Whose Culture of Death Is It Anyway?


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.

NEXT: AEI's Qualms About the War on Drugs

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  1. I believe the Pope claims that a person in a PVS has a duty to remain hooked up to a feeding tube (that was his stance as of 2004 at least).

  2. Terri Schiavo’s parents offered to trade their 41-year-old daughter for convicted double-murderer Scott Peterson

  3. The Wine Commonsewer,

    That’s cruel dude. 🙂

  4. I know, but it WAS funny.

    and now it’s wine thirty.


  5. The pope is just looking for more attention by getting involved in this case: what a media whore!

    Seriously though, I think Catholics normally acknowledge that there is a time when it is counter-productive to keep someone alive. Heck they have bishops screaming right now about how by seeking to prolong life, we’re upsetting some majro balance and devaluing life.

    Personally, I’m sick of this whole “battle via buzzword” thing. “Culture of Life” is such a nasty, self-righteous term: it makes all rational debate impossible.

    But then, that’s generally a GOOD move in politics. 🙂

  6. As Chesterton was a Catholic and EWTN is a Catholic network, it’s hard to see how their airing of a show based on him demonstrates a Catholic/Protestant alliance.

  7. 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.

    I imagined the anti-Catholic overtones of the “Left Behind” series, then.

    1. EWTN is home to a lot of wishful thinking on the subject. Watch TBN, and you’ll get a different view.

    2. Most Protestants don’t know enough about Catholicism to recognize what is distinctly Catholic about “The Passion of the Christ.”

    3. What does Time magazine know about anything? Really.

  8. Franklin,

    Quite a few EWTN programs are hosted by former evangelical ministers who have since become Catholic (Jeff Cavins, Marcus Grodie, etc). As a former evangelical myself, I appreciate their ability to counteract the often-frighteningly-traditionalist elements also on display (Mother Angelica, Bob&Penny Lord).

    And I’m not sure about the rank-and-file, but Chuck Colson and other evangelical leaders have in the past decade hooked up with Catholics on many social issues, and even some theological ones:


  9. At this late date only Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times appears surprised by the Catholic-Evangelical alliance.

    But, Jack Chick must be positively apoplectic!

  10. A. Chesterton was a Protestant convert to Catholicism, as is the host of the Chesterton tv show.

    B. EWTN, in addition to hosting the numerous evangelical and protestant converts noted above, is heavily influenced by the “Catholic Charismatic” movement that has brought a good deal of evangelical-style fervor into the RCC.

    C. Mother Angelica roolz. She may be frightening in the sense that old nuns are always frightening, but anybody who thinks she’s “frighteningly traditional” isn’t worth worth a plastic rosary.

  11. So y’all don’t like JP Deuce, nor his version of mysticism, therefore anything he says is dismissed without regard to accuracy or usefulness? What a fine lot of Free Thinkers you be.

    CoD seems appropriate to describe the widespread willingness to participate in involuntary death. The linguistically opposite “Culture of Life” also willingly participates in foisting death, but upon a different subset of the population. CoL seems a less-appropriate term for the doctor-assassinators, while CoD describes fairly well the euthanists.

  12. Tom DiLorenzo makes some good points

    As for the culture of death. Well it was Nazi Germany that pretty much started the so called mercy killings in the 1930s. Doctors were put on trial and hanged at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity.

    Ilana Mercer doesn’t hold back. Pat Buchanan on how closely our elites approximate, in belief and argument, the elites of Weimar and Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

  13. Dynamist-

    If it is as you say then it seems to me that using the phrase “Culture of Life” is more than a little intellectually dishonest.

  14. This is just too good to pass up! Ilana Mercer pulls no punches

    The only kind of marriage liberals had ever glorified is the gay kind. But thanks to Michael Schiavo, the sanctity of marriage is fast becoming a liberal sacrament, with the proviso it has to involve “mercy killing.” It took Michael Schiavo’s devoted efforts to starve and dehydrate his wife to restore liberal faith in the institution. As we know, liberals, inexplicably, have insisted over and over again that Terri Schiavo’s husband is his helpless wife’s sole and indisputable guardian. Furthermore, to liberals, males have always been the guilty party in just about any heterosexual interaction. Michael’s monstrous single-mindedness has changed all that.

  15. Lot’s of strange bedfellow, indeed.

    But it seems in the service of anti-abortion, pro-morality crusades, Catholics and Evengelicals have both forgotten their prejudices…at least publicly and at least while it’s convenient.

    I live first-hand amidst both of those prejudices and then some. I can tell you most Catholics feel little commity with evangelicals outside of agreement on the abortion issue and evengelicals are only slightly less anti-Catholic than they were a few years ago.

    Sill, it IS interesting to note Catholics are dumping social justice agendas while evangelicals are picking up environmental ones. Who saw THAT coming?

    In the long run, once they either think they’ve got what they want or feel it’s futile, they’ll go back to hating each other again.

    Without a demon to fight, groups will make one up and the first one they’ll pick is the closest thing different from them.

  16. and evengelicals are only slightly less anti-Catholic than they were a few years ago.

    As a Catholic born and raised in the deep south(bayou country Louisiana) I can safely say that Catholics are just as bigoted against evengelicals as evengelicals are against Catholics. My mother told me if I ever married a Baptist she’d disown me.

  17. The only kind of marriage liberals had ever glorified is the gay kind. But thanks to Michael Schiavo, the sanctity of marriage is fast becoming a liberal sacrament, with the proviso it has to involve “mercy killing.”

    This is some of the most insane garbage I have yet seen on this issue. This isn’t “pulling no punches”. This is honest-to-God, liberal-baiting, lunatic fringe crap by a borderline wacko.

  18. BillieRay,

    Uh…check my post, dude. I think I indicated that…though not quite as forcefully as you.

  19. sorry, but it hits the button right on the nose. Feminism, liberalism etc etc. Gay marriage is the new cause for liberalism.

  20. More from Tom DiLorenzo

    Sometimes, Animals Have More Rights than We Do
    Posted by Thomas DiLorenzo at March 26, 2005 12:41 PM

    According to Florida Animal Cruelty Statute 828.13, it is a crime to abandon a dog, cat, or any other animal “without providing for the care, sustenance, protection, and shelter” of the animal. In Terry Shiavo’s case the opposite is true: it is a crime in Florida to provide her with such sustenance.

  21. BillieRay,

    With all due respect to your opinion – and I truly DO respect it – there’s a lot of anger surround this issue.

    But, I no more think Michaal Schiavo is trying to murder his wife than I think the Schindlers are trying to get their hands on her trust fund.

    I think both sides are simply people who love someone and are trying to do the right thing.

    That both side are painting the other as evil is unavoidable as politicians and public figures (who derive power and financial gain by whipping up public fear and anger) weigh in on the issue.

    But lumping this in with animal cruelty statutes and gay marriage and trying to paint it solely as a “liberal issue” is both ineffective and more than a little tacky.

    There seem to be plenty of folks who AREN’T liberal on the “let her go” side.

  22. madpad,
    Not to mention a lot of liberals, many in the disable rights field, for example, that are in the “put the tube back in” side.

  23. Nobody’s argument makes any sense. The woman is D… E… A… D… DEAD! Her brains waves are flat, that is, she has no brain waves. She is dead, dead, dead! As far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t accept that she is dead is some sort of primitive, ignorant fool (unless they simply doubt all published reports, then they’re just very skeptical).

    It’s situations like these that make rational people wonder if humanity is actually something worth preserving.

  24. Speaking as an old burnout I think Billie Ray is more right than wrong. The left demonized marriage throughout the ’60’s and well into the 70’s and ultimately brought us to the realization that “hey, it’s just a piece of paper”.

    With the gay marriage agenda it seems that the “piece of paper” idea has come full circle now hasn’t it?

    For the record, as a good libertarian I don’t think marriage is any of the state’s business. Best leave that to the church or common law.

    And although I can see some technical benefit that gays can gain by acquiring the right to marry the question that keeps coming to my mind is why the hell does anyone want to cede this authority to the government?

    And as a useless disclaimer I am legally married although I lived in sin with two other chicks years ago (unfortunately not both at once).

    That’s handy though because it gives my mom the right to tell the relatives that her son has only been married once (unlike my fleabag cousins). Maybe that’s what it’s about, eh?

    The rest of the disclaimer: I DON’T CARE if gays get married and I don’t understand why anyone else does either.

  25. That living in sin stuff is great! I’d probably be on my third or fourth (instead of first) marriage by now if not for it.

  26. As an hypothetical, let’s say Terri had a lesbian life partner who would have no legal standing, but was vehemently pro-tube while the parents, as guardians and of some euthanasia-friendly faith, were insisting she be allowed to refuse treatment (die).

    Who would become bedfellows? Would the lefties (or at least non-fundies) still be standing upon their “suffcient due process/we must accept the law” plank? The fundies might not be as fervent, but they would still try to save the life of the sinner.

    I wonder, even if the state was not involved in marriage, it would still have to determine the wishes of an non-willed PVS person, in order to protect that person’s rights?

  27. Dynamist,

    I think that hypothetical is the question Capt. Kirk used to blow up authoritarian supercomputers.

  28. Mo,

    True. And that only seems to underscore my point to BillieRay about the sensless, pointless and often innacurate labeling on issues like this.

  29. Mother Angelica roolz. She may be frightening in the sense that old nuns are always frightening, but anybody who thinks she’s “frighteningly traditional” isn’t worth worth a plastic rosary.

    I suspect our points of view are different on the matter. As I recall, you’ve identified yourself in the past as a former Catholic (if I’m mistaken, I apologize), so I’m guessing you view her as a source of entertainment — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    But as someone who professes the same faith she does, it is somewhat frightening to watch some of her “teaching moments.” For instance, since Mary is said by some to fetch her devotees from Purgatory on the first Saturday of the month, Mother Angelica advises us that that’s the best time to die, so as to minimize your time in Purgatory.

    I’m nearly as sick of having to deal with conservative Catholics, who always seem to be looking for a gimmick to guarantee them some reward from God, as I am of dealing with liberal Catholics, who seem bent on reducing the Church to a soup kitchen or a country club. But I guess I should be used to not fitting on the political spectrum… 😉

  30. Apparently, in the Culture of life, it’s okay to “kill your dad” (I wouldn’t agree with that formulation, but that’s how Delay has said it’s okay to employ it, so who am I to judge?) and then sue for money off his death if you’re Tom Delay. If you’re a bunch of moralistic Friars, the culture of life is a-okay with letting a brain damaged member die for want of a simple intubation. That wacky culture of life!

  31. Does Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute qualify as a Roman Catholic or as a Protestant “Bible thumper?”

    Bandow declared in a recent article that he’s against federal intervention in the Schiavo case, but “[t]here seems to have been a serious miscarriage of justice at the state level.”

    Bandow supported the Florida legislature’s “Terri’s law” in a National Review article last year. In that article, Bandow said:

    “Transfer Terri to the care of her parents. Let them use the rest of the money originally intended for her to provide rehabilitative care that will give her as active a life as possible.

    “Michael could get on with his life. He could divorce Terri and marry the mother of his two children. And he wouldn’t have to worry about Terri, the Schindlers, the money, or the constant court battles. Terri’s parents, rather than jurists and lawyers, would decide her future.”

    Isn’t it sad that a guy from the Cato Institute should have been brainwashed by the evil, antilibertarian Religious Right!

  32. Not only are there non-fundamentalists (like Doug Bandow, Nat Hentoff and Ralph Nader) in the feed-Terri camp, the guy in charge of the “don’t feed Terri” crusade is a wacky New Age nutball who, when it comes to flaky religious beliefs, makes the Reverent Sun Myung Moon look like Richard Dawkins.

    Don’t take my word for it. Read the book Litigation as Spiritual Practice, by Michael Schiavo’s attorney George Felos. In this fascinating book, you’ll learn about one of Felos’ right-to-die clients, who, while unconscious and incapable of speech, communicated with Felos in a spiritual matter, soul-to-soul. Or so Felos says. Naturally, the woman’s spiritual message was that she wanted to die. So it seems that a person who is otherwise incapable of normal functioning is still able to exercise her fundamental American right to communicate with her lawyer through telepathy.

    Another fascinating detail from Felos’ book: Felos says that he is able to overcome the artificial barrier between body and spirit by simply wishing for things to happen. Once, he says, he was a passenger on an airplane and he started thinking morbid thoughts. As a result of these thoughts, Felos claims he almost caused the plane to crash! After this incident, Felos says he got a divine message that he had to be more careful exercising his enormous spiritual powers. (You’d think he would have gotten a warning from Homeland Security).

    That must be some law school Felos went to! Telepathy *and* telekenesis!

  33. Bonar,

    I just checked out that link. That’s some wild stuff.

    I’ll admit I’m morally conflicted about whether or not to remove her feeding tube, I tend to side with the “let her go” crowd.

    But if the book is any indicator, Felos is nuts.

    Of course, no less nuts than anyone else spearheading the “Death with Dignity/Euthanasia” movement.

    And no less nuts than the folks insisting that Schiavo’s trying to say “I want to live”.

    One might say it takes nutty people with extreme views to get movement on issues many people are less black and white about.

  34. So what if he is nuts? The whole thing was decided by the courts and not just by Schiavo’s lawyer alone.

  35. So what if he is nuts? The whole thing was decided by the courts and not just by Schiavo’s lawyer alone.


    Did anyone suggest otherwise?

    As far as I can tell, NOTHING in anyone’s posts about Felos suggested that. We’re merely commenting on some odd facts about the lawyer in the case.

    Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick.

    Why do some folks spend time trying to put words into other folks mouth or waiting to pounce on them for everything they say – or don’t say.

  36. As an hypothetical, let’s say Terri had a lesbian life partner who would have no legal standing, but was vehemently pro-tube while the parents, as guardians and of some euthanasia-friendly faith, were insisting she be allowed to refuse treatment (die).

    Comment by: Dynamist at March 26, 2005 08:24 PM

    It would depend on the circumstances. If they were in a state that recognized gay marriage and they were married, the spouse would get to make a decision. If the Terri equivalent had left a living will specifying the partner as the one to make the decision and had done the appropriate legal paperwork, the same. If there were no legal documents and they weren’t legally married (or in a legal civil union), the parents would make the decision as the legal next-of-kin and the partner would be out of luck.

  37. My reference to Felos was in response to a certain notion that some folks seem to have, to the effect that the pro-feeding side has a monopoly on people with irrational/eccentric views, while the anti-feeding side is characterized by a purely rational and scientific attitude.

    I was simply pointing out that this vision fails to take into account the inconvenient fact that Felos, the leader of the forces of enlightenment, is in fact a certifiable wacko who makes a snake-handler look like a paragon of scientific objectivity.

  38. It was common in medeival Europe to lay deformed newborns outside over night and let them die (the Nazis didn’t invent the concept of “mercy killing” in other words – whenever the troll in question ever makes a historical claim, its best not to believe him). Our definition of what lives are important to maintain differs over time.

  39. madpad,

    The troll in question is a notorious liar. Do your best not to feed it.

  40. madpad,

    The troll in question is confusing an animal welfare law with a law which protects the rights of individuals to end their life as they see fit.

  41. The nation is NOT waiting for her to die. The NEWSMEDIA is. Lets not confuse a plethora of reporters with anything of importance happening.

  42. Doug Bandow wrote a 1988 book entitled Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics in the “Turning Point Christian Worldview Series”, (amazon page), and I’ve noticed him mentioning his faith in many an article, so, yeah, he’s a Christian and a libertarian. If more Christians agreed with his view that a massive state is a threat to religious liberty, it’d be a better world for little ol’ atheist me.


  43. Faither healer refuses to heal Schiavo.


    You know, there would be a big fat check waiting for him if he went ahead and applied his powers to the case. 🙂


  44. “so, yeah, [Doug Bandow is] a Christian and a libertarian.”

    Ah, I hadn’t known that.

    I said he wasn’t a “fundamentalist.” If a fundamentalist is “someone who believes the Bible to be true,” then I suppose I was wrong and he is a fundamentalist. If a fundamentalist is a member of a certain Protestant subculture, I don’t know whether he is or not.

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