End of Life
What is at Stake?
Q: Why shouldn’t assisted suicide be legalized?
A: To sanction the taking of innocent human life is to contradict a primary purpose of law in an ordered society. A law or court decision allowing assisted suicide would demean the lives of vulnerable patients and expose them to exploitation by those who feel they are better off dead. Such a policy would corrupt the medical profession, whose ethical code calls on physicians to serve life and never to kill. The voiceless or marginalized in our society – the poor, the frail elderly, racial minorities, millions of people who lack health insurance – would be the first to feel pressure to die.
Q: What about competent, terminally ill people who say they really want assisted suicide?
A: Suicidal wishes among the terminally ill are no less due to treatable depression than the same wishes among the able-bodied. When their pain, depression, and other problems are addressed, there is generally no more talk of suicide. If we respond to a death wish in one group of people with counseling and suicide prevention, and respond to the same wish in another group by offering them lethal drugs, we have made our own tragic choice as a society that some people’s lives are objectively not worth protecting.
Q: How does cost enter into this issue?
A: In an era of cost control and managed care, patients with lingering illnesses may be branded an economic liability, and decisions to encourage death can be driven by cost. As Acting U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger warned in urging the Supreme Court to uphold laws against assisted suicide: “The least costly treatment for any illness is lethal medication.”
Q: Why are people with disabilities worried about assisted suicide?
A: Many people with disabilities have long experience of prejudicial attitudes on the part of able-bodied people, including physicians, who assume they would “rather be dead than disabled.” Such prejudices could easily lead families, physicians, and society to encourage death for people who are depressed and emotionally vulnerable as they adjust to life with a serious illness or disability. To speak here of a “free choice” for suicide is a dangerously misguided abstraction.
Q: What is the view of the medical profession?
A: The American Medical Association holds that “physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.” The AMA, along with the American Nurses 2 Association, American Psychiatric Association, and dozens of other medical groups, urged the Supreme Court in 1997 to uphold laws against assisted suicide, arguing that the power to assist in taking patients’ lives is “a power that most health care professionals do not want and could not control.”
Q: What does the Catholic Church teach?
A: Our moral tradition holds that human life is the most basic gift from a loving God – a gift over which we have stewardship, not absolute dominion. As responsible stewards of life, we must never directly intend to cause our own death or that of anyone else. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are always gravely wrong.
Q: What about related issues, such as withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment?
A: Careful stewardship of life does not demand that we always use every possible means to prolong life. Treatment can be refused by a terminally ill patient when its burdens outweigh its benefits for that patient. In such cases, the basic care owed to every human being should still be provided. We may reject particular treatments because the treatments are too burdensome; we must never destroy a human life on the ground that it is a burden.
Q: How is the practice of giving dying patients pain medication different from assisted suicide?
A: The intent of modern pain management is to control patients’ pain, not to kill the patient. Rarely is there any risk that pain medication will shorten a patient’s life by suppressing respiration, even as a side-effect, because patients regularly receiving morphine for pain control quickly develop a resistance to this effect. With modern pain control methods, physical suffering can be brought under control for all dying patients, almost always without resorting to sedation. As Pope John Paul II has said, pain management and other supportive care is “the way of love and true mercy” that we should offer to all dying patients, instead of offering to assist their suicides.
Q: What is the lesson of the Netherlands on assisted suicide?
A: For many years Dutch courts have allowed physicians to practice euthanasia and assisted suicide with impunity, supposedly only in cases where desperately ill patients have unbearable suffering. However, Dutch policy and practice have expanded to allow the killing of people with disabilities or even physically healthy people with psychological distress; thousands of patients, including newborn children with disabilities, have been killed by their doctors without their request. The Dutch example teaches us that the “slippery slope” is very real.
All rights reserved. Copyright © May 13, 2011, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. RESPECT LIFE PROGRAM
USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities
National Conference of Catholic Bishops – Administrative Committee
September 12, 1991
Current efforts to legalize euthanasia place our society at a critical juncture. These efforts have received growing public attention, due to new publications giving advice on methods of suicide and some highly publicized instances in which family members or physicians killed terminally ill persons or helped them kill themselves.
Proposals such as those in the Pacific Northwest, spearheaded by the Hemlock Society, aim to change state laws against homicide and assisted suicide to allow physicians to provide drug overdoses or lethal injections to their terminally ill patients.
Those who advocate euthanasia have capitalized on people’s confusion, ambivalence, and even fear about the use of modern life-prolonging technologies. Further, borrowing language from the abortion debate, they insist that the ““right to choose”” must prevail over all other considerations. Being able to choose the time and manner of one’s death, without regard to what is chosen, is presented as the ultimate freedom. A decision to take one’s life or to allow a physician to kill a suffering patient, however, is very different from a decision to refuse extraordinary or disproportionately burdensome treatment.
As Catholic leaders and moral teachers, we believe that life is the most basic gift of a loving God–a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion. Our tradition, declaring a moral obligation to care for our own life and health and to seek such care from others, recognizes that we are not morally obligated to use all available medical procedures in every set of circumstances. But that tradition clearly and strongly affirms that as a responsible steward of life one must never directly intend to cause one’s own death, or the death of an innocent victim, by action or omission. As the Second Vatican Council declared, ““euthanasia and willful suicide”” are ““offenses against life itself”” which ““poison civilization”“; they”“debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator”” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n.27).
As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said, ““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.”” Moreover, we have no right ““to ask for this act of killing”” for ourselves or for those entrusted to our care; ““nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action.”” We are dealing here with ““a violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity”” (Declaration on Euthanasia, 1980).
Legalizing euthanasia would also violate American convictions about human rights and equality. The Declaration of Independence proclaims our inalienable rights to ““life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”” If our right to life itself is diminished in value, our other rights will have no meaning. To destroy the boundary between healing and killing would mark a radical departure from the longstanding legal and medical traditions of our country, posing a threat of unforeseeable magnitude to vulnerable members of our society. Those who represent the interests of elderly citizens, persons with disabilities, and persons with AIDS or other terminal illnesses, are justifiably alarmed when some hasten to confer on them the ““freedom”” to be killed.
We call on Catholics, and on all persons of goodwill, to reject proposals to legalize euthanasia. We urge families to discuss issues surrounding the care of terminally ill loved ones in light of sound moral principles and the demands of human dignity, so that patients need not feel helpless or abandoned in the face of complex decisions about their future. And we urge health care professionals, legislators, and all involved in this debate, to seek solutions to the problems of terminally ill patients and their families that respect the inherent worth of all human beings, especially those most in need of our love and assistance.
St. Peregrine Novena for those with Cancer
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear holy servant of God, St. Peregrine,
we pray today for healing.
Intercede for us!
God healed you of cancer and others were healed by your prayers.
Please pray for the physical healing of…
(Mention your intentions)
These intentions bring us to our knees seeking your intercession for healing.
We are humbled by our physical limitations and ailments.
We are so weak and so powerless.
We are completely dependent upon God.
And so, we ask that you pray for us…Pray for us,
that our lives will glorify God alone!
We know, St. Peregrine, that you are a powerful intercessor
because your life was completely given to God.
We know that in as much as you pray for our healing,
you are praying even more for our salvation.
A life of holiness like yours is more important
than a life free of suffering and disease.
Pray for our healing, but pray even more that
we might come as close to Our Lord as you are.
Glory be to the Father and
to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning
is now and ever shall be,
world without end.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
On August 2, 2018, the Vatican announced that it had formally changed the official Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, calling capital punishment “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and deeming it “inadmissible” in all cases.
The Catechism—the Catholic Church’s official compilation of teachings on a wide range of issues—was revised to unambiguously oppose capital punishment. The new version of Catechism No. 2267 also committed the Church to work “with determination” to abolish the death penalty worldwide. Prior to the revision, the Catechism had used softer language on the death penalty, permitting it “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” while noting that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”
The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the personCatechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267
For people committed to upholding the sanctity of human life, the need to respect and protect innocent human life is clear. For some, however, issues like the death penalty may seem less clear.
Although nothing can substitute for thorough catechesis, the following may be helpful as a starting point for considering the death penalty within the context of respect for God’s gift of human life.
WHO ARE WE?
The Essence of our identity and worth as human beings, the sources of our dignity, is that we are loved by God and made in his image and likeness. God’s love doesn’t change; even sin cannot diminish God’s love for each person. As we are reminded in Sacred Scripture, ““Can a mother forget her infant…? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.’ (Isaiah 49:15)
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF PUNISHMENT?
Although “legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense”” it is not for the sake of vengeance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say. ““in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, [punishment] has medicinal purpose: as far as possible it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.” 1
AREN’T SOME CRIMES SO EVIL THE OFFENDER DESERVES TO DIE?
Consider how God responded when Cain took the life of his brother, Abel. God Punished Cain greatly but also mercifully spared and protected his life by marking him ““so that no one would kill him at sight”” (Genesis 4:15). No sin is a barrier to God’s immense and merciful love, and nothing diminishes how God cherishes each person and his or her life. As God’s people, we are called to follow his example, drawing from the grace of Christ’s Redemption.
DIDN’T THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW ALLOW THE PUNISHMENT OF DEATH?
For Israelites in the Old Testament, legal punishment of personal injury did allow ““life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”” (Exodus 21:23-24). However, when Jesus came, he fulfilled the Old Testament Law and deepened our understanding of both justice and mercy: ““I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another”” (John 13:34).
We see the fulfilled law every time we participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation. In justice, after confessing our sins, we receive a penance to complete. Yet any penance we could do never fully ““makes up”” for the ways we turn away from God. That is precisely why Jesus came to redeem us, and took our rightful punishment upon himself. Although justice does require some action of reparation on our part, at the same time, because of God’s mercy, our penance is medicinal, helping to restore us to union with God.
SO, IS THE DEATH PENALTY ALWAYS WRONG?
As the Catechism states, “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggessor.” 2 However, it also recognizes that today, “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ’are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” 3
Therefore, while capital punishment is not forbidden it can rarely be justified in this modern age-if at all. Non-lethal means are in better keeping with the sanctity of every human life and the common good, and must be used unless public safety cannot be achieved otherwise.
WHAT IS THE POSITION OF THE UNITED STATES BISHOPS ON THE DEATH PENALTY?
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has long opposed the use of the death penalty in our country. While recognizing that Catholic teaching affirms the authority of a government in rare (if practically nonexistent cases to execute criminals, the bishops have said that in the United States, there are other, non-lethal means of defense against unjust aggressors that should be used instead.
In 2015, the tenth anniversary of the bishops’ Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, a letter reaffirming the bishops’ opposition to the death penalty offered a reflection on our justice system: “Our faith tradition offers a unique perspective on crime and punishment, one grounded in mercy and healing, not punishment, one grounded in mercy and healing, not punishment for its own sake. No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so. Today, we have this capability.” 4
IS DISCUSSION OF THE DEATH PENALTY A CATHOLIC, PRO-LIFE MATTER?
Earlier in 2015, the chairmen of the bishops Committee of Pro-Life Activities and Committee on Domestic Justice an Human Development responded to a Supreme Court decision related to the death penalty: “We bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing. …institutionalized practices of violence against any person erode reverence for the sanctity of every human life.” 5
Christ came to liberate us from the cycle of violence by showing us how to love and be merciful. As reflected in his life and teaching, as well as in saints’ lives throughout history, “the antidote to violence is love, not more violence.”” 6 As the Culture of death threatens to electively select who does and does not deserve life, we must uphold that all human life has invaluable dignity and worth.
When we feel that sin and evil are overwhelming, we must not be afraid. Jesus Christ has already conquered sin and death and we know that his is the ultimate victory. Let us work to defend the dignity of all human life, made in the image and likeness of God, through prayer, education, and advocacy. Be not afraid; God is with us.
Replication from the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 2266.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267, citing John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 56.
- Most Reverend Thomas G. Wenski and Sean Cardinal O’Malley (July 16, 2015)
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ““Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Wenski Welcome Supreme court Decision to Review Protocols for Use of Lethal Injections,”” New release January 17, 2015
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, (Washington, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1998), 21. Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition © 2000 LEV-USCCB.
The text of the new Catechism is set forth below.
ESCRIPTUM “EX AUDIENTIA SS.MI” (approved translation)
The death penalty
2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, I and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
FRANCIS, Address to participants in the meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13