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Euthanasia and the Catholic Church


EUTHANASIA is from a Greek word, (Euthanatos) meaning good death. It is a fusion of two words, Eu (well or good) and thanatos (death), translating to “good death”. It refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering.

The word was first used as a literary term by Historian Gaius Sueton-ius Tranquillus in his description of Emperor Augustus death in the hands of Livia his wife in his book, The Twelve Caesars in 119. It was used in the medical con-text by a British Scientist Francis Bacon in his work on industrial science in the 17th century.

The definition of Euthanasia incorporates three basic elements which are essential to understanding the position of the Catholic Church on its application. These are: suffering, killing and intention.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines euth-anasia using suffering as a necessary condition, stating that it is “the painless killing of a pat-ient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma”, and this approach is supported by the works of Marvin Khol and Paul Kurtz describing it as “a mode or act of inducing or permitting death painlessly as a relief from suffering”.

However, focusing on this approach to defining euthanasia may also lead to counter examples: such definit-ions may encompass killing a person suffering from an incurable disease for personal gain (such as to claim an inheritance), and commentators such as Tom Beauchamp & Arnold Davidson have argued that doing such would constitute “murder simpliciter” rather than euthanasia.

The third element incorporated into many definitions is that of intentionality—the death must be intended, rather than being accidental, and the intent of the action must be a “merciful death”. Michael Wreen argued that “the principal thing that distinguishes euthanasia from intentional killing is the agent’s motive: it must be a good motive insofar as the good of the person killed is concerned”, a view mirrored by Heather Draper, who also spoke on the importance of motive, arguing that “the motive forms a crucial part of arguments for euthanasia, because it must be in the best interest of the person on the receiving end.”

Definitions such as that offered by the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics take this path, where euthanasia is defined as “a deliberate inter-vention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering”. Beauchamp & Davidson also high-light Baruch Brody’s that, “an act of euthanasia is one in which one person…(A) kills another person (B) for the benefit of the second person, who actually does benefit from being killed”.

Classification of Euthanasia
1. Voluntary Euthanasia—Euthanasia conducted with the consent of the patient
2. Non-Voluntary—Euthanasia conducted where the consent of the patient is unavailable
3. Involuntary—Euthanasia conducted against the will of the patient

Procedures of Euthanasia
The procedure for administering Euthanasia is either active (which entails the use of lethal substance such as lethal injection to kill or Passive (which entails the withholding of com-mon treatments such as antibiotics).

The Catholic Church view on Euthanasia:
Life is a sacred gift from God to be cherished and respected because every human being is created in the image and likeness of God for a purpose (Genesis 1:26) thereby prohibiting a claim as the “right to die”. A right is a moral claim and we do not have a claim on death rather death has a claim on us. God chooses the time of our birth and the time for our death (Ecclesiastes 3:2).

Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Adewale Martins of Lagos Metroplitan See

The earliest form of opposition by the Roman Catholic Church to any form of unnatural death is credited to St. August-ine, in his lengthy work, the city of God. He argued this using the fifth commandment, “thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13) as his basis. He noted that it applied to any form of claim to the right to end one’s life, be it suicide or homicide.

In continuation with this line of argument, in the middle ages, the influential monk St. Thomas Aquinas reinforced this view when he wrote: “it is altogether unlawful to kill oneself, for three reasons: first, because everything naturally loves itself, the re-sult being that everything natural keeps itself in being, and resists corruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature and to charity whereby every man should love himself.

Hence suicide is a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law and charity. Secondly, because every part as such, belongs to the whole; now every man is part of the community, and so as such belongs to the community, hence by killing himself, he injures the community.

Thirdly, because life is God’s gift to man and subject to His power, who kills and makes to live; hence whoever takes his own life sins against God, even as he who kills another’s slave, sins against the slave master and as he who usurps to himself judgment of a matter not entrusted to him. For it belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence of death and life, “I will kill and make to live”(Deuteronomy 32:39)

On May 5, 1980, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Church, issued an official “Declaration on Euthanasia,” approved by His Holiness Pope John Paul II which reaffirmed the Church’s prohibition of all forms of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. For life is a gift of God, and on the other hand death is unavoidable; it is mandatory therefore, that we should not in any way hasten the hour of our death. We should be able to accept it with full responsibility and dignity.

It is true that death marks the end of our earthly existence, but at the same time it opens the door to immortal life. Therefore, all must prepare them-selves for this event in the light of human values, and as Christians even more so in the light of faith.

Reminding all those who place their faith and hope in Christ who, through His life, death and resurrection, has given a new meaning to existence and especially to the death of the Christian. St. Paul says: “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord” (Romans 14:8; cf. Phil. 1:20).

“It is necessary to state firmly once more that 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, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying.

Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or impli-citly. Nor can any auth-ority legitimately recom-mend or permit such an action. For it is a quest-ion 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.”

Furthermore, on Februa-ry 25, 2008, Pope Ben-edict while receiving participants in an international congress entitled: “Close by the Incurable Sick Person and the Dying: Scientific and Ethical Aspects”, reiterated that the Church is against all forms of euthanasia. Stating that death concludes the experience of earthly life, but through death there opens for each of us, beyond time, the full and definitive life.

For the community of believers, this encounter between the dying person and the Source of Life and Love represents a gift that has a universal value that enriches the communion of the faithful”. Though aware of the fact that ‘it is not science that redeems man’, all society, and in particular, the sectors associated with medical science, are duty bound to express the solidarity of love and to safeguard and respect human life in every moment of its earthly development, especially when it is ill or in its terminal stages.

This means ensuring that every person in need, finds the necess-ary support through appropriate treatments and medical proced-ures—identified and administered using criteria of therapeutic proportionality—while bearing in mind the moral duty to administer (on the part of doctors) and to accept (on the part of patients) those means for preserving life which, in a particular situation may be considered as ‘ordinary’.

As for forms of treatment “with sign-ificant levels of risk or that may reasonably be judged to be ‘extraord-inary’, recourse thereto may be considered as morally acceptable, but optional. Furthermore, it will always be necessary to ensure that everyone has the treatment they require and that families tried by the sickness of one of their members receive support, espe-cially if the sickness is serious or prolonged”.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2003) in part three—Life in Christ, section 2: the Ten Commandments, Paragraphs 2273-79 of Article 5, the fifth commandment which deals with respect for human life states:  2273: The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive elem-ent of a civil society and its legislation:

“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of concept-ion until death.”

2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weak-ened deserve special respect. Sick or handic-apped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277 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.

2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or dispro-portionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “overzealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions 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.

2279 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 entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

“2280: Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and deserve it for His honour 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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).

In conclusion, Pope John Paul II at age 73 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which is a kind of ailment that results in the loss of cells from a particular region of the human brain. It is marked by rotary tremors of the hands, immobility and speech impediment with a masklike facial exp-ression.

He was tube fed at the end because of the tracheostomy, (an opening surgically created through the neck into the trachea to allow direct access to the breathing tube), which restrained him from performing his Papal function and his ability to preside over Mass. Pope John Paul II battled this ailment for 12 years until he breathed his last on April 12, 2005.

During this period, he met with several representatives of different Parkinson’s disease service organizations in his attempt to bring the attention of the world to Parkinson’s disease and search for a possible cure. It is noteworthy that throughout this devastating illness, the Pope never contemplated euthanasia. The Roman Catholic Church is completely against euthanasia seeing it in the same light as murder.

“Human life is sacred”. (Humanae vitae, 1968) Euthanasia is always wrong, but it is also wrong to keep a patient alive at any cost. People should be allowed to die, but only when nature, or God, decides.

*Culled from Seconda Anniversaria of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Victoria, Lagos.

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