Preaching on Euthanasia

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
Publication Date: October 04, 2002

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"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, 1983.


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 dying."

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 life.

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 God.

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" (Rom.14:7-8).

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 life.

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 euthanasia.

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 worthless life.

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 family.

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.

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