From the Death of the Holy Father to Issues of Life and Death in North Dakota
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
April 5, 2005

The North Dakota Legislative Assembly is entering its final weeks. Although some important work -- mostly on budget bills-- remains unfinished, the legislature has completed work on many bills of interest to the North Dakota Catholic Conference. At the same time, events around the world and our nation have drawn our attention and questions. Hopefully, future columns will allow more space for deeper reflection and reporting on specific issues. For now, a brief look at some of these events.

The day before His Holiness Pope John Paul II died, I received in the mail the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This book, although completed last summer, was only made available in English this last month. The Pope requested the compendium from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace “in order to give a concise but complete overview of the Church’s social teaching.”

The Pope taught that the Church’s social doctrine was an integral part of her evangelizing ministry. He consistently preached the social doctrine and contributed greatly to our understanding of this teaching. Appropriately, the compendium dedication reads: “To His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Master of Social Doctrine and Evangelical Witness to Justice and Peace.”

One of Pope John Paul II’s contributions to the Church’s social doctrine was the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life). In it, the Pope called on all sectors of society to help new mothers and women facing crisis pregnancies. The North Dakota legislature could take a big step in that direction by passing Senate Bill 2409, which would provide financial assistance to private pro-life crisis pregnancy centers. Both chambers passed versions of this bill by large margins. The House and Senate now need pass a final version of the bill to send to the governor.

Readers of the Fargo Forum had the opportunity last month to read a series of columns on abortion by former governor George Sinner and Fargo resident Jan George. Sinner’s columns contained a number of errors, both in facts and reasoning. George’s columns and letters by readers pointed out some of those errors. Unfortunately, the Forum did not publish a letter from Bishop Samuel Aquila responding to the columns. The letter is, however, available at the conference web site (

The Sinner and George columns prompted a response by regular Forum columnist Jane Ahlin. That column contained a number of inaccurate and misleading statements about Catholic health care. I wrote a letter setting the record straight. To date, the Forum has not published the letter. It, too, is available from the conference web site.

While we discussed issues concerning the beginning of life, the public’s attention turned to Terri Schiavo and issues concerning the end of life. In truth, however, Terri Schiavo was not at the end of life until she was deprived nutrition and hydration.

As Terri Schiavo approached death, the North Dakota legislature gave final approval to a revision of the state’s laws on living wills and durable powers of attorney for health care. The revision came after a four year process involving various interested parties, including the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

Current law has a separate statute and form for living wills – where you put in writing what you would want -- and durable powers of attorney for health care – where you appoint an agent to make decisions for you. This leads some people to fill out both forms or only the living will form. Experience has shown, however, that appointing an agent is much better than just a living will. Why try to predict your future medical condition if you have someone who loves you who can be there to do that for you? By combining the living will and durable power of attorney for health care statutes and forms, the new law will, hopefully, make it easier for people to complete an advance directive and appoint a health care agent.

The new law should also make it easier for Catholics to have an advance directive that is consistent with Catholic teaching. The statutory form is only a recommendation. A person is free to use another form, such as one that explicitly incorporates Catholic teaching.

During the next year, Bishop Paul Zipfel and Bishop Samuel Aquila, working through the North Dakota Catholic Conference and other church agencies, intend to provide parishioners with information on advance directives, the new law, the provision of nutrition and hydration, and Catholic teaching on such matters.