Fear, Possession, or Acceptance

Tony responded below to the notion of the fear of death. I think this is a separate, though related issue to euthanasia.

It’s simply that what God has granted, we don’t have the right to take, not even from ourselves.

In a human being’s healthy, normative state, death is not a biological option. Suicide is clearly a situation in which a person has overridden the gift of life with the matter of possession. I think our American bias is to speak of all this as a series of “rights.” We have the right to life, the right to die, the right to palliative care, and so on. And yes, some of these are rights. And some of these we have.

But adults in an adult society also have duties. A Christian, for example, has the duty to witness to the faith. It’s insufficient to say we have a right to live. As we draw breath, we have a duty and obligation imposed on us by baptism. If you will, such a duty supercedes our wish to be free of this world. A person who thinks they can work themselves (in a saintly sort of way) into an early grave (and ticket to heaven) seems to me to be sadly mistaken about the value and purpose of their life.

Do you believe someone who takes advantage of assisted suicide is going to heaven?

I don’t think suicide is a divine dealbreaker. Some people, because of age, pain, infirmity, coercion, confusion, or error participate in suicide–their own or someone else’s. Given certain circumstances, some people are incapable of rendering a responsible, adult, and dutiful choice. And some clearly want to die and insist on it no matter what the morality of it may be.

I think some people see life as an overarching virtue. Perhaps they also see the maintenance of the physical body through technology as a God-given means to extend biological life. The Church disagrees with this absolutism. Here’s what it teaches CCC 2277-79:

Starting with a definition:

2277. 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.

Avoidance of suffering is not a virtue:

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

More significant than a fear of death is the loss of a constructive sense of suffering. That could take a whole book, but let’s leave it to say that there’s something significant in the nature of suffering the Church would not want its members to avoid. I think we have to ask why. And if we’re not satisfied with the book answers, it’s the responsibility of pastors to improve upon them.

2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

Even some Catholics are squeamish over this one. What’s needed is a truthful assessment of a terminal condition of a person. Once done, the dying individual makes a prudential choice: perhaps being over-zealous is a valid choice; perhaps not.

2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

This would be my sense of the Church’s approach: a dying person continues to be cared for. That would certainly be the position of the mainstream medical community as well as the understanding of most citizens, ruthless libertarians and eugenicists aside.

Our cultural fear of death has been the direct cause of people not getting proper end-of-life care. Our pragmatism has sometimes precluded proper research and study of palliative care methods. I think Westerners could stand to learn some things about death. Catholics, too, could study Church teaching more thoroughly, talking with family members, clergy, and engaging the documents. And by engaging I mean with something between the approach of absolute fundamentalism and the soapbox of utter skepticism. The Church sees value in suffering, sacrifice, and kenosis. Why would that be? The Church provides for prudential judgment on many matters of death and dying. What are my best choices?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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