With the progress in modern medicine, people in our time are living longer. The ability to extend life through medical procedures leads us to ask questions about decisions that need to be made and what criteria should be used to make them, and even how we should approach this life’s end. The Catholic Church provides moral guidance on these issues.
A succinct presentation of this teaching can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 2258-2301), where the issues related to the sacredness of human life are considered through the lens of "thou shalt not kill."
The sacredness of human life sets the foundation upon which all end-of-life issues must be considered.
As No. 2258 of the catechism states, "Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end; no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being."
In addition, No. 2269 points out, the commandment also forbids "doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person’s death."
Another key principle of Catholic teaching is the intrinsic dignity of the human person that springs forth from the Creator. This dignity exists from conception until natural death. When people’s lives are "diminished or weakened," they still "deserve special respect" and are to be assisted to lead as normal of a life as possible, says the catechism in No. 2276.
The catechism says that one may not intentionally put an end to life either by an act or by failure to act. However, the catechism says in No. 2278, one can discontinue "medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome."
Such decisions are to be made by the patient or someone legally acting on the patient’s wishes. Pain relief and palliative care are encouraged.
The most comprehensive presentation of the church’s teaching on end-of-life issues can be found in the 1995 encyclical "The Gospel of Life," written by St. John Paul II. The encyclical was written following a consultation with bishops from throughout the world.
In the encyclical, the pope sought to offer "a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability," and to make a universal appeal to "respect, protect, love and serve" every human life.
One point made repeatedly in the encyclical is the importance of putting the benefit of the suffering person first and above everything else. Making life easier for the caregiver or family is secondary. Maintaining the dignity and sacredness of the patient is the deciding factor.
In addition to the sacredness and dignity of human life, one other factor must be considered: the mystery of God.
How does the decision being considered flow from God’s unceasing love and mercy? How do our decisions reflect the will of the Creator?
Mulhall is a catechist. He lives in Laurel, Md.