Death, God and faith in the news

540px-paradiso_canto_31Death and dying are intricately tied to the subjects of God, religion and faith. The Los Angeles Times made this clear earlier this week in its detailed look at why some statistics show that cancer patients deemed terminally ill requested intensive, but useless medical treatment, such as breathing machines, at a much higher rate if their faith was a significant factor in the their medical decision. The article's general perspective is that such individual decisions were poorly thought out, and as a per se rule, ought to be altered for unspecified reasons. The article has a lot of quotes from experts in both the religious and medical communities, as well as some from those who straddle both.

Although there is plenty of information regarding the appropriate medical treatment for terminally ill patients, there is not as much discussion about any more appropriate theological approaches to death and dying. Readers are told what is an improper theological approach:

"We don't do enough talking earlier in the trajectory of illness," said Dr. Ray Barfield, a pediatric oncologist who teaches Christian philosophy at the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life.

When patients must make treatment decisions in the midst of a medical crisis, he said, "the most obvious theological straw to grab onto is, 'Well, maybe God will still perform a miracle, so we're going to keep at it.' Bad theology can lead to a lot of suffering."

Accepting death, on the other hand, can provide an opportunity to get one's religious affairs in order and make the most of remaining time with family and friends.

One study of parents whose children were dying of cancer found that the sooner the family accepted that the child would not recover, the more they enjoyed their final months with their ailing son or daughter, Barfield said.

There need not be one single theological answer to this very difficult problem, but there are alternative religion-based approaches that should have been discussed. The practical, money-saving reasons that support the article's thesis do not provide a robust faith-based framework for approach death and dying.

For example, there is no mention of the fact that religious groups started the concept of hospice care. Of course, this would undercut the theme of the story that religious people irrationally attempted to avoid death as long as possible.

In a related story, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel discussed the decision by a hospice chaplain to resign when certain religious oriented behavior was banned. The problem with the article is that it is not made clear what behavior became prohibited that instigated the resignation:

A chaplain at Hospice by the Sea in Boca Raton has resigned, she says, over a ban on use of the words "God" or "Lord" in public settings.

Chaplains still speak freely of the Almighty in private sessions with patients or families but, the Rev. Mirta Signorelli said: "I can't do chaplain's work if I can't say 'God' -- if I'm scripted."

Hospice CEO Paula Alderson said the ban on religious references applies only to the inspirational messages that chaplains deliver in staff meetings. The hospice remains fully comfortable with ministers, priests and rabbis offering religious counsel to the dying and grieving.

So is it a ban on words used in public or just in staff meetings, which are presumably not held in the public square? Apparently, the new rule came through a directive of some sort that amounted to a command to "cease and desist from using God in prayers," according to Signorelli. The hospital portraying the new rule "as a minor administrative directive aimed solely at improving the decorum of monthly staff meetings" with the goal of adjusting chaplains' tone from religious to motivational. If there are strongly contradictory opinions about the facts, this should be made explicitly clear in the news article.

The hospice's six other chaplains seem to be comfortable with the prohibition because they are not leaving, but that raises questions as to whether Signorelli is considered as somehow different than the other hospice chaplains. See here the article's description of him:

A devout Christian who acquired a master's degree in theology after a career as a psychologist, running a program for abused and neglected children, Signorelli has been ministering to the dying for 13 years. She worked at the Hospice of Palm Beach County before moving seven years ago to Hospice by the Sea, a community-based nonprofit organization that cares for terminally ill patients in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Is "devout" some sort of code word for evangelical or fundamentalist? Knowing more about Signorelli's theological background, particularly as compared to the other chaplains at the hospice, would go a long way to better explaining the core of this conflict.

Image of a representation of Paradise, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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