Dr. Susan Windley-Daoust spoke at the latest meeting of Theology Uncorked, a club that discusses Catholic teachings over wine.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winonans who want to think and drink at the same time have a lot of options these days, from brewpub trivia to local policy chats over pints. Among these offerings, a small group of Winona Catholics met last week to sip wine, snack on goat cheese and crackers, and talk with Saint Mary’s University (SMU) theology professor Susan Windley-Daoust about physician-assisted suicide.
Windley-Daoust’s talk was part of an ongoing series of libations and lectures on Catholic teachings at The Oaks wine bar in downtown Winona. Dubbed Theology Uncorked, the series has featured talks from local priests on miracles and an introduction to canon law from a diocesan judge. People packed the wine bar loft for Father Glenn Frerichs’ explanation of angels and demons, and SMU philosophy professor Kevin Rickert gave a talk on theology of the body. “It was in large part about sex, but we call it theology of the body,” Theology Uncorked organizer Paula Harrigan explained. Then there was Diocese of Winona Bishop John Quinn’s chat about the reformation and the counterreformation last fall. Harrigan beamed about that one. Getting the Bishop is a big deal.
Theology Uncorked is not a novel idea. Other groups have hosted Theology on Tap events in Winona, and across the country, Theology Uncorked groups are common. Harrigan launched this most recent iteration after kicking the idea around with friends for over a year. She and her friends would always talk about how they should start a Theology Uncorked club in Winona. “And it wouldn’t happen, and it wouldn’t happen,” Harrigan said. So she made it happen.
Participants explained that part of the impetus for the series was that, for many Catholics, learning about their own faith peters out after confirmation. Harrigan said that at mass, the priest’s homily — or sermon — usually only lasts five minutes. “It’s really very little education, and the church really has so much wisdom and beautiful teachings,” she stated.
“There’s always something new to learn,” Theology Uncorked regular Kathy Foerester said. It is a relaxed, unintimidating environment, fellow regular Steve Hesse added. For Hesse, his wife, and Foerester, church events are already a big part of their lives. “It’s almost every day we’re at the church,” Hesse said. “It’s the center of our lives,” Foerester stated.
Windley-Daoust is the author of a forthcoming book on physician-assisted suicide, “Why You Shouldn’t Kill Yourself,” and the topic is something she has been researching and talking with her college classes about for years. For the most part, giving a Theology Uncorked talk was just like teaching a class, she said. Although, Windley-Daoust added, “Let’s be honest. This topic tends to be of more interest to people outside of college.” Death becomes less of an abstract idea as people age.
Windley-Daoust has noticed a trend in her classes, too, one that reflects national polling. Years ago, most of her students were opposed to assisted suicide and they did not see it as a “real” issue. Windley-Daoust said her students challenged her, does this really happen enough to be worth talking about? Physician-assisted suicide is still not a common occurrence in the U.S., but it is legal in five states and both Windley-Daoust’s classroom discussions and national polling show that people’s opinions are divided around 50-50 on whether assisted suicide is ethical.
There was no debate over the ethics of physician-assisted suicide at Theology Uncorked. The discussion was predicated on Roman Catholic teaching that human life is sacred, life and death should be in God’s hands, and suicide is wrong. However, Windley-Daoust challenged the group to empathize with and try to understand the reasons why someone might want to commit physician-assisted suicide. The group shouted out answers: they don’t want to be a burden, they don’t want to experience the pain and suffering, they are on the way out anyway, and they feel like they don’t have control over their own life. Windley-Daoust has done some research on this, too. In Oregon, where the Death with Dignity Act legalized assisted suicide in 1997, people have been polled about why they were making that choice. Loss of autonomy and the inability to do the things that make life enjoyable ranked highest on those surveys, Windley-Daoust explained. Part of how Catholics should resist physician-assisted suicide is by giving people a better option and helping people die well, Windley-Daoust argued.
Windley-Daoust queried the group, if people say they want to commit physician-assisted suicide because they don’t want to be a burden, what is behind that sentiment? “They’re thinking about draining their family’s financial resources,” one man offered. Maybe they would not want to have to provide such a high level of care for someone else and so they don’t want to ask someone to provide it to them, another man hypothesized. Maybe they do not feel loved by their family or caregivers, one woman suggested. What do you say to someone in that situation? “A human being is never a burden,” Windley-Daoust stated.
Windley-Daoust related a story one young woman shared with her. Her father was dying from cancer and hinted that he might end his own life. The young woman and her family tried to dissuade him, and he acquiesced, but then he did it anyway. Windley-Daoust recalled the young woman’s reaction: “The saddest thing was I think somewhere in his mind he thought he was making things easier for us. It made it a thousand times worse.”
“We have this sense that if I don’t have all the abilities I had when I was 20, my life has no value,” Windley-Daoust continued. Dying may be the hardest thing a person ever does, and no one chooses a slow decline, she continued. “But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have meaning,” she added.
What about do-not resuscitate orders, Allison Hesse asked. Windley-Daoust laughed. “I thought about wearing a button that says, ‘I’m not a medical ethicist,’ because I’m not,” she joked. Windley-Daoust steered Hesse to the National Catholic Bioethics Center, but admitted that as medical technology advances, it has become “stickier” to discern the line between letting death happen and causing it. “It’s OK to allow yourself to die. It’s not OK to do anything that hastens your death. The real difficulty is there is a grey area there for people,” she said.
Next month’s Theology Uncorked topic is a little lighter. Diocese of Winona Director of Life, Marriage, and Family Peter Martin and his wife plan to speak about “Love That Lasts.” Keep reading the Winona Post for event details.