The Catholic hierarchy tries to use submissions on assisted dying as a de facto referendum.
In the latest poll by Newshub Reid Research released on February 3, once again more than 70 per cent of respondents were in favour of reform. Only 19.5 per cent were opposed.
This echoes the Horizon poll in June 2017 (75-11); and the One News Colmar-Brunton poll in July (74-18 in favour).
If you go back to 2015 when Lecretia Seales was making headlines for her legal case in the High Court, the results were similar: Reid Research (71-24 in favour); Colmar Brunton (75-21).
Religious opponents of a law change know they are never going to win a public poll on assisted dying and they are certainly never going to win a referendum, no matter how much fear, uncertainty and doubt they foster before it.
But even if there is only a minority of the public on their side, the Catholic Church — the principal opponent of a law change — has an extensive network of nearly 300 churches throughout New Zealand, which gives them a powerful way to amplify the numbers opposed. That is, they can treat any select committee hearing as a de facto referendum and swamp the process by not only urging the faithful to write a submission but also by providing on-the-spot coaching at Mass on how to do it.
They can then claim that a succession of scientifically conducted polls over decades do not represent popular opinion. The “one true poll”, according to the “one true church”, is the number of submissions sent to a select committee.
Thus Ken Orr, spokesperson for Catholic organisation Right to Life (and the recipient of the Papal Medal, the highest order the Vatican can bestow on someone who is not clergy), wrote in 2017: “The written and oral submissions [to the select committee] constitute the most authentic expression of public opinion on the issue of euthanasia.”
And so the Catholic bishops have mobilised their followers again, as they did in 2015-16 when Parliament called for responses to Maryan Street’s petition. In January 2018, the Church has more or less ordered the faithful to write a submission to the Justice select committee considering David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill.
A letter, sent out and signed by six Catholic bishops, put the hard word on parishioners:
“We are hesitant about ‘tacking on’ activities to Mass, but from time to time a particular initiative is given permission because its focus is so important that in effect it finds its full meaning within the context of the Mass. As we gather to be nourished by God’s Word (teaching and law) and by His Body and Blood, which makes possible the fullness of life, it is appropriate that something which so gravely threatens the gift of life is addressed within the context of our Sunday worship.
“Today, all around New Zealand, we are making available a resource which gives five reasons why legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide would be dangerous. We encourage you to share it among your friends, family and networks. This information is to inform and assist you to take personal action. Each of you can make a difference. Each of you are called to make a difference.”
No one can calculate exactly the extent of the Church’s influence in 2015-16 but a remarkable thing happened — the roughly 20 per cent reliably opposed in polls was transformed into 80 per cent opposing a law change.
When the churches were accused of manipulating the process, an analysis by the Care Alliance showed that only 14.8 percent of submissions made any reference to religion: 13.5 per cent of them opposed a law change and 0.93 per cent supported it — as if that somehow proved that the campaign by the Church was not largely responsible for the reversal of the figures of those for and against.
What the Care Alliance didn’t tell anyone was that the Catholic bishops had specifically instructed their followers not to mention religion — “Avoid religious and moralistic language. Be factual,” was how they put it.
Furthermore, all the model arguments the church proposed that churchgoers should use were secular — such as the effect assisted dying might have on the vulnerable. There was not a single reference to religion or biblical authority — with the most notable omission being the lack of any reference to the Catholic belief that life is a gift from God that humans should not interfere with, from conception to death. Yet, it is that belief which drives the Catholic church’s opposition to both abortion and assisted dying. In short, God owns your life, not you.
Once again in 2018, the five model arguments that the faithful are being encouraged to use fail to mention religion and instead cite only secular concerns. They include that assisted dying will “undermine suicide prevention” and “devalue the disabled”.
In the more extensive guide sheets handed out at Mass over the past few weeks, the instructions begin with “I oppose the End of Life Choice bill because…” and then advise parishioners to “choose one or two of the statements below”. Some of the statements offered for regurgitating are predictable (“euthanasia cannot be contained or made safe”) while others are simply batty, including implying that the bill could see those with gluten intolerance, asthma or arthritis qualify as having an “irremediable condition”.
The bishops’ January letter contains another proposition entirely detached from reality: “Thank you for giving this [opposition to assisted dying] your attention and for the support and effort you have all given to date on this issue. It is a powerful witness when the entire Catholic community is united around a point of belief and action…”
How can any Catholic be witnessing to their faith by writing a submission when they have been asked specifically not to mention it? When I was growing up in a religious household this would have been seen as an entirely shameful betrayal of Jesus and the faith — a case of “denying Christ”.
Nevertheless, it’s a brilliant PR strategy for a political campaign that not only exaggerates the proportion of New Zealanders opposed but succeeds in concealing the hand of the Church as it tries to overwhelm the submission process. (It goes without saying that if fundamentalist Muslims tried the same trick there would be an uproar.)
And the concealment goes further than just hiding the religious motivation for the tsunami of opposing submissions. The bishops who urge their parishioners to rush into the breach rarely, if ever, appear in public to present the Church’s views.
While the issue is said to be so vitally important as to warrant “tacking on” a letter-writing campaign to Mass, it is not important enough to flush the bishops out of hiding.
And although the Church is running a nationwide campaign against assisted dying, the bishops who signed the letter — Patrick Dunn, Bishop of Auckland; Charles Drennan, Bishop of Palmerston North; Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington; Steve Lowe, Bishop of Hamilton; Colin Campbell, Bishop of Dunedin; and Bishop-Elect of Christchurch Paul Martin — are nowhere to be seen. They should front on television and in public where they could be questioned on their views on assisted dying, including the religious arguments behind them.
Leaving opposition to proxies such as Ken Orr and Catholic politicians including Bill English, Simon O’Connor, and Maggie Barry — who, incidentally, never mention religion either — is downright cowardly.
Fronting up to defend their faith is the very least Christ would expect of his bishops.
How to make a submission
Submissions on the End of Life Choice Bill can be sent to the Justice select committee, by email, letter, or online. The submission period has been extended to March 6 2018.