Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I have another question, if you have the time to reply – no rush.
The subject this time is euthanasia, and particularly assisted suicide. I would like some suggestions on the way to explain the Catholic position on this, in case it comes up again in some conversations.
As I was discussing with a friend who is a very sound Catholic, and has been working with intellectually disabled people for many years, it occurred to us that, unless someone has faith, pain and suffering just does not make a lot of sense. If this life is all there is to it, and illness, injuries due to accidents, or just the wearing out of one’s body due to old age, are all there is left to look forward to until the end of one’s life, why not choose to quit now instead of spending days or weeks in a hospital bed, or a wheelchair?
It is my impression that only a measure of faith, and some understanding of the communion of saints, would make the value of the life of a very ill person, as well as suffering and pain, meaningful. One of the talks in a series on the Catechism offered in our parish strikingly summarized (at least for me) the Church teaching about this. The priest (OK, it was Fr. Corapi, but that has been recorded several years ago) said something to the effect that a sick or handicapped person, particularly in a terminal illness, is more “productive” than he or she has ever been in their life, since, in their suffering and/or in their last days “they are hanging on the Cross with Christ”.
That particular way of expressing this did impress me. But it would be totally incomprehensible to someone who did not know a lot about Catholicism, even people who might have been brought up as Catholics but do not see why the Church has anything to say about people’s suffering and the choice they may want to make (a friend who is a lapsed Catholic actually had that reaction). Even our Protestant brothers and sisters might have difficulty with this idea of the redemptive value of suffering: If my understanding is correct, many are convinced that Christ’s sacrifice and suffering on the cross was a unique and final sacrifice and that nothing needs to be added to it.
Whenever you have some time, I would appreciate an explanation, as well as your point of view.
I think you are right that it requires some kind of faith in a transcendent God to soldier on in the face of pain, particularly in a terminal disease. There have been cultures in the past (such as stoicism) in which social pressure might keep somebody hanging on through great suffering without killing oneself (since it would violate a cultural taboo against cowardice). But these days, such taboos scarcely exist. So without a conviction that self-murder is a sin against the God who gave us life, there is very little to keep our culture from urging the weak to die (ostensibly for their sake, but ultimately for the convenience of a culture that doesn’t want to bother with the inconvenient).
Because of this fundamental disconnects with the Christian tradition and its doctrine of respect for the “least of these”, some way of “translating” that doctrine into something comprehensible to an alien post-Christian culture is necessary. Perhaps the way in to such a discussion is simply to raise the question of “What if?” for people who lack such faith.
What I mean is this: Christianity—and particularly Catholic Christianity—is now so remote from the lives of many post-moderns (especially young postmoderns) that Catholics have something of the same advantage as a tour guide speaking to suburban American tourists about the ways and culture of Hottentots. Postmoderns have it ingrained in them to regard alien cultures with respect and openness. As a Catholic, you are a member of an alien culture to most of your countrymen. So present what you believe in those terms and “subvert the dominant paradigm” of suburban comfyness with some “What if?” questions that challenge the Received Wisdom of the television. What if our sufferings really are a share in Christ’s and really do your soul and those of others good? What if the sufferings of this life are nothing in comparison with the glory to be revealed? What if Christ is who he says he is and there really is hope of life after death? Rather than darkly warning of Hell in ways that are bound to be taken as irrational threats, I’m guessing the better approach is to come alongside the sufferer and let him know his life still has meaning and value. Typically the euthanasiac is motivated by fear and/or pain at the suffering of a loved one or oneself. They also labor under the notion that consent is the sole criterion of the good and have no conception of the common good or the notion of sacrificial suffering. Indeed, such suffering is often incomprehensible or seen as a sort of sick fetish “imposed” by “religious dogma” (as though the Church wants to see maximum suffering). An encounter with Catholic compassion for suffering, coupled with insistence on the value of the life of the sufferer can often open eyes to another way besides death. Many people hunger for meaning more than they do for food. They’re just afraid that they might find out the horrible truth is that there is no meaning. But if they gain the assurance that there is, they will follow Christ even into terrible pain. So the key, it seems to me, is not so much to talk them out of euthanasia as into trusting Christ. Only the speech you must use is your life of integrity. The words you use will be secondary.
Hope that helps. May God bless your work in the Vineyard!