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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 altogether despairing.

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 spiritual.

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.

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