Dying with Dignity

St. John Paul II taught us how to live and taught us how to die.

The teaching of Pope John Paul II about sickness and death came not only from his speeches, and encyclicals. In the face of injury, suffering, hospitalization, illness and dying, he taught us that to understand death with dignity, first accept the dignity of life. Human dignity is an undeserved gift, not an earned status. The dignity of life springs from its source. We come to be by the loving action of God the Creator. “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? You have made him little less than a god, and crown him with glory and honour” [Psalm 8:5]. The dignity of life is beyond price. We have been ransomed not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.

Nevertheless, he explained that: “The church knows that the moment of death is always accompanied by particularly intense human sentiments: an earthy life is ending, the emotional, generational, and social ties that are part of the person’s inner self are dissolving; people who are dying and those who assist them are aware of the conflict between hope in immortality and the unknown which troubles even the most enlightened minds. The church lifts her voice so that the dying are not offended but are given every loving care and are not left alone as they prepare to cross the threshold of time to enter eternity” [Academy of Life, 1999].

There are many ethical questions and issues surrounding suffering and death. As Catholics, there are several foundational principles and practices. I want to cite three of them:

  1. Any action or omission which of itself or by intention causes or hastens death is a grave violation of the commandment: “You shall not kill.”
  2. We hold firmly that, while every person has a fundamental right to normal care and treatment, he or she has also the right to refuse procedures or treatments considered extraordinary or disproportionate; that is, overly burdensome, painful or of dubious effectiveness in restoring health. Likewise, the individual has the right to discontinue treatment under the same conditions.
  3. For those in the final stages of a terminal illness, the church is a strong advocate for palliative care. We applaud the progress that has been made in the field of pain alleviation and management. While acknowledging the human and redemptive value of suffering, we also recognize our common human responsibility to bring relief to suffering whenever possible. Thus in palliative care it is always legitimate to administer medication in doses adequate to control the pain, even if it is foreseen that death will be hastened, so long as the intent is to alleviate the pain and not to hasten death.

Willem Joacbus Cardinal Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, recently told the Canadian Bishops that when confronted with people who say they want euthanasia or assistance in suicide, “look behind the question.”

A request for euthanasia or assisted suicide does not necessarily or directly contain a wish to die or for the termination of life. The question being asked is, “How can I (continue to) live with dignity in this situation?”

Experience teaches that a request for the termination of life is often prompted by fear for unbearable pain and by an aversion to personal humiliation. The emphasis is usually on physical pain. However, research shows that in only 10% of the cases is pain the only reason for a request for the termination of life. The primary problem is the preserving self-respect and human dignity. Put in general terms, the request for euthanasia or assisted suicide seems above all to be a request for help and relief. That is why it is very important to speak with the other person and discover with him the source of his request.

True pastoral care implies that the pastor leads people entrusted to his care to the truth, ultimately found only in Jesus Christ, Who is “the way, the truth and life” [John 14,6].

For Catholics, in order to receive the sacraments, one must have the proper disposition. The deepest meaning of receiving sacraments is that man entrusts himself to God’s loving mercy. Consciously and freely choosing euthanasia or assisted suicide implies that one is not entrusting oneself to God’s mercy, but is rather controlling the conclusion of one’s own life. Such a position is incompatible with the surrender to God’s loving mercy and it denies, so to speak, the strength that is inherent in the sacraments. Through the sacraments one participates in the suffering, the death and the Resurrection of Jesus and in the unconditional “yes” He spoke to His Father.

From this perspective, it is impossible to comply with a request for the sacraments when someone has planned to end his life or to have it ended actively. Such a person does not have the proper disposition.

Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are not a “solution” to suffering, but an elimination of the suffering human being. It is therefore the confirmation of despair, of the overwhelming feeling that all suffering can only end when the human person himself ceases to be. If the pastoral caregiver were to support the request for euthanasia, he would be capitulating to despair, which is contrary to the hope alive within him which he wants to proclaim. If the Church’s minister were out of a false of compassion accede to such a request it would constitute an enormous situation of scandal and denial of the truth, “You shall not kill.”

In a Letter to the Elderly in 1999, St. John Paul II shared his faith in these words: “It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the kingdom of God. At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life… And so I often find myself saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the Eucharist: At the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you. This is the prayer of Christian hope.”

☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary

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Bishop Frederick Henry

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