One of my privileges as a priest is to have accompanied many people on their final journey toward death. I also journeyed with my father in his last days. (My mother died suddenly so I was not able to do that with her). But in making these journeys I have come to discover that some of God’s greatest and most necessary work takes place in and during the dying process. When a person who has faith is dying many powerful things begin to happen. I have seen pride melt away, I have seen powerful contrition for past sins emerge. I have seen gratitude intensify, both in the one who is dying and in the love ones who surround him or her. I have heard beautiful words like, “I just want to be with God now….I want to go home.” I have seem a letting go and a letting of God take over. And even in the painful sight of once strong individuals reduced to weakness there is a kind of strange beauty. In the nursing homes of this land are people who once ran businessness, raised families, and led communities. Now many have returned to a kind of infancy. They cannot walk, or only with effort, some have to be fed, some can no longer talk, some clutch dolls and many even wear diapers. All this seems so horrible to many but important things are happening. The Lord says, Unless you change and become like little children you will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Mat 18:3) And really are those in nursing homes really so different than you and me right now. Are we not little children to God? Does he not have to provide for our every need? Does he not have to feed us, clothe us and enable us to speak? Perhaps with the elderly and dying it is just that the illusion of self-sufficiency has been shed.
So, among the elderly and dying there is important work being done by God. Yet today our world frequently does not understand or accept God’s ways. There is a kind of hatred of the Cross and a refusal to accept that the cross and suffering both have important roles n our lives. Increasingly there are those among us who demand the right to assisted suicide and that doctors should be legally permitted to end lives . In the midst of this, we as Christians must once again reaffirm our acceptance of the cross. We must also reaffirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the time and manner of our death. For individuals to demand a right to end their life ultimately threatens us all because it implicitly denies the dignity of the dying. Failing to understand this dignity will lead to poorer care and increasing pressure for the dying to end their lives and no longer burden us. Further it arrogantly ends God’s work, either considering it unnecessary or unfair. No one likes the cross, but as Christians we have been taught by Christ that the cross is both necessary and saving. Think carefully before you support assisted suicide through some sort of limited notion of compassion. The truest compassion is to want for someone what they truly need to be saved. Only God can ultimately say what this is. We do not have dignity because we can control our lives, we have dignity because our life is in God’s hands.
Here are some quotes from the Catechism on this topic:
Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible. 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.
Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” 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.
Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. (CCC 2277-2279)
If you have time to watch this 14 minute video, it is a beautiful meditation on the process of dying with faith and the care of the dying. It is also an articulate defense of the Church’s Teaching against assisted suicide. If you know of anyone who is going through the dying of a loved one this video can be a great help and support.