My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The role of religion in society or the issue of Church and State are well controverted these days. Perhaps the example of the issue of assisted suicide may help us to clarify our thinking on this and other important matters.
Issues of life, the value of human life, have both moral and anthropological content. Moral content comes from a person’s view of ethics and also religious background. Moreover, the nature of man also has much to say about the value of human life. The taking of human life and the disabling of the human life are universally seen as grave issues which involve much discernment on the part of human beings.
The example of assisted suicide may help us to understand where the Church comes from in enunciating its own moral values and trying to convince others of their intrinsic value. St. John Paul II was known to say, “The Church never imposes its values or teachings on other, but it proposes it.” This is exactly the role of the Church in society. We propose to others what we believe, not only in faith but also through reason. Faith and reason must be the guiding principles which allow us to come to good decisions regarding issues of public life and safety.
The issue of assisted suicide is one that allows us to objectively analyze what the Church proposes and what many in society also propose regarding this complex issue. In recent years, we have seen the movement towards allowing physicians to assist persons in committing suicide. Many try to differentiate this from euthanasia, mercy killing, because the choice of the person is involved. However, choice is never absolute, nor is it always easily given, especially when a person is dying and suffering pain. His or her ability to make choices is greatly diminished. This is certainly the case with those who are unconscious.
There are others who, for the sake of “mercy”, wish to end vegetative states of others. Even prior to Christianity, the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, (although today many medical schools do not require their graduates to take this oath) required physicians never to give lethal potions that will end the life of their patients or do any harm to them in treating them.
A fundamental principle of our Catholic faith, in relation to this issue of assisted suicide, is that our life is a gift from God. We do not create ourselves but receive life from God, who loves us and calls us to share life with Him forever in Heaven. As God is the author of life, it is only God, and not ourselves, who determines when our earthly life ends.
Another essential issue in public morality is the issue of choice. In the abortion issue, and so many others, it is purported that individual choice and freedom are absolute. However, in our Catholic understanding of freedom, we recognize that freedom involves responsibility to others. The Catholic Catechism proposes it in this way: “Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.” (No. 1737). As we can see, the common good is another foundational principle of the Catholic approach to morality and making responsible decisions.
Again, with the issue of assisted suicide, there are others involved in a family when one person decides to end life prematurely, even if they are experiencing depression or what some feel to be extraordinary pain. Fortunately, in our world today, both conditions can be treated with pharmaceuticals that assist persons to live out their normal lives. Palliative care and hospice care for those in the final stages of terminal illness can truly assist both patient and family members in dealing with death, even though it seems inevitable.
Unfortunately, in our society today there are many with no concept of the societal responsibilities that each person has towards society and vice versa, that society has towards each individual. Public safety demands that if a person tries to commit suicide by jumping off, for example, the Brooklyn Bridge, all efforts are made to dissuade them from doing so and rescue the person if at all possible. Why? Why should we not let a person end their life if they so choose? In that case, we see and presume that the person must not be acting freely but rather is under some great duress. Likewise, it is the case when a person requests assistance to end his or her life, especially if in a terminal state. Why should society not allow them to exercise this personal freedom which has societal consequences? The long-term effects of legalizing assisted suicide may eventually put pressure on people, especially if they are poor or do not have medical insurance, to end their lives prematurely. Medicare recently has authorized payment for counseling in end-of-life situations. But can we trust medical professionals to understand human dignity when payment for services rendered may not be available?
Many groups such as the now defunct Hemlock Society and the present Final Exit Network attempt to make cogent arguments as to why we must support choice in dying. Their arguments center around the issue of personal freedom and never indicate the consequences for the family and for society when someone exercises that ultimate choice. It is understandable in our world today, when many have lost the concept of life after death, that they would wish to end any suffering in this world, since they foresee nothing to follow. We as Catholics, however, find in the Passion and Death of Jesus the possibility of discovering meaning even in our own suffering. The Resurrection of Jesus and His promise of eternal life for those who believe in Him, provide us with the hope that enables us to face death, even a lonely or difficult one, with courage and peace.
Rather than take matters into our own hands by seeking to end our life, we have faith and trust so we can abandon ourselves to the mercy of God and His loving will and plan for us. During this month of November, when we remember our dearly departed brothers and sisters, perhaps we can stop and think about those who face death today. We should vow – with political will and prayers – to assist those who wish to die before the true end of their life.
It is truly a case that we put out into the unknown deep when we face death. Thanks to our faith, we have the assurance of Christ, Himself, who was raised from the dead, that eternal life is the victory He won for us. Continue praying for the departed during this month of November, as well as praying for the living who suffer many illnesses and who are tempted to end their life prematurely.