Fr. Scott A. Haynes
And immediately going out of the synagogue they came into the house of Simon and
Andrew, with James and John. And Simon's wife's mother lay in a fit of a fever: and forthwith
they tell him of her. And coming to her, he lifted her up, taking her by the hand; and
immediately the fever left her, and she ministered unto them. (Mark 1:29-31).
This passage from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark portrays Christ coming to perform a "sick call." He visits the mother in law of Simon Peter and heals her. In our Christian approach to the sick and dying, we must always provide them the opportunities to receive the last Sacraments—Confession, Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction) and the Viaticum (the last Holy Communion). Through these "last rites" of the Church, God grants spiritual healing, and, sometimes He even gives physical recovery and healing.
When an elderly man’s lung collapsed in the hospital, death was imminent. The priest anointed him and prepared him for death. But God used that anointing to heal the man both spiritually and physically. His lung miraculously inflated and he went on to live several more happy years. This baffled the doctors who expected his death.
While the medical sciences have advanced remarkably in our own times, there is a limit to what man can do to preserve life. Sadly, despite all the capabilities we have at our disposal to help and preserve life, we live in the culture of death. Because our society approves of the legalized murder of babies in their mother's wombs, we have to admit there is nothing sacred left in our society. With acceptance of abortion, society’s moral backbone has collapsed. Today, for example, the euthanasia movement is gaining acceptance, as society justifies the murder of the sick and the aged. Modern man wants to be the master of life, deciding who deserves life. Speaking of euthanasia, Pope John Paul II commented:
“Euthanasia in the strict sense is understood to be an action or omission which, of itself, and by intention, causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering.”
To modern man, euthanasia sounds good. It sounds merciful because euthanasia eliminates suffering—it brings death with dignity, or so we are told.
Our Catholic tradition, declaring a moral obligation to care for our own life and health and to seek such care from others, recognizes that we are not morally obligated to use all available medical procedures in every set of circumstances. As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said:
"Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, or and old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying."
Moreover, we have no right
"to ask for this act of killing" for ourselves or for those entrusted to our care; "nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action."
We are dealing here with a
"violation of person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity" (Declaration on Euthanasia, 1980).
Pope John Paul II also asserted that euthanasia involves a false mercy, a perversion of mercy:
"true compassion leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear" (Evangelium Vitae, #66).
However, euthanasia must be distinguished from the stopping of extraordinary means of health care or other aggressive medical treatment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2278) explains:
“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…”
A person may go to every length to save and prolong his life. But he is not bound to use those means which are not considered ordinary care or common medical treatments.
Granted, in our world today, exactly what constitutes "extraordinary medical care" becomes harder and harder to define. For instance, one might consider that accepting an artificial heart is experimental and extraordinary, whereas the usage of a respirator or ventilator to aid the patient's recovery is standard.
The use of the ventilator may assist the recovery of a patient and give the doctors time to address the patient’s complete medical situation. If, however, things take a definite turn for the worse, the person’s body may begin to shut down as death approaches.
It is critical that Catholics inform the priest so that the person have access to the Sacraments, even if they are unconscious. When the doctor indicates that the person is in the last agony and death is eminent, then it is morally licit to turn off the ventilator and permit the person do die a natural death.
In the case of a non-terminal patient who has become dependent upon a ventilator for life-support, the respirator is keeping him alive—and as he is not terminal, he has hope of recovering his health. So he is morally obliged to use it.
Remembering the tragic case of Terry Schiavo, we have learned the painful lesson that ordinary means, such as food, water and pain killers, should normally be provided without question. It is morally reprehensible to kill a person by starvation or lack of hydration or to refuse them pain killers to help them deal with chronic pain. From the moral point of view, food and water can only be stopped once the person can no longer absorb them for healthful use. And if they are able to take food and water again later then they must again be provided.
In all of these principles, the Church strives to uphold the sanctity of human life as well as provide clear moral guidance in an age where medical technology-- for all of its goodness—has greatly complicated dying. We must never forget that there is a great difference between purposely killing someone and allowing a dying person to die naturally and peacefully with Christian dignity.
We must remember that,
"what a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love, the human and supernatural warmth with which the sick person can and ought to be surrounded by all those close to him or her, parents and children, doctors and nurses" (Declaration on Euthanasia).
This is what Christ brought to the mother in law of Simon Peter, who was surrounded by her loving family who brought Jesus to visit her in her sickness.
In the last days of Pope John Paul II, when the approach of death was clear, the Holy Father himself decided to forego the use of the ventilator and the feeding tube. These were no longer a comfort to his health and so he was prepared for death. This man who labored in the Lord’s vineyard and who sought always to promote the dignity of the human person, at last spoke his words of farewell:
“Let me go to the house of the Father.”
Let us pray for all the sick and dying today, that Christ will visit them and bring them to His Father’s house, where
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).