Skip to main content

Medical Assistance in Dying: John Shields - 'A Man Needs a MAiD'

Volume 31, Issue 4,5 & 6, May 30, 2017

The New York Times, Sunday May 28, 2017 edition.  

“My life is changing in so many ways
I don’t know who to trust any more.
There’s a shadow running through my days
Like a beggar running from door to door.
Its hard to make that change
When life and love turn strange
And cold
To live a love you gotta give a love
To give a love you gotta be part of
When will I see you again?”
  –  Neil Young, lyrics from the song A Man Needs A Maid
     John Shields is dead. He died on March 24, the day of his choice under the new federal legislation governing Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD). While his life was in many ways exemplary, it was not without hubris. As such it serves well as a lens through which to examine the issue of medical suicide and the Catholic church’s wrestling with this issue derived from the evolutionary process known as secular modernity.
     John’s life and contribution were, by most measure, large and celebrated as such. The May 28th New York Times weekend edition six-page feature in its lead section seems without precedent as coverage of such a decision. As Dale Perkins reports (see story in the Features section) the April 9 event celebrating him at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Victoria seemed a comprehensive coverage of a contemporary new age saint. 
     As another colleague quipped he was certainly making a final statement. In a form of Catholic seminary humour, I wondered at the Memorial if John wasn’t surprised that he did not rise again after three days. As Jung contends, the Self as the archetypal manifestation of The Christ.
Early signs were there. After all, it did start out that way nearly 80 years before. When John was born his Roman Catholic grandfather held him up to announce “Behold the First American Pope.” This was a story John regularly retold in his writing and his talks at the Progressive Spirituality Circle.
     While he did not quite live up to the totality of this messianic promise, a serious residue of it remained in all he did, whether it was as a labour leader, social worker, land conservancy expert or adult educator in cosmic spirituality, his replacement religion. 
In his early years the consummate activist, in the latter part, his saviour energy turned inward to second half of life spirituality and as the New York Times coverage indicates, with the desired impact.
     His wife Robin at the memorial announced that ‘seventeen different pods’ were represented in the hotel ballroom and the lengthy program included laudatory representation from many of these progressive groups to which John gave his considerable talent, time and focus of his life.
     Bill Israel’s tribute (see story in Features section) refers to many significant biographical elements of John’s life including reference to the serious process by which John arrived at his final dying process decision. Bill shared responsibilities at the Centre for Earth and Spirit project with John, particularly the Living Well, Dying Well program aspect.
     This brings us to the central questions of this edition of Island Catholic News. How well did John die? What are the implications revealed in his process for the new law? And most important, what are the foreseeable ramifications of the new direction chosen by Canadian society with reference to progressive values within a religious faith dimension.
     This summer edition of ICN together with the special feature in The New York Times can form interesting summer reflective reading. It includes as its centre piece a critical ethical reflection by Christine Jamieson, professor of Christian ethics at Concordia University in Montreal (see lead story in the Features section). 
     Bioethics and end of life ethical issues are Christine’s speciality. A Catholic theologian, her doctoral dissertation from Saint Paul’s University at the University of Ottawa was a critical examination of the structural and heuristic roots of misogyny in the Roman Catholic Church.
Christine also does clinical ethical work with the Sisters of Saint Joseph in their three Toronto area hospitals. Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Comox is in the eye of the storm of the current controversy (see story in Other News section) as it refuses to consider doing MAiD on its premises generally or in association with its hospice unit. Saint Joseph’s Comox is associated with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.
     In 2009 Christine was part of a series of speakers marking the 50th anniversary of The Second Vatican Council which introduced a fresh and friendly attitude toward secular modernity on the part of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. Her topic was bioethics and Bishop emeritus Remi De Roo stated at the time that she was the contemporary face of Vatican II in the current era.
     John went into hospice during the last months of his life and chose to be ‘put down’ as one of our board members put it on March 24. Ironically she passed away totally unexpectedly the next day. Karen Woods had attended John’s farewell ‘party’ the evening of March 23 at hospice in Victoria and said she found the experience ‘quite disturbing.’ The last discussion some of us had with Karen was around John’s decision to choose medical assistance in dying.
     At the start of the conversation she seemed all in favour with the logic and sentiment of the idea. After opening up the many dimensions which have been omitted from the general media discussion of the topic, she was starting to have her own doubts about its entire and explicit wisdom.
     Dr. Jamieson’s reflection is aimed at opening up many unanswered questions beyond the conventional wisdom of the day but avoiding the absolutists alarmist tendency typified by much of the right-wing Catholic thinking being circulated as serious discussion.
     The first half of John Shield’s life he had been a Roman Catholic priest and an American citizen who married an art therapist and former Catholic nun.
      As a result John’s life and process forms a perfect lens by which we can examine this complex and landscape shifting issue in a manner suitable to our own complex purposes as a progressive Catholic periodical.
     At the time of his death, ICN was publishing John’s story as a Catholic priest. The article (see Features section) is midway through a lengthy two-part article on his experience of why he abandoned the Catholic world view for a strictly empirical version of Cosmic Spirituality outlined in the autobiography he wrote on the subject. Ironically he was introduced to this subject area through Bishop Remi De Roo who expressed surprise and disappointment when informed of John’s MAiD decision.
     On the personal level, John and I had our issues. About 1990, after the death of his first wife, he entered into the process of what he called a cosmic spirituality as a comprehensive replacement for his previous lingering Roman Catholic worldview. His article in the Features section, is the second part of his apologia pro vita sua explaining exactly how and why and when he quit the Catholic priesthood over its apparent lack of integrity on the issues of scriptural criticism and sexual politics.
     John’s life despite his leaving the Catholic framework had been an open manifestation of progressive Catholic values following Vatican II. A social worker, a union member activist and a leader of the province’s largest professional union, advocating social justice, ardent feminism and environmental responsibility.
     When we first started associating regularly as leaders with the Progressive Spirituality circle, I could see that it would be unwise to argue with him very much about his newly found faith in empirical cosmology, as contrasted by my more Tielhardian evolutionary view and cosmology. The last thing I wanted to do was to be targeted as a defender of the institutional Catholic Church as in typical John Shields fashion he seemed to be in search of an opponent. In this I easily recognized a residue of indefatigable clericalism. It was always very important for John to be ‘right’.
     My prophetic Catholicism was a far cry from the straw man I sensed he would have regaled in tumbling. So I gave him his head in those circles. Wisely as it turned out as soon he was tracking his demise and ultimate path. I was pleased that he scripted out his final article and submitted it to ICN for which it seemed tailor made.
     John’s final decision about how he wanted to die was certainly consistent with his new world view and as such could not be faulted if consistency was the main criterion.
     Unfortunately my father died in the period leading up to John’s end, on January 22, and I closely monitored his final five years, living with him during much of that time. His last few months were marked by inner transformations that seemed key in the integral resolution of his life’s contradictions. The process he underwent contrasted in my mind with John’s more arbitrary choice of a day on which to die.
     My siblings were also privileged to be part of his final period. Some of them commented, including our sister Christine, that they had seen a shift in attitude and integral changes in dad in the final weeks and months. 
     Unresolved unconscious issues moved into integral resolution. In his last week, on the fifth and sixth days, when asked by the many friends who visited, how he was doing he said a number of times that he was on the threshold between living and dying, half way in between.
     By contrast on the third and fourth last days when asked the same question, he invariably replied that he was dead, only half joking. The gradual shift in his self-consciousness was noteworthy. His final two days he drifted in and out of consciousness, surfacing momentarily to joke a bit, blow kisses and offer loving greetings to those present.
     This seemed a very important process for his final integration and passage into complete death and his evolving awareness of his state of being seemed ultimately important both to himself and those surrounding his departure.
     My father was a different generation from John. His worldview and attitude toward the universe into which he was born were much more passive than this dynamic social leader. He did not want to have so much control over his final fate, trusting in the promises of his faith to provide the strength and moments of necessary grace as needed.
     I had the sense all my life that this was one of the comforts and attributes of religious faith in the hard clinches. It had been my experience through 70 years how this worked and could be assumed to be operative. Call it spiritual brinkmanship or the occasion of grace in the face of adversity. John Shields opted for a different sort of  spiritual brinkmanship in the end.