What does the Church say about end-of-life issues?
The Church offers solid principles regarding end-of-life issues, but it’s not always easy to apply those principles to particular situations. Let me review the principles, and then reflect on how they might apply to someone’s final days.
Because each of us is created in God’s image and invited to everlasting friendship with Him, human life is sacred. Therefore it’s never justified to directly will or cause the death of an innocent person. To defend sacred human life, the Church has always taught that abortion and euthanasia are morally wrong, just as wrong as any other form of murder.
Nevertheless, in this fallen world, death is inevitable. When it becomes clear that someone is dying, we do not have a moral obligation to do everything possible to extend a life as long as possible. Now, in some cases, there may be a particular reason why we would indeed want to keep someone alive. For example, take the case of a father and son who have been estranged and live on different sides of the globe. The father is facing heart failure, and doctors agree that intervention would most likely be useless, though some extreme measures may keep him alive for a few days or weeks. They may request that those extreme measures be taken so that the son has time to travel in hope of a final reconciliation. That family may decide to use aggressive treatments, whereas a family already at peace may not. Each would be justified.
Accepting the inevitable, however, does not mean abandoning a dying person or hastening their death. Therefore, if someone is dying, it would be immoral to willingly deny them the fundamental necessities that we owe to every human being: shelter, clothing, basic nutrition, and hydration. In many cases, as a person is dying, their system will no longer accept nutrition and hydration. If that’s the case, it would most often be futile and disproportionate to try and force-feed them.
In some cases, the dying process is so painful that the amount or type of palliative medicine required to relieve the pain may actually hasten the death. Nevertheless, such palliative care is acceptable (indeed, even an expression of love) if the person truly is dying.
Again, however, if the dying person wants to remain alert in order to converse with family members, for example, they may choose to forego pain relievers.
Those are the basic principles: the sacredness of human life, the inevitability of death, the moral duty to provide basic necessities, when possible, but not to provide futile or disproportionate treatments.
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK, LC, is a former professional actor who became a Catholic priest in 2003. This column is printed with permission from his book “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions” (Servant Books, 2014).
Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is refusal of “overzealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decision should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.
Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2278-2279