A reader raised thought-provoking questions about our Oct. 18 edition, which included an article describing physician-assisted suicide as lacking compassion and a Father Ron Rolheiser column emphasizing compassion for persons who end their lives by suicide. The reader views the church hierarchy’s approach to physician-assisted suicide as legalistic rather than compassionate.
“It is interesting that, despite the teaching and life-message of Jesus, ‘our’ response — and I include ‘most people’ … not just the church’s authorities — tends to be more legalistic than compassionate (the two need not be opposites, but frequently are),” our reader said. He wondered what would happen if our approach were to be “formed by compassion rather than legalism or judgment?”
His question comes at a time of renewed concern in the church about physician-assisted suicide. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) announced Oct. 7 that it had changed its position on physician-assisted suicide to “engaged neutrality.” The AAFP, whose membership totals 131,400, has discarded the term physician-assisted suicide, using “medical aid in dying,” instead.
“Changing our position to engaged neutrality shows that our members can respectfully disagree about medical aid in dying, but still agree about our role in supporting our patients no matter what care they choose at the end of life, said Julia Sokoloff, M.D.” (PRN Newswire, Compassion & Choices, 10-9-18).
The AAFP’s decision “is in direct violation of the ‘do no harm’ Hippocratic Oath,” said Catholic Medical Association President Peter Morrow, M.D., in an Oct. 17 statement. “We at the CMA are dedicated to preserving life from birth to natural death and will continue to remain staunchly opposed to any form of assisted suicide. It goes against natural law.”
Iowa’s bishops also oppose efforts in our state to legalize assisted suicide and/or euthanasia. Their statement expresses a sense of compassion that contradicts our reader’s perception that church leaders take a legalistic approach to moral issues.
“Efforts to legalize assisted suicide can gain ground because many people are understandably concerned about what they may face as they near the end of their earthly life. People don’t want to suffer and are concerned that they’ll be painfully hooked up to life-support machines indefinitely. Many wrongly believe that the Church says that life-support systems can never be removed,” Iowa’s bishops said.
Church teaching distinguishes between killing — an intentional action or omission to bring about the death of another — and allowing a patient to die — withdrawing treatment that is no longer helping a patient and may actually be harming them. Medical and hospice care can relieve much pain and suffering in acceptable ways, the bishops said. They also developed an initiative “Supportive Care Iowa” that trains support people who can help others with end of life planning.
Our reader argues, referencing the Fr. Rolheiser column, “There is a very real suffering of the soul that drugs and palliative care cannot always touch at all. Perhaps instead of assuming that we humans can possibly possess the wisdom of God, we might humbly look into and listen to why people are, or have considered, thinking of suicide at the end of their lives at all. We might learn something. Not only that, we might learn that we do not have a ‘fix’ for that person’s suffering or dilemma.”
This thought, however, precludes a deeper exploration of the meaning of suffering, which is an inevitable part of our pilgrim journey. As companions on that journey, we become Christ’s hands and feet, helping to carry the load when another grows too weary or weak.
St. John Paul II observed that “to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ” (“Salvifici Doloris”). We do not glorify, encourage or bring on suffering; we strive to find meaning in it.
Beyond suffering, we have a duty, as Iowa’s bishops write in their statement. “While many in our society want to retain a perceived total autonomy over their own life and death, as Catholics we believe we are ultimately responsible to God for the stewardship of our life.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor