The evil of so-called euthanasia

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

Introduction On March 31, Terri Schindler Schiavo died from the lack of nutrition and hydration.For her parents, her brother and her sister, Terri’s death was particularly sorrowful, for they were constrained by the courts of our nation to see their daughter and sister die for lack of the food and water which they so much desired to provide for her in their loving care. The day of Terri Schiavo’s death was most sad for our whole nation.The United States of America, with its great abundance of material goods, would not provide basic food and water to a citizen whose life was heavily burdened but, rather, let her die of hunger and thirst because the "quality" of her life was judged not to merit the protection of the law.Many, especially our fellow citizens whose lives are similarly burdened, have understandably asked where the deadly failure of respect for the dignity of the human life of citizens who are burdened with advanced years, serious illness or special needs will end. All of us have cause to fear for the future of a nation in which a class or group of citizens is set aside and denied the protection of the law, especially in what regards the fundamental right to human life. The many discussions, both in private conversations and in the media, about the denial of nutrition and hydration to Terri Schiavo raise serious questions about our understanding of the respect for human life, the meaning of human suffering and the care of the sick and dying.The Church, by her very nature, is a guardian and teacher of the natural moral law in our society, for the natural law is written upon our hearts by God.In a society in which the natural moral law, in one of its most fundamental tenets, is violated, the Church must be more diligent than ever in her witness to the dignity of every human life from the moment of its inception to the moment of its natural death. Respect for human life The natural moral law teaches us the inviolability of innocent human life.Deliberately taking the life of an innocent person is intrinsically evil and is never justified.Right reason teaches us the good we are to do and the evil we are to avoid. It teaches us that human life is a gift to be accorded the highest respect and care from its beginning until death. It teaches us that we are not the creators of human life and, therefore, we must respect the plan of the Author of Life for us and for our world.Respect for the dignity of human life is the foundation of good order in our individual lives and in society.The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" teaches us: "The natural law, the Creator’s very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community.Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draw conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature" (n. 1959). Clearly, without the respect for the dignity of all human life, which the natural law teaches us, our personal lives become profoundly disordered and society soon becomes a theater of violence and death. In this regard, Pope John Paul II, in an address which he gave to the members of the International Congress on "Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas" on March 20, 2004, rightly observed: "Moreover, to admit that decisions regarding man’s life can be based on the external acknowledgment of its quality, is the same as acknowledging that increasing and decreasing levels of quality of life, and therefore of human dignity, can be attributed from an external perspective to any subject, thus introducing into social relationships a discriminatory and eugenic principle" (Pope John Paul II, "Persons in ‘vegetative state’ deserve proper care," in L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, March 31, 2004, p. 5, n. 5b). History teaches us the grave injustices, including genocide, committed in a society which takes to itself the judgment of which lives are worthy and which are not. The essential tenets of the natural moral law are found in the Decalogue or Ten Command-ments. The Fifth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," demands respect for the dignity of all human life. Christ brings to fulfillment the teaching of the natural moral law by His Sermon on the Mount, the heart of which is the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:1-12). The Beatitudes are the summary of all that Christ teaches us about what is morally good. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ teaches the divine and universal charity which is God’s gift to us in Him. Repeating the Fifth Commandment, He teaches that it forbids not only actual murder but also the anger which wishes evil for a neighbor (Mt 5:22-25). The teaching of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount is further exemplified in His Parable of the Last Judgment, in which our Lord makes clear that our goodness, our righteousness, lies in following His way of universal charity by giving food to the hungry, by providing drink to the thirsty, by welcoming the stranger, by clothing the naked, and by visiting the sick and the imprisoned (Mt 25:31-46). The teaching of the parable is summed up in the words of the King: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40). Our Lord, God-made man, identifies Himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.He invites us to recognize Him in our brothers and sisters who are in most need, and to love Him by caring for them. Respect for human life burdened by suffering The natural moral law binds us in love, in a particular way, to those who have grown weak under the weight of advanced years, serious illness or special needs.It teaches us that our brothers and sisters who most depend upon us have the first title to our care.We read in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church": "Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect.Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible" (n. 2276). Some have argued that, when a person is no longer able to relate to others, as he or she would most wish, then human life no longer has purpose. The gravely ill person may not be able to relate to us as he or she — and we — would most like, but indeed relates to us as a brother or sister. In his address to the International Congress on "Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State," Pope John Paul II observes that the clinical term, "vegetative state," is always improperly used in referring to a suffering human being: "A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a ‘vegetable’ or an ‘animal’" (Pope John Paul II, "Persons in ‘vegetative state’ deserve proper care," in L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, March 31, 2004, p. 5, n. 3b). In the long-term care of the suffering person, our relationship with the person continues to develop and can express great, even heroic, respect and love. The meaning of human suffering Our culture’s view of human suffering makes it especially difficult to appreciate the good of a life which is heavily burdened.Our culture tells us that our life should be comfortable and convenient, and it devotes itself to forming us in the avoidance of all stress, pain and suffering.Sometimes, the cultural view takes on a spiritual appearance by claiming that our life in the body or physical life has no ultimate meaning, that our ultimate happiness lies in being freed of the body. Nature, however, teaches us the unity of body and soul in the human person.All our joys and sorrows are both spiritual and physical, for we have one human nature. The Christian faith teaches us that the soul is the form of the body. Our body, we know, is the temple of the Holy Spirit.It is through our body that we give expression to our love of God and of one another.Even as Christ was raised, body and soul, from the dead, so, when our soul has left the body at death, we await the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. For that reason, we show great respect to our body during our life on earth and, in death, bring the body to reverent burial to await the resurrection when Christ returns in glory. Human suffering has always a physical and spiritual dimension, even as the suffering of Christ had both a physical and spiritual dimension.We know that the physical and spiritual suffering of Christ, by which He won our salvation, must be realized in our individual lives.Through baptism, we are buried with Christ sacramentally and rise with him to new and eternal life.The grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us in the Sacrament of Baptism, and strengthened and increased within us through the Sacrament of Confirmation, leads us to unite our suffering and dying to the suffering and dying of Christ, pouring out our lives, with Christ, in love of God and our neighbor.Suffering is, in no way, meaningless to us.Rather, it is for us an invitation to be ever more perfectly united to Christ, to be purified of whatever keeps us from loving God and one another, and to be ever more generous in that love. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, writes about his own suffering, reminding us that the Church and we, as individual members of the Church, continue Christ’s mission in the world through our share in His suffering. He declares: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints" (Col 1:23-26). It is not that Christ’s redemptive work is, in any way, lacking.Rather, we are called to share in His redemptive work in every time and in every place, and, in that sense, to "complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of ... the Church." I recall Pope John Paul II’s extended reflection upon the meaning of human suffering in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering," published on Feb. 11, the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, in 1984. Referring to the passage from the Letter to the Colossians, he wrote: "The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption.This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite.No man can add anything to it.But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as His body, Christ has in a sense opened His own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings — in any part of the world and at any time in history — to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world" (n. 24b). Even as Christ pours out ever new His life for us in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is one with the Sacrifice of the Cross, so also those united to Christ in His Sacrifice, unite their sufferings to His for the sake of the salvation of the world. Our Holy Father expresses this profound truth: "In this dimension — the dimension of love — the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished.Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limit; but at the same time he did not bring it to a close.In this redemptive suffering, through which the Redemption of the world was accomplished, Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering and constantly does so.Yes, it seems to be part of the very essence of Christ’s redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed" (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, n. 24c). While society may consider human suffering to be useless and a diminishment of our human dignity, we know that just the opposite is true.Human suffering, embraced with the love of Christ, brings immense blessings to the Church and the world, and sheds an ever greater light upon the dignity ofevery human life. In his "Message for Lent 2005," in which Pope John Paul II reflects upon the great gift of advanced years or old age, he raises the question: "What would happen if the People of God yielded to a certain current mentality that considers these people [the elderly], our brothers and sisters, as almost useless when they are reduced in their capacities due to the difficulties of age or sickness? Instead, how different the community would be if, beginning with the family, it tries always to remain open and welcoming toward them" (n. 3c). In the suffering of our brothers and sisters, we see the Face of Christ and are invited to assist them in offering up their sufferings, with Christ, for the needs of the Church and the world. Care of the sick and the dying In the case of Terri Schiavo, the question has been raised about appropriate care of the sick and the dying. First of all, we should be clear that, although Terri Schiavo suffered from the effects of a serious medical condition, she was not dying at the time of the withdrawal of food and water from her. It is clear, from the number of days she lived after the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration, that she died slowly from the privation of the most basic human care. In his address to the International Congress on ‘Life-sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State," Pope John Paul II reminded us that the sick person in the so-called "vegetative state," like any seriously ill person, has "the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed" (n. 4b). In addition, the Holy Father reminded us, that he or she "has the right to appropriate rehabilitative care and to be monitored for clinical signs of eventual recovery" (n. 4b). The Holy Father underlined that "the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act" (n. 4c). Recalling the Church’s perennial teaching that we are morally obligated to use ordinary and proportionate measures in our care of the sick, Pope John Paul II made it clear that provision of nutrition and hydration by artificial means constitutes an ordinary and proportionate means. He went on to address the case of a person who remains for a prolonged period in the so-called "vegetative state," reminding us that "waning hopes for recovery" cannot morally justify "the cessation or interruption of minimal care for the patient, including nutrition and hydration" (n. 4e). To cause the death of the patient through starvation or dehydration is truly "euthanasia by omission" (n. 4e). Euthanasia, which literally means "good death," in fact, cannot be a good death, for it fails to respect God and His plan for us.In a"good death" or "holy death," we embrace our sufferings with faith in Christ and His Resurrection, abandoning ourselves completely to God’s will.We read in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church": "Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable" (n. 2277). To withdraw nutrition and hydration from a person who is not dying to bring about the death of the person "constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator" ("Catechism of the Catholic Church," n. 2277). The situation is entirely different when medical procedures are discontinued because they are "burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome" ("Catechism of the Catholic Church," n. 2278).In such a case, one does not intend to cause death but one recognizes his "inability to impede death" (n. 2278).One accepts the will of God Who is clearly calling the person home to Himself in death. Regarding extraordinary and disproportionate measures for the preservation of human life, individuals are encouraged to make known their wishes before they become ill by drawing up and executing a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care.For a Catholic, such a document will respect fully the dignity of human life.Certainly, it will not exclude the administration of food and water, even by artificial means.If you are interested in further information about a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, please contact the Archdiocesan Pro-Life Office. What about the so-called "right to die"?No one of us has a right to die, in the sense of a right to cause one’s own death. We have a right to those material and spiritual helps which will prepare us for death, when God calls us home to Himself.Therefore, even if a person will have expressed the desire to die under certain circumstances, his desire can be respected only to the degree that his desire is true to God’s Law. Conclusion It is my hope that the above will help you in thinking about the complex issues of death, respect for human life and the care of the sick and dying, with which our nation was confronted in the death of Terri Schindler Schiavo.I also hope that it will lead you to find ways to give a strong witness to the dignity of all of our brothers and sisters, especially when they are experiencing diminishment and serious illness. Let us be one in praying for the eternal rest of Terri Schiavo and for the consolation of her family and friends.Let us also be fervent in our daily prayers that respect for all human life may be restored in our nation. Let us treasure those among us who suffer from any form of weakness or infirmity. May the witness of their union with Christ in the mystery of His Passion and Death lead us to deeper faith and a stronger commitment of love.

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