Drug laws, assisted suicide and Trump: after this week, the US Church faces some difficult decisions

A supermoon over the Statue of Liberty, 2013 (AP)

Apart from the hoopla of the Trump victory, several other important things happened on 8th November. First of all, California voted to legalise the production and sale of marijuana. California is an enormous state, and so this means that a quarter of America’s population now has access to legal marijuana. As Sir Simon Jenkins remarks in the Guardian, this really does mark a turning point in the way government confronts non-medical drug use.

It may well be that the tide in favour of “legalise, regulate and tax” is unstoppable. If this is so, and I personally hope it is so, this puts the Catholic hierarchy in an awkward position. None of them, from the Pope downwards, as far as I am aware, have supported the decriminalisation of drugs.

There are two ways of looking at this. One could see it as the hierarchy standing bravely against a disturbing and immoral trend in contemporary society. But if one thinks that decriminalisation and/or legalisation is the best way to minimise the harm that drugs do, then one could see the hierarchy as failing to catch up with modern thought on this matter. Let us remember that moral theology always has to rely on the correct data from social science when making a choice in these matters. We all agree that drugs are bad; the real question is how best to minimise the harm they do. Right now, research seems to indicate that the war on drugs has failed, and that a new approach might yield better results. California’s move is part of that new approach.

The second thing that happened on Election Day was that the state of Colorado decided to legalise assisted suicide. On this matter there can be no debate between Catholics. This is part of a disastrous trend which will, sooner or later, usher in widespread euthanasia. The case of Quebec, as reported by this magazine, is a pointer in this direction. We must all hope and pray that this vote is reversed. If it is not, Colorado will soon no longer be a safe place for the old and infirm, or the terminally ill.

While some commentators have seen the election of Mr Trump as a sign that America has taken a lurch to the right, and turned its back on the more permissive Obama era, the votes in California and Colorado, both Democratic states, shows that the trend exemplified by Trump is by no means universal. One could hardly expect it to be in such a large and diverse nation.

For the leadership of the Church, this is a headache. It is hard to know whether Mr Trump will be a Catholic-friendly president or not. Meanwhile, a substantial majority of Catholics, traditionally Democrat in their sympathies, supported him. But it seemed pretty clear that the hierarchy, including the Pope, did not. As a result, the Pope, until now never reticent on these matters, has since parried questions about Mr Trump, saying he is not in the habit of judging politicians.

One thing is for sure: both in the Vatican and in the American Episcopal Conference, there must be a fair amount of uncertainty at present about just what lies ahead, and what the Church’s approach should be, and a worry that hierarchy may be losing touch with its people. In California, Colorado and nationally, the Church hierarchy is facing different challenges. California, perhaps surprisingly, represents the easiest challenge to solve.