I suppose I'm not alone in dreading and/or hoping that Terri Schiavo expires before Good Friday is over. As far as I'm concerned, it's an open question who will ultimately reap the political benefits of her death, though I think Peggy Noonan's much-cited prediction that Republicans will "face a reckoning from a sizable portion of their own base" misses the substantial demagoguery advantages that will accrue after Schiavo actually dies (and maybe some theological advantages too, if she doesn't make it past Easter Sunday). Whatever those pro-plug-pulling poll numbers say, the ghastly spectacle of a nation waiting for this woman to die is bound to turn opinions along with stomachs. At the risk of torturing the Good Friday tie-in: Peter didn't keep Jesus alive, and he ended up becoming the first pope.
Speaking of which, when will the current pope get credit for what will undoubtedly go down as his most lasting achievement—putting the phrase "culture of death" into the mainstream? Not since Song Of Bernadette tore up the 1944 Oscars® has a figure of Catholic ephemera found such a treasured place in American culture. Let's go to the tape:
According to Nexis, the first contemporary use of the phrase "culture of death" came on January 27, 1986, with a Reuters-AP story reporting: "In Rome yesterday, the Pope denounced the legalisation of abortion as a defeat for a society which appeared dominated by a 'culture of death'. The Pope told 40 leaders of the Italian Pro-Life Movement during an audience at the Vatican that abortion was legal 'even in nations with millenium-old (sic) Christian traditions, like Italy.'"
For the entire decade of the 1980s, Nexis lists fewer than 66 citations for "culture of death," most of them quotations from Pope John Paul II, though there are a few suprises: Wily Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet managed early in the phrase's career to fling it back on the pontiff himself. Says the Chicago Tribune in an April 3, 1987 story on the Pope's visit to Chile: "Pinochet greeted the Pope at the airport and said Chile was being attacked by 'an outside materialist ideology' in a campaign of 'hate, lies and the culture of death.'"
"Culture of death" really takes off in the 1990s (2,484 citations for the decade, though this may reflect an increasing number of Nexis-accessible documents as much as it does an increase in use of the phrase), and although it remains almost exclusively Roman Catholic in the first half of the decade (Cardinal O'Connor being a leading stateside booster), already the phrase has shown some malleability outside its anti-abortion/death penalty origins: In a 1990 sermon on the assassination of a Sicilian judge, the Pope denounces the Mafia's "culture of death," and in 1992 a Salesian priest laments the "culture of death" surrounding children in Medellin, Colombia. At the 1998 Silver Sewer Awards ceremony, gruff-but-lovable lay Catholic Bill Bennett grumbles, "It turns out there is a sizable market for the culture of death."
But in making its journey into the ecumenical mainstream, "Culture of Death" needs the help of a surprising, yet somehow inevitable, ally: the cadaverabulous Jack Kevorkian. A spate of Kevorkian-related stories in the late 1990s marks the phrase's wide acceptance by folks of many different religious creeds. "This is a defining moment for Michigan. We are either going to pursue a culture of death or a culture of life," says Motor State Senator Bill Van Regenmorter in introducing his 1998 assisted suicide bill.
In the first five years of the twenty-first century, "Culture of Death" is on track to obliterate all previous records, with 1,955 citations so far. Schiavo-related items have predominated lately, but in a sign of how flexible the term has become, the Brady Foundation capitalizes on the Red Lake massacre by denouncing President Bush and the Congress for "feeding the culture of death."
With characteristic political skill, however, the GOP has already triangulated, coming not to bury the "Culture of Death" but to praise the "Culture of Life." In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that there will be both death and life in all our futures.
There's certainly some significance in the rapid dissemination of a papal phrase, but nobody who has watched an hour or two of the top-notch entertainment available on EWTN, paid attention to Mel Gibson's directing career, or checked out Time's big cover story on Protestant Mariology still thinks there's a wide gap separating Catholics from Protestants. At this late date only Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times appears surprised by the Catholic-Evangelical alliance. I just hope that when the inevitable falling out occurs, the bible thumpers remember that it was the man in the funny hat who did the heavy lifting for Jesus until those who had been half-awake were half-ready.