BEFORE THE CROSS | Approaching end-of-life care as people of faith

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

Teak Phillips | editor@archstl.org

As we continue this series on the family, I'd like to reflect about one aspect of our care for family members at the end of life.

In a brilliant and challenging article many years ago, Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender wrote,"I want to burden my loved ones."

His analysis started with the response people often give when they hear a story of someone near the end of life who is sustained by feeding tubes or, more drastically, a ventilator: "I wouldn't want to live like that. I don't want to burden my loved ones."

Such an attitude might be perfectly understandable; that doesn't mean it is acceptable. Meilaender wrote his article to challenge the often-voiced opinion. My question is: How should we approach such situations as people of faith?

Let me make it perfectly clear that I don't intend to say that everything must be done, under all circumstances, to keep a person alive. The Church doesn't teach that physical death must be prevented at all costs. There are circumstances under which treatments are obligatory and circumstances under which they are not. The principles for making those decisions have been clearly defined by the Church, and most pastors probably are familiar with them. The application of those principles to particular situations are for the person, the family, the physician and the pastor to sort out together.

What Meilaender challenges -- and what I want us to consider in the light of faith -- is the attitude with which we approach those decisions. Are we approaching end of life decisions on the basis of pride or humility? Are we approaching them on the basis of fear or faith?

When we say, "I don't want to burden my loved ones," we might be admitting that we aren't the summit of everyone's life. That could be a virtue. But we also might be saying, "I don't want to depend on anyone for my well-being." From the perspective of faith, that isn't a virtue. It's the sin of pride cloaked as a virtue. From the beginning of life to the end, we depend on each other in many ways. Depending on others and letting others depend on us is a large part of what makes a family.

And when we say, "I wouldn't want to live like that," we might be saying, "When all is said and done, I'll be ready to go home to the Lord." That might be a virtue. But we also might be saying, "I don't want to have to suffer." From the perspective of faith, that isn't a virtue. No one wants to suffer. Jesus Himself asked that the cup of suffering might pass from Him. So we are permitted to avoid suffering. But we also have to be ready to put our suffering to use -- as Jesus did. As people of faith, we have to ask, "Lord, what do you want me to do with this suffering?"

Children depend on others. Children in the womb are radically dependent on others. As people of faith, don't we believe that dependence doesn't diminish but actually enhances our family life?

To approach the end of life with the attitude that "I don't want to burden my loved ones" might be denying the value of a life of total dependence. As people of faith, is that what we really believe? What can we do today to let our family members know that we don't mind it when they depend on us?

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's calendar

Monday, Aug. 11

9 a.m. Mass for Religious Education Institute at St. Francis Xavier "College" Church

Tuesday, Aug. 12

Noon Meeting with Dr. Fred Pestello, President of St. Louis University

3 p.m. Extended Priest Personnel Board meeting at Cedar Creek Conference Center in New Haven

Wednesday, Aug. 13

Noon Catholic Leadership Institute priority planning meeting

Thursday, Aug. 14

11 a.m. Meeting with Kenrick-Glennon Seminary strategic planning steering committee

Noon Lunch meeting with Ministry Team Advisers

2:30 p.m. Meeting with SSM Health Care System leadership

7 p.m. Presentation for honors program at Christian Brothers College Preparatory High School

Friday, Aug. 15, Feast of the Assumption of Mary

12:05 p.m. Mass at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in the Central West End

Sunday, Aug 17

10:30 a.m. Mass for 175th anniversary of Assumption Parish in Mattese

1 p.m. Summer barbecue for St. Louis seminarians

Bishop Edward M. Rice's calendar

Tuesday, August 12

9 a.m. STL250 committee meeting

Extended Priest Personnel Board meeting at Cedar Creek Conference Center in New Haven

Wednesday, August 13

Extended Priest Personnel Board meeting at Cedar Creek Conference Center in New Haven

Thursday, August 14

11:15 a.m. Mass at Notre Dame motherhouse

Noon Lunch meeting with Ministry Team Advisers

Friday, August 15, Feast of the Assumption of Mary

9 a.m. All School Mass at Rosati-Kain High School

Saturday, August 16

7:30 p.m. Confessions for Girl Scouts in Gray Summit

Sunday, August 17

11 a.m. Closing Mass for Girl Scouts in Gray Summit

5:30 p.m. Summer barbecue for St. Louis seminarians 

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