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Sep 10, 2019

Euthanasia and Suffering

Nicholas LaBanca

As sojourners here on earth, pilgrims walking (little by little) toward our heavenly homeland, it’s tempting to become apathetic about the Catholic Faith, and at times stand in open opposition to it.

As a friend of mine often says:

“We as Catholics have lost our story.” 

Erosion of Faith

Such apathy and confusion has led to stories like that of Robert Fuller, a late parishioner at a Seattle parish, who committed medically assisted suicide in May 2019 by injecting himself with drugs in accordance with Washington’s “Death with Dignity Act” while in the presence of family and friends. (Pray for his soul.)

Shortly before this action was carried out, he also took part in a state sanctioned, same-sex marriage with his partner. Pictured in the story above is Fuller receiving a blessing from a priest after Mass, right before his death which was pre-planned in great detail; from the day of his lethal injection to the day of his funeral Mass at the parish days later.

The Archdiocese of Seattle quickly released a statement noting that “parish leadership was not aware of Mr. Fuller’s intentions” at the time the photo in the story was taken. The visiting priest who gave the blessing also confirmed he was unaware and would’ve handled the situation differently had he known more details.

Many Catholics and other Christians were saddened and frustrated with the whole situation. How do we as Catholics react to this continual erosion of our faith, this loss of “our story”?

Access to Truth

This provides an opportunity to look into what the Church teaches in regards to euthanasia and the sacraments. Thankfully, our Lord Jesus has spoken through his Church on these issues, and from this we can gain a better understanding of what we as Christians profess, giving to fellow Christians and non-Christians alike that defense for the Faith that we hold dear:

“but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

(1 Peter 3:15-16)

Soon-to-be-Blessed Fulton J. Sheen said:

“Right is right if nobody is right, and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong.”

We have access to the truth through Christ’s Church even if many wish to ignore that truth.

Based on Natural Law

The word “euthanasia” literally means “good” or “easy death”. It’s not surprising then to see such a practice referred to as “merciful”, but this is plainly a case of false mercy in light of the gospel. The Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13), extends to ourselves, and Jesus spoke to this at several points in the Gospel (see Matthew 5:21; Mark 10:19). As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) “Declaration on Euthanasia” said: 

“No one is permitted to ask for this act of killing … For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.”

To try to square such a thing as euthanasia with Jesus’ mercy is a stretch at best. If our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then it follows that we should treat ourselves in a way commensurate with that belief. To end one’s life in this way, with full knowledge and consent as can be the case in “medically assisted suicide”, would be analogous to demolishing a church building while the Blessed Sacrament still remained inside the tabernacle. In effect, we snuff out the presence of God which is within each and every one of us. Our very lives are a gift from God, and we are not arbiters of when that gift of life should be extinguished. Pope St. John Paul II affirmed this in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

“[I]n harmony with the Magisterium of my Predecessors and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (EV 65).

Rooted in Divine Law

We can also look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says:

“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 …

“We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

“Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self” (CCC 2277-2278, 2280-2281).

Notice the wording used here in regards to the “grave” nature of taking one’s life in this way. As the CDF pointed out, this is not merely a violation of a discipline or regulation; this goes against revealed divine law.

Discipleship and Suffering

What might be even more important is to see how all this relates to the bearing of one’s own cross. As our Lord said:

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me … Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 9:23; 14:27).

Discipleship entails suffering. There’s no easy way of getting around this. Crosses may take on different shapes and sizes, but each person has their own to shoulder without exception. This is why the Catechism speaks sharply about “eliminating suffering”.

Fuller’s Decision

Let’s return to the Seattle story to see how this elimination of suffering in the Christian life is detrimental to our relationship with God.

In his own words, Fuller declared:

“Suffering is no longer an option. And it’s me, Uncle Bob who is calling the shots.”

He also wondered aloud in the USA Today story:

“Why should I suffer? I’m totally at peace with this.”

To be at peace with such a decision is a certain error of judgment, and such a mentality is in clear contradiction to Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church. Why should we suffer? Because as disciples of Jesus we can’t escape suffering, as this is part of the Christian life. Just as our Lord Jesus suffered on the Cross, offering himself up for our sins, we can also offer up our sufferings for the conversion of souls or other specific intentions.

We do not call the shots in our lives. That is how we can fall into pride. We follow our Lord and ask that his will be done, not ours. It can unequivocally be said that our Lord does not will the direct killing of oneself through euthanasia. He does desire, though, that we unite our sufferings with his own, for the sake of his Church.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church … “

Colossians 1:24

The Sweetness of Suffering

St. John Vianney gives us a perfect blueprint of how to view suffering; not in the way the world views it, but as a Christian:

“Whether we will or not, we must suffer. There are some who suffer like the good thief, and others like the bad thief. They both suffered equally. But one knew how to make his sufferings meritorious, he accepted them in the spirit of reparation …

“If the good God sends us crosses, we resist, we complain, we murmur; we are so averse to whatever contradicts us, that we want to be always in a box of cotton: but we ought to be put into a box of thorns. It is by the Cross that we go to heaven … If someone said to you, ‘I should like to become rich; what must I do?’ you would answer him, ‘You must labor.’ Well, in order to get to heaven, we must suffer …

“He who does not love the Cross may indeed be saved, but with great difficulty: he will be a little star in the firmament. He who shall have suffered and fought for his God will shine like a beautiful sun. Crosses, transformed by the flames of love, are like a bundle of thorns thrown into the fire, and reduced by the fire to ashes. The thorns are hard, but the ashes are soft. Oh, how much sweetness do souls experience that are all for God in suffering!”

Losing Our Story

Indeed, there is so much value in suffering that the saints are even able to talk about its “sweetness”! This is part of the “story” that Catholic Christians have lost, and it is sadly on display in this story from Seattle. But this episode poses another important question: how do the sacraments figure in? Can one plan their own death in accord with the state’s law on euthanasia, plan their funeral, and still fruitfully receive grace from the sacraments, such as Holy Communion and confession? As the news story related, Fuller’s decision was widely known and accepted among the parishioners. The Archdiocese of Seattle’s second statement confirmed this as well. Could something premeditated in this fashion, in opposition to divine law, lead one to a proper disposition when approaching the sacraments? 

Euthanasia in Canada

Canadian Catholics have had to deal with these issues a bit more than Catholics in the United States. In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau legalized assisted suicide across the country. Naturally, this raised questions for pastors of souls. Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa has spoken out several times on the issue, upholding the truths of the Catholic Faith.

That same year, the archbishop commented:

“a pastor will try and dissuade a patient from requesting suicide and will pray with them and their family, but asking him [the pastor] to be present is in effect asking him to condone a serious sin … The [Anointing of the Sick] rite is for people who are gravely ill or labor under the burden of years and it contains the forgiveness of sins as part of the rite, in either form. But we cannot be forgiven pre-emptively for something we are going to do—like ask for assisted suicide when suicide is a grave sin.”

Upholding the Faith’s Teaching

Other bishops have given equally unambiguous responses as well, including an extremely helpful document from the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. While remaining compassionate toward those who are suffering so greatly that they would consider assisted suicide, the bishops also made it clear that the taking of one’s own life through euthanasia is, objectively speaking, “a gravely immoral act”:

“In our day a priest may encounter a penitent who has officially requested physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia … If the penitent does not rescind this request, he or she will be killed. They are in this objective state of sin, which is gravely disordered. They have incited and officially arranged for someone to kill them. For a sin to be a mortal sin, however, which actually separates us from God, we know that three things must be present: 1) the matter must be grave; 2) the person must be aware of this; and 3) the person must freely choose it. Does the penitent know that the request for suicide that he/she has made is a grave sin? Is his or her freedom impaired in some way through depression, drugs, or pressure from others? Their decision to request assisted suicide or euthanasia may not have been fully free, or may not have been an informed decision, so the past culpability may be light. 

“Nevertheless, they are in an objective state of sin. The official request is made; if they do not rescind it, they will be killed. If the penitent, having been made aware of the gravity of the situation, is open to learning the Church’s teaching on this issue, and open to reconsidering the decision, the priest can absolve. There is at least the beginning of contrition, a willingness to reconsider and thus possibly rectify their situation. If they are not open at least to prayerfully considering the rescinding of their request—now that they know it is a grave sin—they would be choosing to do something gravely wrong, that is to say, deciding to remain in a situation of sin rather than seek to amend their life. In this case, the minister would need to delay absolution to a later time when the person may be properly disposed…

“The Church does, in fact, celebrate Christian funerals for those who have been found after the fact to have committed suicide. We are not able to judge the reason the person has taken that decision or the disposition of their heart. The case of assisted suicide or euthanasia, however, is a situation where more can sometimes be known of the disposition of the person and the freedom of the chronically ill man or woman, particularly if it is high-profile or notorious. In such cases, it may not be possible to celebrate a Christian funeral. If the Church were to refuse a funeral to someone, it is not to punish the person but to recognize his or her decision—a decision that has brought him or her to an action that is contrary to the Christian faith, that is somehow notorious and public, and would do harm to the Christian community and the larger culture.”

For the Salvation of Souls

It’s very easy for people to assert that the Church is against something, like euthanasia. But as we see with the bishops’ directives, the fact is that the Church is for something, namely the eternal salvation of souls, as well as the duty to safeguard the sacraments. We must be compassionate to people in such situations, but we cannot let a false sense of mercy creep into our efforts in reaching such souls. We have Good News for the world, and we need to bring that hope to those who see no point in continuing on with their lives.

Just earlier this month, Pope Francis spoke to how the practice of euthanasia is “based on a utilitarian view of the person … a rejection of hope.” Approaching our brothers and sisters to let them know that God is with them despite their suffering and hardships is key to turning that rejection around.

The Way to Everlasting Life

So while it may feel that we as Catholics are fighting a losing battle when engaging the culture around us on such hot-button moral issues, we are nonetheless in good hands. Think back to when the apostles tried to awaken our Lord as he slept in the boat during the storm. The Church might feel like its encountering stormy waters right now, but our Lord is in our midst. We can reflect on Pope Benedict’s words from his final general audience:

“I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the Barque of the Church is not mine but his. Nor does the Lord let it sink; it is he who guides it, surely also through those whom he has chosen, because he so wished. This has been, and is, a certainty which nothing can shake. For this reason my heart today overflows with gratitude to God, for he has never let his Church, or me personally, lack his consolation, his light, his love.”

Be consoled that our Lord is with us, as he constantly speaks through his Church. The battle, far from being lost, is already won! While stories such as the one highlighted here may seem discouraging at first, we can remain confident that Jesus has given us a blueprint, a Way to follow. It is a Way that is knowable, and by following that Way with our crosses, we will find ourselves living an everlasting life with him.

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About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

Featured photo by Alem Sánchez from Pexels

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