“Ask a Priest: Are we denying our loved ones good, holy, purifying deaths?”

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Q: As we come of age we tend to experience more often the necessity to make life-altering decisions. We deal with aging grandparents, parents and spouses. Recent experiences with such cases have made me seriously question the health care providers and their true motives. I learned some disturbing facts about the death of a very dear aunt. I decided to make inquiries with a few RNs [registered nurses] with whom I am acquainted. Their answers were more disturbing because I had been brought to believe they were practicing Catholics, and their answers could not possibly be reconciled with the teachings of Roman Catholicism. In our quest to save lives at any and all cost, are we just prolonging agonizing deaths unnecessarily? Are we denying our loved ones good, holy, purifying deaths? I have yet to witness one. When did death become evil? No wonder there is such fear. I am interested in true guidance, for I truly do not wish to die as those I have witnessed. Some patients were unable to move, speak, turn their heads or even scratch an itch. Some were force-fed, denied the ability to quench their thirst, or weren’t allowed to touch their loved ones. Or they were kept in a state of unknowing and false hope, etc. -B.H.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your question. It is heartbreaking enough to watch a loved one approach the end of life. It is even more painful to see cases where medical technology interferes with a person’s preparation for “a good, holy, purifying death,” as you mention. Dying is a natural process and death is its end — this is part of the human condition.

Modern technology has helped to save and prolong countless lives. But technology has limits that aren’t easily accepted by everyone. The result is that death can be seen more as a failure of technology, rather than a moment to prepare someone for entering into eternity and encountering God’s mercy and justice.

This is one reason why the Church teaches that we are not obliged to use extraordinary means to keep someone alive. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in No. 2278, says, “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate […]. 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.”

Now, extraordinary means can vary. What might be extraordinary for an 80-year-old could be considered ordinary for a 25-year-old. Notice, too, that “one does not will to cause death.” The intention is of utmost importance. The Catechism also insists that patients themselves should have a say in their own treatment. Family members should be involved too, since in practice it is not easy for an ill person — especially one with limited knowledge of medicine — to make decisions about complex procedures.

A short answer such as this cannot adequately deal with all the nuances involved. You might want to read the National Catholic Bioethics Center’s “A Catholic Guide to End-of-Life Decisions.” The U.S. bishops’ conference has published “Religious and Ethical and Directives for Catholic Health Care Institutions.”

Euthanasia, or so-called mercy killing, is strictly forbidden. “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,” the Catechism states in No. 2277. An audio talk on euthanasia is available at http://www.ourladyofsantaclara.org/straight-talk/.

You mention knowing of someone who was denied the ability to quench their thirst. Pope John Paul II, in a March 2004 address on the occasion of a conference on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State“, noted that “the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.”

For further information, you might contact your pastor or your diocese’s family-life office for recommendations. See if a chaplain or Eucharistic minister is available to visit a patient on a regular basis.

In any case, try to accompany loved ones who are in the last stages of life. Encourage them to pray, make use of the sacrament of confession, and receive Communion if possible. Help them to offer their sufferings for the sake of souls. And remind them of the hope that our faith in Christ brings. God bless you and count on my prayers.

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