These teaching editorials focus on issues that are highlighted during October’s Respect Life Month.
On September 22 of this year, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement strongly reaffirming the Church’s ban on euthanasia as being intrinsically evil. The statement came in response to a growing trend within our secular culture calling for greater access to physician assisted suicide as a compassionate resource for those who are experiencing suffering due to illness or terminal conditions. The recent statement by the Vatican is noteworthy, because it not only condemns euthanasia, but it also calls attention to and affirms the need for care given to persons in the critical and terminal stages of life.
The editorials that appear in The Record during the month of October are designed to provide a reminder of the Church’s teaching regarding the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until natural death. The recent statement by the CDF provides a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on the need to provide compassionate care for all who experience illness, especially for those who are approaching death. The CDF made the following statement in its recent pronouncement. “Human Compassion consists not in causing death, but in embracing the sick, supporting them in their difficulties, in offering them affection, attention, and the means to alleviate their suffering.”
In making this statement, the CDF affirms the role of such interventions as palliative care. While it is never permissible to directly end a human life, it is vital to provide care including the utilization of legitimate means to mitigate pain. Why make such a statement? As followers of Christ we know that life is more than what we can see physically in this concrete world. We know that God maintains a purpose for us no matter how great a disability might be, even to the time that we take our last breath. For this reason, we place our lives in God’s hands.
The reality of this message became clear to me in the last couple of years as I accompanied my mother during the final months of her life. At age 94, my mother resided at St. Agnes Home in St. Louis, Missouri. Having once been very active, she had become more limited in recent years due to a number of medical issues. Among those issues was a heart condition that would most likely lead to her death. I was with her when she was told by her cardiologist that she could undergo surgery that would potentially give her more time. The downside was that she had other complicating health factors, the surgery would be burdensome and she might not survive the procedure.
I asked mom what she would prefer to do. She was emphatic that she would trust God and allow God to fulfill His will in her. She did not choose the surgery. That decision was consistent with Church teaching that tells us we are not required to engage in interventions that would impose greater burdens than the potential benefit they may provide. The final months of my mother’s life were ones where her comfort was maintained, time with family was prioritized and spiritual care provided. Mom, who attended Mass daily for many years, died of heart failure a few short minutes after receiving Communion for the last time.
Following my mother’s death, members of our family gathered her belongings from St. Agnes Home. Among the items I brought back to Louisville were her prayer books. I began to utilize the books myself. Among the pages I began to discover a treasury of cards. Each card contained a note or a reminder of an intention to be included in prayer. In addition to prayers for family members were reminders of birthdays, funeral cards with the names of souls to be remembered and various special needs.
My mother had discovered many years earlier that God had given purpose to her life, and I am sure that prayer was always at the heart of that purpose. One of her favorite sayings was that “God will provide.” As I reflect on my mother’s journey, I am reminded of the CDF admonition calling us to embrace the sick and the dying. As we do so, we acknowledge that every life is sacred. We also learn something along the way. If we look deeply, we also discover that every life has a purpose.
Michael Ahrens, M.Div. is a retired Director of Mission & Values Integration for KentuckyOne Health and a member of St. Albert the Great Church.