A Third Reich mentality is taking over our treatment of the elderly

Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, blesses a patient at a hospice in his diocese (CNS photo)

I have been reading YouCat, ie the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is well worth studying, though you can’t read it straight through, obviously. In the margin alongside Question 242, “Why should the Church take special care of the sick?” there is a quote from the German Nobel Prize-winning author, Heinrich Böll:

“I would prefer even the worst possible Christian world to the best pagan world, because in a Christian world there is room for those for whom no pagan world ever made room: cripples and sick people, the old and the weak. And there was more than room for them: there was love for those who seemed and seem useless to the pagan and the godless world.”

Our post-Enlightenment, neo-pagan society fails to understand that this is at the heart of Christianity. Keen to castigate Christian belief as superstitious and irrational and its practitioners as corrupt and bigoted, it chooses to ignore the Church’s magnificent record of care for the sick – “useless feeders”, as the Nazis called them. Boll had seen at first hand how the Nazis treated the vulnerable and was revolted by it. The distinguished historian, Michael Burleigh, has also documented what was secretly happening in the Third Reich well before the war in his Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany 1900-1945: elderly residents of care homes bundled into special buses and taken to designated centres where they were gassed and disabled children deliberately left to starve to death in hospital wards.

Why do I mention this? Because our society is slowly being taken over by the same mentality that existed in Germany during the Third Reich. It does not come as a surprise that at the same time as we are experiencing a rapidly ageing population and a care bill that we have not planned and hardly dare think about, there has been a plethora of “neglect and abuse” stories in the press. Vulnerable adults with learning disabilities have been treated with appalling callousness at a care home in Bristol while elderly patients in hospitals up and down the country are often not being given even basic care – food, water and clean sheets.

Almost everyone I know has a story of an aged relative who experienced rapid weight loss after going to hospital, followed by inevitable infection and then death. There are reports of relatives who visit their loved ones daily in hospitals and homes in order to feed them and keep them alive. Demands for euthanasia, or following a Liverpool Care Pathway-type “solution”, or for living wills, are heard with increasing frequency. This is the enlightened, secular response to lives that have become “unworthy of life”, as the Nazis baldly put it.
We desperately need a new crusade in this country: a crusade of truly Christian care, the care that, as Heinrich Boll remarked, is inspired by love and the belief that life is sacred, even in its feeble, twilight state.