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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
1 Mar 2005

Get Down There!

by Steve O'Brien

Terri Schiavo
Terri (Schindler) Schiavo

Prior to the War of 1812, the British emissary to Washington, D.C., Francis James "Copenhagen" Jackson described Americans as "all alike", except that some few were "less knaves than others." While I do not share that vitriolic Englishman's estimation of all Americans, that pithy quote flies to my mind whenever I consider the American bishops. The most notorious are indefensible, their sins and crimes so grievous, particularly their actions against children, that decent Catholics can feel nothing but contempt. Other bishops, less spectacular though scarcely admirable, are walk-behinders, silent about the wrongdoings of their brother bishops and the endless assaults of organized anti-Catholic groups. A handful of prelates occasionally utter some sensible words but in the end remain, as in Jackson's phrase, simply "less knaves than others."

The lesson for today is Terri (Schindler) Schiavo. If ever there was a test case to determine the relative worth of the episcopal system to the laity, this is it. Since there has been considerable publicity regarding Terri's case, the facts are well known: a young woman mysteriously suffered brain damage and must be fed through a tube. She is not in a coma and neither is she in a "persistent vegetative state" as the fonts of disinformation in the press keep telling us. Her husband cashed-in by suing her doctors. Since then he has been frantic to get her present medicos to starve her to death. Her parents want to save her and Florida governor Jeb Bush made an effort to shield her by law. Instead, a circuit court judge will decide her fate, either by ordering the continuation of providing sustenance or allowing her to die by agonizing starvation.

Every Catholic should be out of his chair in rage over this case, not that there aren't similar ones playing out every day. Collectively, Catholics in America are woefully oblivious of their own past. More than others, the forty-something million of us who have Irish ancestors really can't let this pass. Many of us live in America because of a starvation, because of an appalling 19th century holocaust that rivaled anything that happened in the 20th century. The Irish were starved because their overlords in the British government wished it so. Catholics existed solely on the potato, useful otherwise as pig fodder. All through the starvation years, other foodstuffs produced in Ireland were shipped to England as Irish Catholics fell dead on the docks.

Most folks might know this story in a general way but few probably understand what it means to starve to death. The person who succumbs to starvation doesn't merely feel hungry for a few days and then drifts off peacefully in her sleep. If water is still consumed, the suffering soul goes through the torments of hell. After a few days there is no "hunger" in the ordinary sense but an awful resignation. The victim is blinded, her kidneys and bowels fail, the skin deteriorates and the weakened immune system is then susceptible to attack by any number of pathogens. The victims of the Irish starvation died horrible deaths while their hateful, foreign government and the world stood by.

American Catholics of all ethnic backgrounds should resolve to never forget what was done in Ireland. So we have Terri, a Catholic woman perilously close to being killed by the same technique that exterminated millions of our people in Ireland . Terri is the Irish holocaust writ small and what ultimately happens to her is vital to us all.

Now what of the bishops? Need we say that they're behaving exactly as expected — that is, disgracefully? Terri's father recently spoke about her on EWTN and when asked about his bishop, Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Mr. Schindler indicated that he was, to say the least, less than dynamic. Of course Lynch has better things to do than to speak up for a helpless Catholic woman about to be tortured and murdered on his watch. There are always luncheons and ecumenical gatherings to attend and "unconventional" but very progressive priests to be moved from parish to parish. It's undeniable that in the post-conciliar Church there's so much to do, and so little time.

Mr. Schindler did indicate that a few bishops outside of the diocese offered some verbal support, but what of it? Neither Schiavo nor the legions of pro-death activists seeking Terri's end are afraid of disembodied voices heard meekly from chanceries 500 or 1,000 miles from the scene of the crime. Do these few bishops believe they have any spiritual credentials which can affect the happenings in Florida? The forces of evil do not blanch from sound-bites. Considering everything done by the bishops in recent decades, anyone would be justified in thinking of these men as Teddy Roosevelt characterized William McKinley, that they "have no more backbone than a chocolate eclair."

I do not wear a red hat and watching this atrocious situation from Boston I have no idea if the prelates are in a huddle and have some "secret plan" to become men at the last minute and act to save Terri. But may a broken-down history professor who knows a little bit about America's Catholic past offer a few suggestions regarding Terri's and our future?

First, if there is even one bishop with a shred of goodness, get down there, man. Most all the prelates couldn't be bothered to trouble about this, but is there even one, God forbid two or more, who have the nerve to don their royal raiments, hop in their limos and show up at the facility in Pinellas Park where Terri is being held? Once there, your eminence, make a stink. Cause a racket. Bang the pots and pans. Announce to the staff and hence the world that you are not about to let this woman be murdered without a fight. This will rattle the staff. Unaccustomed to seeing a Catholic bishop take a courageous stand, they may panic and call the police. Good. When the cops arrive, get busted. Tell the boys that you refuse to leave and that they'll have to drag you out of there in cuffs, kicking and screaming. But be sure you have called Fox News ahead of time and bring along bus loads of parishioners , all armed with those marvelous video recorders. You may even get lucky if the cops decide to work you over in custody. This will be a little hard on your bones but it will do wonders for your soul. Recall, many of our best men and women, in the tradition of our Lord Himself, have been brutalized by the authorities for standing up for the Faith. Believe me, you'll be in better moral company than with your usual crowd.

When the film hits the fan, there will be an immediate, electric reaction. Anti-Catholic forces will be enraged and impotently sputter their favorite slogan about separation of Church and State. Enlightened, up-to-date Catholics will be embarrassed and then resume their perusal of the latest Andy Greeley potboiler. The other bishops will scamper into their crevices. But if any bishop had the moxie to act thusly, he would, in one fell swoop, become a hero to every Catholic, every person, with a conscience.

Speaking of the police, I also have a suggestion for Terri's father. Though some experts believe Terri's condition may have been induced by a beating and strangulation, Mr. Schindler has said that the police have from the start "stonewalled" the family's pleas for an investigation. This in itself bears investigation. The authorities routinely work on "cold case files" of people who have been dead for decades. Terri isn't even "cold," yet the cops won't help her family discover the truth about how or who put her in her lamentable condition. If Mr. Schindler has any money left, perhaps he could spend some on a reputable private investigation agency to look into the police department. Remember, motive, motive, motive. Who is the local police chief and why has be "stonewalled" on this case? Pressure from above? Emoluments from below? Turn the hot lights on the authorities, publicize their role and see if they suddenly decide to do the right thing. If Terri was indeed garroted, it shouldn't be too difficult to turn up a suspect.

Now the chance of even one bishop acting heroically is slim. Yet even the lukewarm can, from their well-appointed offices, be a little more helpful. For instance, Terri's husband, so desperate to see her expire, has been living with another woman for years and they have produced two spawn out of wedlock. It seems that the bishops might possibly tear themselves away from kissing korans and blessing menorahs to mention that this behavior is what used to be called, in the pre-Vatican II Church, "sinful." At one time, many bishops used to preach against it. This may not alter the legal situation for Terri, still it would illustrate the character of those who want her dead.

Groups hostile to the Church routinely issue statements to the affect that the bishops in Third Reich Germany were silent about Hitler's crimes. That's untrue, but the weakest of the German bishops were as lions compared to modern American prelates. Certainly there are various groups rallying to support Terri, but if this isn't a moral issue for the bishops, nothing is. If they don't act now, they never will. Both churchmen and laity have, overwhelmingly, remained silent about the abortion holocaust and most remain silent about the killing of helpless innocents by judicial fiat. Catholics have been subjected to government extermination programs many times throughout history. In England. In Germany. In Poland. In Ireland. In America, the days are coming.

A favorite catch phrase of the Vatican II Church is "offer it up", repeated ad nauseum. This is supposed to mean something like "all is God's will so be resigned to bad things." Except it's not. What is likely to happen to Terri isn't God's will, it's man's. And if Terri is "offered up" as today's sacrifice, be assured that she will be joined by many, many more of us before very long.

(As I write, there has been another temporary stay issued, essentially a stay of execution. Terri has been granted another chance. So then, have the bishops. Get down there! NOW! Pray for Terri!)


Steve O'Brien is a history professor and writes the Biography Department for The Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition. He is also the author of Blackrobe in Blue: The Naval Chaplaincy of John P. Foley, S.J. 1942-1946, available at

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