Faith responds to fears about death
March 17, 1992
The Holy Father's address to an
international congress on the care of the dying
On Tuesday, 17 March, the Holy Father addressed the participants in an
international congress on care of the dying sponsored by the Catholic University
of the Sacred Heart. The Pope addressed the 300 participants in Italian about
some of the ethical aspects related to this sensitive topic. This is a
translation of his discourse.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. This morning I am happy to welcome to this special audience all of
you, the organizers and participants who are taking part in the international
congress on the theme of "Care of the dying: Social, cultural, medical and
pastoral aspects", sponsored by the Centre for Bioethics which the Catholic
University of the Sacred Heart established in 1985.
I thank you for your visit and I offer my respectful welcome to each of
you. In particular I express my gratitude to Mons. Elio Sgreccia, who expressed
your common sentiments.
The choice of the theme has certainly been dictated by the timeliness of
offering a clear, well-reasoned response to the many questions and fears
surrounding death. In our society people are rarely prepared for it and
therefore, in the course of the work of your congress, you have sought to cast
light on the many complex aspects of the delicate problems regarding it: it is a
question of sociological, clinical and anthropological aspects; it is also a
question of theological, ethical and pastoral implications.
2. From death emerges the drama of being human: in the face of such a
"finish line", man can do no less than wonder about the meaning of his own
existence in the world. Ancient and modern literature, philosophy, sociology,
ethics and morality, art and poetry, all ask about this basic, inescapable
topic. The responses, however, are sometimes confused, contradictory, or
All people seek material well-being, and sometimes excessively so;
however, despite everything, they begin to experience the inevitable limitations
of suffering and death - limitations accompanied by uncertainty and loneliness,
apprehension and anxiety.
In the face of the mystery of death people are helpless; human certitudes
begin to waver. However, it is precisely in the face of this setback that
Christian faith, if it is understood and accepted in all its richness, offers
itself as a source of serenity and peace. In fact, in the light of the Gospel
the human person assumes a new, supernatural dimension. What seemed to be
meaningless acquires sense and value.
3. When there is no reference to the saving message of faith and hope,
the consequence is that the appeal of charity is weakened, and utilitarian and
pragmatic principles enter into play which ultimately hold that it is logical
and even justifiable to take a life that has become a burden to self or others.
Impelled by some ideologies which are heightened by the mass media, public
opinion thus risks tolerating or even justifying ethical behaviour which is
clearly in contrast with the dignity of the person: here we can think, for
example, of abortion, premature euthanasia of newborns, suicide, euthanasia of
the terminally ill, and the many worrisome interventions in the genetic field.
In the face of particularly dramatic and disconcerting cases, believers
can also be perplexed when they begin to lose their strong, convincing reference
points. How necessary it is, therefore, to form consciences according to
Christian doctrine, avoiding uncertain opinions and giving adequate responses to
insidious doubts, confronting and resolving the problems with a constant
reference to Christ and the Church's Magisterium.
4. Especially in regard to the inescapable event of death, the Church
again and again offers her lasting teaching, valid today as well as in the past,
based on the message of Christ.
Life is a gift from the Creator, to be spent in the service of
one's brothers and sisters who, in the plan of salvation, can always draw
benefit from it. It is, therefore, never licit to harm its course, from its
beginning to its natural end. Rather, it is to be accepted, respected and
promoted with every means available, and defended from every threat.
In this regard it is useful to recall what the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith affirmed in its "Declaration on Euthanasia" of 5
May 1980: "Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent
human being, whether a foetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old
person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying.
Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for
himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can
he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority
legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the
violation of the divine law, an offence against the dignity of the human person,
a crime against life, and an attack on humanity" (n. II).
Then, in regard to the so-called "aggressive therapeutic care", which
refers to the use of treatments which are particularly wearing and burdensome
for the sick person, condemning him or her in fact to an artificially prolonged
agony, the above-mentioned Declaration continues: "When inevitable death is
imminent in spite of the means used, it is permitted in conscience to take the
decision to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and
burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick
person in similar cases is not interrupted" (n. IV).
On the other hand, today medical science has the means that permit it to
relieve suffering with due respect for the sick person.
5. Death is truly a mysterious moment, an event during which the person
should be treated with affection and respect. Fortunately in your congress you
have not overlooked the problems regarding the human and spiritual care of
patients in their last stages.
Most of all, a person who is hanging between life and death needs a
loving presence. The last stages of life, in which at one time people were
usually assisted by their family members in an atmosphere of calm recollection
and Christian hope, now frequently run the risk of taking place in crowded, busy
surroundings under the supervision of health-care personnel primarily concerned
with the physiological aspect of the sickness. Thus we find an increase of the
phenomenon whereby death becomes something clinical, and to a growing
degree there is lack of respect for the complex human situation of the person
who is suffering.
The awareness that the dying person will soon meet God for all eternity
should impel his or her relatives, loved ones, the medical, health-care and
religious personnel, to help him or her in this decisive phase of life, with
concern that pays attention to every aspect of existence, including the
Those who are sick, and the dying most of all, - as I have mentioned in
other circumstances - must not lack the affection of their relatives, the care
of medical personnel, or the support of their friends. Experience teaches that
the help given the dying person from faith in God and hope in eternal life is of
fundamental importance, even more so than human comforts.
6. Ladies and gentlemen, with great appreciation for your work, I
encourage you to continue in your commitment to defend and promote life. Bear
witness to the "Gospel of life". Feel responsible for this message and "even at
the price of going against the trend, (you) must proclaim (it) courageously and
fearlessly, in word and deed, to individuals, peoples and States" (Pope John
Paul II's Letter to the Bishops of the whole world after the Extraordinary
Consistory of 4-7 April 1991 [cf. L'Osservatore Romano in English, 24
June 1991, p. 1]).
When you take care of the sick and defend life with skill and
responsibility, you offer an expert, prestigious service to humanity. May you be
supported in this mission by the protection of Mary, Mother of the Word
incarnate, and may my Blessing accompany you.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion