When dying becomes a public spectacle

In a brilliant piece of spin, the Pope's protracted deterioration has been compared to Christ's suffering on the cross
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The Independent Online

Thousands of miles apart, on different continents, two people have spent the last few days dying in public. Each approaching death - that of 84-year-old Pope John Paul II in Italy, and of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman less than half his age in Florida - has been chronicled minutely at a time when the end of life is usually a private event. Even TV reports from war zones tend to censor the actual moment of death, so the public nature of both these declines has aroused strong feelings - and provided plenty of opportunities for manipulation.

Thousands of miles apart, on different continents, two people have spent the last few days dying in public. Each approaching death - that of 84-year-old Pope John Paul II in Italy, and of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman less than half his age in Florida - has been chronicled minutely at a time when the end of life is usually a private event. Even TV reports from war zones tend to censor the actual moment of death, so the public nature of both these declines has aroused strong feelings - and provided plenty of opportunities for manipulation.

In a brilliant piece of spin, the Pope's protracted deterioration, which might otherwise have paralysed the Vatican, has been compared to Christ's suffering on the cross, transforming his physical frailty into a powerful message for the faithful. In Mrs Schiavo's case, pictures of her limp body in its hospice bed might have been designed to resemble a modern-day Pieta, inflaming the passions of right-to-life activists who converged on Pinellas Park, near Tampa, when her feeding tube was removed. One of them emphasised the comparison by setting up a generator and projecting the film The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's graphic reconstruction of the crucifixion.

Yesterday, as Mrs Schiavo passed her ninth day without food or water, her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, appealed to supporters to go home and spend Easter Sunday with their families, where they would have been able to catch a glimpse of the Pope on TV, blessing the Easter crowds from a Vatican window. And if there has been a whiff of stage-management about Mrs Schiavo's final hours - a Franciscan monk protested that her husband had refused to allow her to receive communion yesterday, an event that would have been exploited to the full in heart-rending photographs - it is even more true of the way the Vatican is handling the physically frail Pope's inevitable demise.

The fact that the Pontiff is dying is rarely spoken aloud, with news reports concentrating instead on his "superhuman" efforts to remain alive. This is perplexing to agnostics, who might reasonably assume that the Pope, of all people, need have few anxieties about going to meet his maker, but it has been left to one or two acerbic columnists to remark on his penchant (like Mother Teresa) for the very best medical treatment. He missed virtually all the traditional events of Easter week, including Saturday night mass in St Peter's basilica, which was celebrated by one of his closest allies, the arch-conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition).

Before yesterday's brief public appearance, John Paul II had been seen only from behind in recent film footage, ensuring that speculation focused on whether he would show his face rather than the fact that he was too weak after throat surgery to present his Easter Sunday "urbi et orbi" address, which had to be read by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the Pope is still able to speak, and what would be a disaster in any other organisation - a chief executive with a job for life in the final stages of terminal illness - has been turned into a riveting piece of theatre on the theme of triumph over adversity.

It is hard to know whether John Paul II is directing the charade himself, but he has always displayed a taste for drama and is unlikely to be an unwilling participant, even if he is too sick to orchestrate the details himself. This is an important difference between the Pope and Mrs Schiavo, who was denied her faculties by a heart attack and then lost her privacy as a consequence of the ferocious dispute between her husband and the Schindlers. We should remember that Mrs Schiavo was a private citizen until her parents embarked on their attempt to keep her alive, turning her into an unwitting poster-girl for opponents of euthanasia.

In a peculiarly gruesome development, the noises Mrs Schiavo makes, which doctors describe as meaningless, have been interpreted by her parents as a desperate attempt to articulate the phrase, "I want to live." Her body has become a collection of signs, open to interpretation by people who claim to speak on her behalf; even her husband, dignified as his behaviour has been for the most part, has repeated a disputed conversation from years ago in which she supposedly said she would not wish to be kept alive in a vegetative state.

After 15 years, no one can really claim to speak with authority about Mrs Schiavo's wishes, as distinct from her prognosis, on which numerous doctors agree. The Pope's wishes, on the other hand, could hardly be clearer as he turns himself into a kind of living relic; in past centuries, the faithful used to compete to touch scraps of holy cloth or the bones of saints, whereas now they can all share in John Paul II's brief public appearances. Glimpses of this very sick man are being rationed in such a way as to divert attention from the power struggle behind the scenes at the Vatican, and there can be no doubt that plans have been drawn up to manage news of his death when it finally occurs, rather in the way the old Soviet Politburo behaved after the death of Stalin.

The Pope's supporters are keen to protect his legacy, which includes implacable opposition to contraception, abortion and women priests, and an insistence on clerical celibacy. This should not be too difficult, since 97 per cent of the 120 cardinals who are eligible to vote are his appointees. But they will have to decide questions of ethnic origin - is this the moment for an African Pope, from the most conservative wing of the church, or would such a result be divisive? - and grapple with the paradox that choosing a younger man, which would defuse charges that the church is a gerontocracy, could lead them back into the position they currently find themselves in.

Few observers imagined, when John Paul II was elected in 1978, that he would still be Pope in the 21st century. This is a problem not just for the Catholic church but for other institutions whose head has no retirement age, such as hereditary monarchies and the US Supreme Court; the Pope is only six years older than the present Queen and four years older than the Chief Justice of the US, William H Renquist, who recently returned to the bench after a serious illness. It is one thing to argue against an arbitrary retirement age for older people who are fit and well, and quite another to suggest that they should stay in their jobs until they expire, no matter how poor their health.

It cannot be denied that the Pope's approaching demise, and Mrs Schiavo's, have been framed by a grisly sentimentality and with nakedly political purpose. At least John Paul II will be allowed to pass his last moments in private, but some right-to-lifers believe Mrs Schiavo's should be shown on TV. Neither of these sagas tells us much about death, but they are a reminder of the power of spectacle and its capacity to turn us into unwilling voyeurs.

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