San Antonio, Tx.

  • techwreck

    Douglas Turner, Thank you for the information. For too long our bishops have stood idly by as supposedly “Catholic” universities and colleges trashed the teachings of the Church. The result has been a confused laity and new generations of Catholics who have a distorted view of Church teaching.

    Filing a denunciation does not sound like a cure all for the bishops’ inaction. But, it can generate some heat and light that may move the hierarchy to take a public position on our non-Catholic institutions of “higher” education.

  • Faith Winklosky

    Who let these “people” in in the first place? They need to be excomminicated from the Catholic church and the church needs to close down ALL jesuit colleges. They are nothing but a sword in our side trying to lessen the reverence and holiness of the beautiful Catholic church. Hypocrites they are.

  • Deacon Tom Shea

    It amazes me that the Jesuit order is permitted to continue to rebel against both Pope and Church without the slightest (public) reaction from Rome. These recalcitrant professors (whether laymen or clerics) should be excommunicated. I’d recommend that they be fired except it occurs to me that they are almost assuredly protected by some for of tenure. The phony “Catholic” universities should be sold off and the sick charade ended. Ultimately, suppression of the Jesuit order would go a long way to end the seeming perpetual humiliation of the Holy Father and our bishops from within. The Jesuits are the Satan’s fifth column.

  • All such posts protect the pope from administration which is where the buck should stop according to Truman…implicit in his famous comment.  We have taught Popes to be bestselling authors while hurricanes rack the ship.  Canon law agrees with Truman:

    Can. 332 §1. The Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power in the Church by his acceptance of legitimate election together with episcopal consecration…..

    Can. 333 §1. By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only possesses power over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groups of them…..

    §2. In fulfilling the office of supreme pastor of the Church, the Roman Pontiff is always joined in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church. He nevertheless has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, whether personal or collegial, of exercising this office.

    §3. No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.
        I gather that means that Benedict can pick up the phone….call Georgetown…..and end lavender graduations and euthanasia professors in a ten minute call rather than a layman giving years of their life to do the same thing….maybe.  Laymen are deputed to leaven the world at their jobs and teach their children at night…..they are not deputed to take years to do something the Pope could do with a phone call.  

  • Bill:

    The President of Georgetown would tell His Holiness that it’s none of his business, and then hang up on him.
    The media would then praise the President’s “courageous action of standing up for academic freedom”, and blast the Pope for daring to meddle in the institution’s affairs. All ecclesial actions would be ignored and/or outright defied, and Cardinal Wuerl would also be powerless to intervene locally, since Georgetown has made sure that His Eminence has no temporal juristiction whatsoever under DC and US law.

  • Jurisdiction, I mean.

  • Nora Orgovan

    Now Now, Not all Jesuits are “satan’s.” I know good Jesuits who suffer for their orthodoxy, but do so for the sake of Christ and the people they educate in the faith. I do agree something needs to be done. I would urge you to contact these schools and the bishop in your area and express your disappointment. Offer the bishop your support. Pray for the church and for your brothers (and sisters) souls. If you do donate money to the school, I would stop and would not send my kids there. My children went to Catholic grade school and public high school. I am afraid the “liberal” agenda has also infiltrated the Catholic high schools. At least in public high school you know what to expect, deal with it as it comes and teach your kids the faith at home.

  • Michael PS

    An interesting question could arise over the property and endoments of such universities.

    The words of Lord President Inglis in the Ferguson Bequest Fund case might well prove apposite:
    “”… Where two parties, in the position of those now before us, each claim exclusive right to the property of the religious association to which they both originally belonged it is sometimes impossible to decide the question of property so raised without inquiring which party has adhered to and which has departed from the doctrines and rules of the association… In such cases it must be observed that the claim is based on allegations of breach of contract, that the subject in dispute is matter of civil and patrimonial right, and that the court cannot decide that question of right without reading and interpreting the contract which imposes on the members adherence to particular doctrines, laws, or usages as conditions of membership of the association …”

    In Bannatyne v Overtoun, Lord Halsbury LC allowed “”the right of any man or any collection of men, to change their religious beliefs according to their own consciences” but insisted that “when men subscribe money for a particular object, and leave it behind them for the promotion of that object, their successors have no right to change the object endowed,”

    The courts may well be able to achieve what the hierarchy cannot

  • Marilyn Sherry

    Supurb comments above. I went to Marquette in the days of the fine core curriculum and then worked for the University. Later when raising my 5 children I was warned that if I wanted my children to remain Catholic I should not send them to Catholic schools….so I did not. But I did teach a weekly religion class in my home for 5 years for 15 children from 5 families in the jr.-sr. high age group. I had the help of a fine Jesuit priest from Seattle University and also a diocesan priest who had studied in Rome in picking the right good text books, Bibles, Church history books, etc. And it was successful. We all need to pray for the reform of St. Ignatuis’s order because we need it around now more than ever.

  • Annabelle59

    I have encouraged my ALMA MATER, Marquette U, since the 1960s to get rid of Dan McQuire. He promoted Euthanaisa throught the use of postasium chloride at a church sponsored “adult ed” program at St. Jude Parish in Wauwatosa that early. There is no excuse for his continued presence and exposure to students for all these years. I am disgusted with the weak knees at what should have been a Catholic stronghold and influence in the Milwaukee community.

    • At least Marquette still has Fr. Bill Kurz, who is a loyal son of St. Ignatius.

      • Bob Boehler

        I know Father Bill Kurz also and I agree with Dave Pawlak. However, how do we get more of him and how do we put them in charge. I am not convinced the upcoming changing of the guard at Marquette will make any difference. In talking to Fr. Bill, I know that Dan Maguire is protected by tenure. However, this is only one issue in a growing list of Marquette decisions that put us in league with those like Notre Dame and Georgetown. As an alumnus I support the good ones but Marquette, Jesuit and Catholic do not always go together.

  • Dave

    Douglas Turner…not that I’m planning to open this can of worms, but as a rhetorical question; Can a denunciation be filed in the context of a pastor who willfully refuses to faithfully present or willfully distorts the teachings of the church?

    In this case repeated letters to the ordinary haven’t elicited a response much less any action.

  • Will

    “The courts may well be able to achieve what the hierarchy cannot’

    That could set a very dangerous precedent. I for one do not want the courts (with many of the judges appointees of Clinton and Obama) or secular governments interfering in Church affairs. Just last year, in Connecticut, legislators attempted to punish the Catholic Church for its actions against same-sex marriage by trying to place control of Church finances on lay hands.

  • John

    This is probably also the case at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, which is now part of Santa Clara University as of 2010. The JST has a moral theologian on its faculty who teaches directly against the Church on a range of Catholic moral and social teachings and is also a regular speaker at diocesan conferences and in parishes.

  • Bill Banchy

    In late 2003, I made a bold move and researched the names and mailing addresses of all those who taught theology at local Catholic universities (Xavier, UD, and Mt. St. Josephs). I wrote a personal letter to all 68 of them, asking if they had received the mandatum required by the Holy Father’s apostolic constitution, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae. I received responses from only 13 of them. Only 4 of the 13 said they had received it, and the other nine scolded me for meddling. You do the math.

  • Victress Jenkins

    It is truly sad for our young adults to be exposed to this “nihilest” philosphy at a Catholic college/university. Do their parents realize what their children are facing by going to these rebellious places and paying such “exorbitant” tuition and having their children possibly leaving the practice of their faith.

    The “land o lakes” conference/agreement was a “FARCE”. Only by teaching/learning the truth, will our future leaders be able to handle the future challenges of life according to God’s plan.

    Parents should be doing some serious research to find the best and truly Catholic college for their children. Only then will their children benefit.

  • PaulS

    I have a classmate that works at a Catholic university in a major city who espouses ideas contrary to Church teaching. He is in a staff position, not a teacher, but the errors are widespread throughout that institution.

  • EvelynM

    “The professors’ efforts came to light during a Cardinal Newman Society investigation in 2005, following news reports of a legal brief filed by 55 bioethicists in opposition to “Terri’s Law,” a Florida measure that empowered Gov. Jeb Bush to ensure that the comatose Terri Schiavo received water and nutrition. ”

    It doesn’t help when folks arguing against assisted suicide continue the lie started in the liberal media that Terri Schiavo was “comatose”. She was brain-damaged that necessited someone feed her but she was not comatose. Please get this correct in future articles that reference Terri’s condition.

  • Mike

    The bishops could easily change this. Although they have no direct control over most catholic colleges, they do have control over local catholic highschools. Huge numbers of catholic college applicants are from these schools. Bishops could order these highschools not to place students at non-compliant “catholic” colleges: Don’t send transcripts, recommendations; don’t host recruiters, don’t supply literature.

    Such colleges talk about faith and scholarship, but it’s all about the money, period.

  • It’s time for excommunication of all who go against the teaching of the Church. The Church will alway survive. Just get rid of them before they can destroy anymore souls. Enough is enough.

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