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Catholic view of euthanasia by Bishop Thomas Olmsted

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The reality of suffering

I remember well the early years of John Paul II's pontificate. He was athletic and strong, with a voice and an energy that invited our attention. We were quite taken with his vigor and enthusiasm. Pictures of him skiing and hiking led us to marvel at his strength. How different his physical life is now. Due to Parkinson's disease and other difficulties, before our eyes we have seen his body continue to break down and to limit his ministry. He clearly is suffering and struggling with the natural effects of aging.

In his suffering, the Holy Father is not alone. The vast majority of us know suffering firsthand and struggle with declining health, severe illness or pain, whether physical, mental or both. These cause tough questions to surface in our minds and hearts. What are we to do when medicine is unable to effectively treat our pain? As we near the end of life can we refuse treatment? What about assisted suicide? Are we permitted through our actions or lack of actions to cause our own death?

Can we end suffering by euthanasia?

A number of people are saying that they should be able to end their own lives if they so desire. When they feel that life has become too burdensome or that their suffering is too much, then, in their opinion, they should be permitted to commit suicide. They argue that if someone considers his life useless and bereft of meaning, he should not be denied his desire to kill himself, or to have someone help to kill him.

The Church, while deeply concerned as Jesus is about anyone who suffers, offers a clear and consistent rebuttal of such assertions. We read, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#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. 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.”

Why is euthanasia intrinsically evil?

Let us explore briefly the chief components of the Church's teaching on euthanasia, which forms an essential part of the Gospel of Life. It is God who creates each person in His image. Because of this, every one has an inherent dignity that no one, not even the person himself, can eliminate. God bestows life on each of us so that He may love us and so that we may love Him in return. Life, being a gift from God, is not something that we have final autonomy over. We are stewards of the gift of life, not the originators of it. Responsible stewardship does not include the choice to terminate the stewardship itself.

Is there any good in suffering?

What about the objection that God couldn't possibly intend for a person to suffer? How could suffering be good? To be sure, this is a difficult dilemma with which human beings have struggled ever since the first sin of Adam and Eve. It is indeed morally acceptable, even our duty, to alleviate suffering, but it is not morally acceptable for the method of alleviation to be the killing of the person who suffers. Suffering, in fact, can be a channel of good. One need only call to mind the redemptive suffering of Our Blessed Lord. Participation in His suffering can be a means of our sanctification. (See Col 1:24; 1 PT 4:13; Phil 3: 7-11)

How much treatment must we accept?

Some people mistakenly think that the Church's teaching means that they need to accept all medical treatment that is available in an attempt to preserve human life. This is not so. Again, the Catechism offers clarifying insights (#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.”

One need not prolong life through treatments that will only prolong inevitable death. The key is that we are not to do anything, or refuse to do something, that will directly cause a person's death. This is especially important when it comes to nutrition and hydration. Therefore, we have a presumption in favor of food and water for those who are gravely ill.

Life always has meaning and value

Our Holy Father has been, and still is, a great blessing to us in countless ways. He has taught consistently the value and dignity of every human life, no matter how young or how old. His own example now of bearing physical suffering with courage adds authentic witness to what he has taught in words. Even though he is nearer now to the end of his earthly journey and has far less physical strength, his life still retains its full value and dignity. Through his ongoing fidelity to the mission entrusted to him by Christ, and especially by his cheerful sharing in the Lord's sufferings, he lifts up for us, in an eloquent way, the Gospel of Life.