Editorial — Who decides when to end life?

As a child I idolized my grandfather. One of my fondest memories is of him taking us to a neighborhood restaurant that had a little juke box in each booth. He would give my sisters and me a few quarters and we’d flip to the “oldies” to play Grandpa’s favorites. From time to time, I still hear those classics playing in my memory — from  “Moon River” and “Doctor Zhivago” to “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”

My grandfather passed away unexpectedly after suffering a stroke during a surgical procedure. Though I was only in the third grade at the time, I remember my mother saying that it was better that God took him than that he languish indefinitely in a coma.

His passing away was my first experience with death. It taught me that life, like love, is a beautiful, “many-splendored” but fragile thing. Looking back, I admire my mother’s faith in being able to let go of the man who was not only her father, but her hero.

When and how to let go of life are questions that seem more complicated today than when my grandfather died. As Little Sisters of the Poor caring for the frail elderly, we often face end-of-life issues. It is a question on which we should all reflect.

Today end-of-life decisions play out somewhere between two philosophical poles. On one end is a growing tendency to see life and death in highly personal terms, as if the individual is in complete control:

“It’s my body, my life, and I’ll end it when I wish.” This is the mindset from which campaigns to legalize physician assisted suicide and euthanasia have emerged.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who believe that human life must be sustained in all circumstances, using all possible means, even when there is no hope of meaningful recovery — as if life on this earth were the ultimate human reality.

Neither of these views represents the teaching of the Catholic Church. Just as the church condemns abortion on the grounds that the taking of innocent human life is always intrinsically evil, she teaches that assisted suicide and euthanasia, which bring about death before its time, are grave violations of God’s law.

Blessed John Paul II wrote that “to claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 20).

But authentic respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life at all costs by using medical treatments and technologies that are ineffective or unduly burdensome. Nor are we required to deprive terminally ill and suffering patients of needed pain medications out of a misplaced or exaggerated fear that they might inadvertently shorten their lives (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2279).

How, then, are we to navigate between these two extremes when confronting issues of life and death?

Through faith! “There is no other possibility for possessing certitude with regard to one’s life apart from self-abandonment, in a continuous crescendo, into the hands of a love that seems to grow constantly because it has its origin in God” (Porta Fidei, n. 7).

These words of Pope Benedict are remarkably similar to a conviction Blessed John Paul II once shared with a group of older persons: “For this is exactly what God intends with death — that at least in this one sublime hour of our life we allow ourselves to fall into his love without any other security than just this love of his. How could we show him our faith, our love in a more lucid manner!”

Faith opens our eyes to human life in all its grandeur and beauty. It shows us that life is indeed a many splendored thing. Ultimately, faith helps us to understand that death can be an achievement when it is experienced as the confident placing of one’s life into the hands of the one from whom it was received, at the moment he ordains.

We Little Sisters of the Poor are privileged to witness this wonder of faith in the lives of countless elderly persons around the world.

Sister Constance Carolyn Veit
Director of Communications for the
Little Sisters of the Poor
in the United States

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