Updated: Oct 20, 2022
”Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Written by Katherine Bayford
That the question of how to respond to human suffering should itself be a cause of hurt and confusion in those called upon to do so it is perhaps unsurprising; all too often our first instinct to act to alleviate it comes into conflict with deeply held ethical precepts, which are not shared between groups, and give rise to hurt and misunderstanding. The struggle between the desire to act charitably and the understanding that what may seem charitable can be deeply immoral is made harder by the lack of understanding of one’s peers.
As Parliament considers the Assisted Dying Bill – presented as an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the ill and the weak – many of our fellow citizens struggle to understand why Catholics would object to it. Contrasted with the horror of a slow but inevitable death, they see assisted dying (known also as assisted suicide) as an act that allows for a humane and dignified passing of the sick on their own terms. Limiting the suffering of a person by allowing them to end their own life is a simple taking of control over the time and manner of their death; it is hard for them to see why others would object to it, let alone actively oppose it.
Often portrayed in a one-dimensional caricatured manner, Catholic social teaching is all too often seen as harsh or ignorant by outsiders. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:
“Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.”
Contrary to the emphasis placed on the choice and liberty of the individual by other parts of society, the Church teaches that assisted suicide is a “murderous act” which is “gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person”. With such a gulf in our respective understandings of the act, it is of paramount importance to be able to effectively communicate the Catholic case against assisted suicide both that we might better understand and be understood by our fellow citizens. The starting point for the Catholic view is that death is not the end, but instead the transition from the earthly realm to the spiritual, and that our status in that world ultimately rests upon the status of our soul at death (CCC 1021). Both the suffering and those who love them must avoid actions which corrupt the soul, even if motivated by that love. In this light, the most important factor is the sanctity of life and dignity of the individual, who was made in the image and likeness of God. To kill an innocent remains an act of murder, and to reject God’s will for ourselves is to reject “life’s fulfilment in heaven” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 27).
That the innocent is suffering is not sufficient reason to deviate from this.
Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not teach us that we should attempt to use every possible means to keep someone alive unnaturally. Instead, that we are obligated to provide ordinary elements necessary to sustaining life; food, water, cleanliness, and human contact, all of which provide a basic standard of dignity and care that all human beings should expect.
We are in no way obligated to intervene in an extraordinary way wherein treatment would provide little benefit to the patient and be of great burden. A terminally ill cancer patient may decline an exhausting treatment that would provide them with a few more months of life, in favour of maintaining palliative care and peacefully waiting to be with the Lord. The very sick should be cared for, even if they cannot be cured – this is in marked difference to what Pope Francis calls the “false compassion” of allowing them to be prematurely killed so that they may avoid suffering.
These arguments in themselves make assisted suicide unconscionable for Catholics in good standing and are the reason the Church teaches as it does, but while reflecting upon what this means for the final state of the soul it is worth considering the less visible consequences. As infuriating as it may sound to people who have experienced the deep trauma, loneliness, and horror of irreversible, terminal sickness, there are things we can learn from the process of dying. Dying allows us allows us to draw closer to God, to order one’s soul and transform one’s life in preparation for what is to come. This conclusion and finality is a crucial element of life, and euthanasia in some senses denies this; we estrange ourselves from an intrinsic part of being human, and therefore estrange ourselves from God.
When faced with immense suffering, we may always turn to Christ, who has suffered with us and for us, allowing us to experience God’s tender mercy and the never-ending Grace which he provides. Christ, knowing that He would suffer immensely and cruelly, willingly undertook His Passion in order to unite with our souls, entering into our sufferings that our pain might become a way of drawing more closely into His embrace. He tells us that “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
In the modern world we are sheltered and removed from death. Our relatives do not die at home, but in hospitals, care homes, or hospices, all of which operate under a duty of care to the individual. Sickness can then come as a shock. When our loved ones become unwell, we watch them go from being strong and active to weak and infirm, unable to do all of the things they previously could. And yet, our love for them does not decrease; it is irrelevant that they are no longer capable of the things they were before. Suffering, both of the individual and those around them, allows those affected to grow in compassion; to see that what matters is not a persons capabilities or age or sickness, but their existence as an infinitely special individual, made lovingly in God’s image.
Suffering allows us to become more compassionate and loving to others, because it unites us to Christ, the King of Love. No-one would choose to learn this lesson through the sickness of someone close to them, but illness and death are essential facets of human life. Euthanasia divests us of the opportunity to become more vulnerable, as painful as it is. Vulnerability is a chink in the armour that lets something new in, and what it tends to let in is a renewed ability to love.
Jesus never promised us a life without suffering, but instead that the suffering may be put to good use: we are never closer to Him than we are when we share His cross. The paradox of suffering is that, through Christ, the immense pain it brings may be transformed into moments of joy, its distress may become peace, and sinners may become saints.
“Therefore, we are not discouraged; although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” — 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
Katherine Bayford is a PH.D student and teaches Introductory Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. You can find her on twitter @kebayf
Here are a few links to people and groups that you might find useful.
A UK wide charity with a Scottish counterpart who is campaigning against Euthanasia and Assisted Dying.
This is group of healthcare professionals in the UK opposed to assisted dying or Euthanasia.
Keep an eye on this, follow them on Twitter and other social media to keep in touch on this issue and many more.
The APPG for Dying Well promotes access to excellent care at the end of life and stands against the legalization of assisted suicide.
James Gillies -James is a journalist who writes in a variety of publications including the Spectator and the Herald. The link is to a story he has recently written about this issue. He is well worth following as many of his articles touch on Christian social teaching.
@francis_sanday - Francis, who resides within the Diocese of Aberdeen worked in Children’s Palliative Care before his retirement. He is passionate for good end of life care, not killing. If you are on Twitter he often tweets articles and his own thoughts on this important subject.