This Catholicism 101 special feature is part two of a debate between the editorial staff of The Torch.
To view the first part of this debate, please click here.
In order to effectively discuss physician-assisted dying, we first should define our terms. To put it simply, in broad terms, PAD consists of a person who is suffering with no chance of relief asking his or her doctor to assist them in dying in the fastest, least painful way. The Catholic practice has been to reject this practice for a few different reasons.
First, Catholics are taught that we are made in God’s image. St Paul says, “You have been purchased, and at a price, so glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). This statement tells us that it is our obligation to preserve our bodies as a way to glorify God. The Catechism says, “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him,” and “It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (CCC, 2280). Thus, the Church explains why suicide is rejected. However, so far, teachings on this subject have been applied simplistically to physician assisted suicide and therefore do not address all of the issues regarding the topic.
To begin, Church teaching condemns suicide on the grounds that it is a selfish act that violates the love for oneself and neighbor that we should have, as well as a rejection of God’s providence over us. In addition, it implies that it is a distortion of the stewardship that God gives us over our own bodies. This does apply to many forms of suicide, but it is not always the case for physician-assisted suicide.
In these instances, it is impossible for us to determine that the act is a selfish one devoid of love. We cannot know the pain and suffering that someone who is making this decision is going through, and without that knowledge, it is impossible to say that they are making the decision for selfish reasons. It is just as possible they are making the decision for the benefit of their family and loved ones out of love, to reduce the hardship of others. This severely complicates the issue.
In addition, the statement that we are meant to be stewards of our bodies raises the question of how we can best do that. Is there a point where sickness can make us unable to do so, and in that situation, what are we to do? It is not up for debate whether or not our lives are a gift from God, or if it is up to us to glorify God in our bodies. However, there are instances where this is no longer a possibility due to sickness and disease. If a person gets to the point where they are no longer able to perform these fundamental Catholic responsibilities, what are we left with? Life is precious, but there are conditions of life that hinder or prevent a person’s ability to treat their body in the way God asks us to. In these instances, how can we judge a person’s decision to no longer live in this condition?
We must also remember that the Church teaches that there are conditions that do affect how suicide is viewed. The Catechism states that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide" (CCC, 2282). All of these can lead to physician-assisted suicide and we should attempt to understand the impact that they might have on a person.
This is an important aspect to the Catechism because it is saying that circumstances do matter when considering suicide in Church teaching. Accepting that real circumstances are a relevant consideration makes all the difference when it comes to physician-assisted suicide. It is a practice that depends on circumstance, and is only to be used in the most extreme ones. However, in select circumstances the person opting for it may be in a place where their responsibility for the action is diminished and their choice has to be respected.
Finally, while we must always remember that we can never fully understand a person who is making this decision and what they are going through, we also cannot deny a person God’s mercy regardless of decisions they make. Psalm 103 outlines God’s unlimited mercy, “as high as the heavens are above the earth” (Ps. 103:11). We must remember that it is up to Him to judge a person’s circumstance, motives, and ability to be a steward of His gift. It is up to the individual and God to make these final decisions and judgments, not us, and therefore by extension it is not our role to put ourselves in a position to do so.
Though some people today view euthanasia as a morally justifiable option for those who live with terminal illnesses, from a Christian perspective, euthanasia (in all of its iterations, including assisted suicide, physician-aided dying, etc.) is never a justifiable choice. All life, from conception to natural death, is sacred.
The process of dying is sacred, and that means that we do not get to decide when we die. We ought to respect the natural process of death and not attempt to bring it on before its appointed time. Euthanasia violates the sanctity of life and the sanctity of the dying process in ending a life prematurely. As Christians, we believe that God not only created us, but that God is also constantly and actively willing us to live, through terminal illnesses and suffering of every sort. Euthanasia places one’s own desire above God’s and proclaims that that person knows better than God when their life should come to its end. It precludes and disregards the possibility of miracles of healing and the role of those approaching death in the life of the Church.
The argument for euthanasia boils down to a rejection of suffering having value. This notion should not be surprising because the dominant culture tells us that all pain and suffering, whether emotional or physical, should be alleviated as quickly as possible. This clearly goes against the very core of Christianity: Jesus suffered and died for the redemption of the world. Though it may often be difficult to see, there is value in suffering. In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1980 document Declaration on Euthanasia, “According to Christian teaching... suffering, especially suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God's saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ's passion and a union with the redeeming sacrifice which He offered in obedience to the Father's will” (III). The very suffering which euthanasia advocates attempt to dispel by allowing terminally ill people to die prematurely unites the sufferer with the suffering of Christ! Who are we to decide that this sharing in Jesus’ suffering is too much to ask, too painful to endure, and not really worth anything at all?
While euthanasia is unacceptable from a Christian perspective, accepting euthanasia as justifiable within medical practice also leads to a whole host of dangerous next steps. Stories have surfaced of patients whose health insurance or Medicaid plans will not pay for expensive treatment, but will pay for the cheaper drugs which will kill them. In my home state of Oregon, which passed the so-called Death With Dignity Act in 1997, people have been denied coverage for their treatment and offered assisted suicide instead (see “‘Right to die’ can become a ‘duty to die’” by Wesley Smith, The Telegraph).
When it denies people potentially life-saving or life-prolonging treatment but offers to cover assisted suicide, the state of Oregon is telling some of its most marginalized citizens, people who are ill and on Medicaid, that their lives are literally not worth more than the cost of the drugs which will kill them. The quality of hospice and palliative care options has declined sharply in the twenty years since passage of Oregon’s assisted suicide bill (for more information on the long-term consequences of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, see this article written by Vice President of the Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation, Kenneth R. Stevens Jr., M.D.). Clearly, legalizing euthanasia has many unintended consequences which contribute to a culture of death rather than life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says about euthanasia that “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect” (CCC, 2276). Instead of suggesting to ill or severely disabled people that they might be better off dead, we should show them exceptional respect. All people, including people with physical illnesses, mental illnesses, and disabilities of every kind, ought to be allowed to die with dignity, in the true sense of that phrase.