"The 'gift of life,' God's special gift, is no less
beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger or
poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age.
Indeed, at these times, human life gains extra splendor as it
requires our special care, concern and reverence. It is in and
through the weakest of human vessels that the Lord continues to
reveal the power of His love." -- Terence Cardinal Cooke, October 9,
I was stationed in a New York City parish some years
ago when a ballot initiative regarding assisted suicide came up in
another state. I asked the parishioners to contact any friends or
relatives they had in that state, to inform them of how harmful the
initiative was. A few days later, one of the parishioners told me
she spoke to her daughter, who lived in the state in question, and
that her daughter obtained a copy of the various initiatives that
were to be voted on. She said that the one I spoke about
wasn't listed. I asked her to send me the list...And right
there on the list was the ballot initiative I had spoken of. This
woman and her daughter, even when they knew what they were looking
for, couldn't find it, because the language was so carefully
sugar-coated. The initiative spoke about giving "assistance in
Our people need our help to find their way through
the maze of words and misleading arguments that pave the way for
euthanasia and assisted suicide. They need our preaching to show
them the meaning of authentic compassion and the sanctity of every
A homily on euthanasia should point out some of the
Biblical bases for our respect for the sick and dying, should
destroy some of the myths that support euthanasia, and should issue
a strong call to practical compassion.
The sovereignty of God
Death is an inevitable part of life, and when it is
clear that God is calling us from this life, we accept His summons
with faith. We firmly believe as Christians that life on this earth
is not our final destiny or our highest good. "Our citizenship is in
heaven." (Phil. 3:20) "We have here no lasting city, but are seeking
that which is to come" (Heb.13:14). All of our activities on earth,
in fact, are meant to bring us closer to our true goal, union with
The alternative to accepting death is to try to
control it by giving ourselves the authority to take life before
life will make too many demands on us. Hence we have abortion,
infanticide, and euthanasia. Just take control. Don't let life hit
you too hard. Eliminate the suffering by eliminating the person.
"Euthanasia" is killing. As such, it contradicts the
fact that God is God. In his "how-to" manual of suicide, Derek
Humphrey, a key euthanasia advocate, is honest enough to write in
the first chapter, "If you consider God the master of your fate,
then read no further" (Final Exit, p. 21).
St. Paul, on the other hand, instructs us, "None of
us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master.
While we live, we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die, we
die as His servants. Both in life and in death, we are the Lord's"
Slogans and myths
"Right to die"
When people ask me about the "right to die," I say
to them, "Don't worry, you won't miss out on it!"
We do not possess a "right to die." A right is a
moral claim. We do not have a claim on death; rather, death has a
claim on us! The idea that "my life is mine" leads to the idea that
"my death is mine."
But life is a gift, and we do not possess it as a
piece of property that we can purchase or sell or give away or
destroy at will. Rather, it is inviolable. It cannot be taken away
by another or by the person himself. The "right to die" is based,
rather, on the idea of life as a "thing we possess" and may discard
when it no longer meets our satisfaction. "Right to die" thinking
says there is such a thing as a "life not worth living." For a
Christian, however, life is worthy in and of itself, and not because
it meets certain criteria that we or others set.
But she doesn't want to live!
Studies clearly indicate that requests for death are
withdrawn when the patient receives adequate counseling and pain
management. Modern medicine is capable of handling pain and
depression. Compassion for the dying demands that we strengthen and
extend those services, rather than expand opportunities for ending
But why should they suffer?
Once we cross the boundary between "allowing to die"
and killing, there will be no turning back. If the terminally ill
have a right to escape their suffering, why shouldn't
teenagers have a right to escape theirs? After all, isn't this equal
protection under the law? Moreover, why should people be able to
exercise a right only when they can articulate it? Voluntary
euthanasia automatically introduces non-voluntary
To treat or not to treat
The range and variety of available medical options
have confused people about their moral obligation to use them. A
brief homily can, however, make some key clarifications.
No religion, and no pro-life group, advocates that
we are obliged to take every single treatment and procedure
available to keep us alive. Foregoing a worthless treatment is not,
and should not be called, euthanasia or suicide. Yet while there are
such things as worthless treatments, there is no such thing as a
When we ask if a treatment is useless, the question
is: "Will this treatment benefit the life this person has, without
causing him or her excessive burden?" The question is not whether
this life is useless or burdensome. We can and should
allow the dying to die; we must never intend the death of the
living. We may reject a treatment; we must never reject a life.
The means we use have traditionally been classified
as either "ordinary" or "extraordinary." "Ordinary" means must
always be used. This is any treatment or procedure that provides
some benefit to the patient without excessive burden or hardship.
"Extraordinary" means are optional. These are measures that do
present an excessive burden, or simply do no good for the patient.
The distinction here is not between
"artificial" and "natural." Many artificial treatments will be
"ordinary" means in the moral sense, as long as they provide some
benefit without excessive burden. It depends, of course, on the
specific case in point, with all its medical details. We cannot
figure out ahead of time, in other words, whether or not a relative
or we ourselves want some specific treatment to be used "when the
time comes," because we do not know in advance what our medical
situation will be at the time. When the time does come, however, we
must consult on the medical and moral aspects of the situation.
For these reasons, "living wills" are dangerous,
because they indicate an acceptance or refusal of treatments without
knowledge of what the treatments are, or of what is being treated.
On the other hand, appointing a health care proxy, who shares one's
moral convictions and is empowered to speak when the patient cannot,
is perfectly legitimate.
A Call to Compassion
Advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide advance
their philosophy and legislative proposals by using terms such as
"assist in dying," and "helping to die." This is carefully veiled
language that, in a way very similar to the phrase "pro-choice,"
makes something which is very evil sound very good.
This kind of language blurs the critical moral
distinction between giving assistance to a dying person and
doing something that causes death. Mother Teresa "assisted"
many people "in dying" and "helped" many people "to die." She was
present to them, assuring them that they would not die alone. She
helped them find the courage to face death, the conviction that
their dignity had not been lost, and the serenity borne of receiving
love from people and from God. This is the legitimate meaning of
death with dignity and of helping people to die. This, in
fact, is the Gospel response to the dying members of the human
The Church does not simply say, "Euthanasia is
wrong, don't do it." Rather, the Church says to those who are
suffering, "We are with you -- do not be afraid." God does not watch
our suffering from a distance. He jumps into it! That is the meaning
of Christ on the cross, and that gives meaning to all human
suffering. That is also the meaning of compassion. We jump into, and
share, the suffering of one another.
Preaching on euthanasia means calling people to do
precisely that. As we spend more time with the sick and dying, we
inspire their hope, and at the same time show our society that life,
in its most fragile state, is no less sacred.