Cardinal O'Malley Delivers Strong Message About Why Suicide Is Wrong

Video homily beginning of archdiocesan effort to counter statewide ballot initiative.

BOSTON — The practice of physician-assisted suicide “is being presented as a way for the terminally ill to have greater freedom at the end of life,” said Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley. “However, it would create pressures to limit our freedom, because it could establish an expectation that certain people will be better served by being dead, a dubious premise indeed.”

So said the cardinal in a videotaped homily distributed to around 300 parishes and other locations where Masses were being celebrated in the Archdiocese of Boston on the weekend of Feb. 11-12.

“The Fifth Commandment states, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ This certainly includes killing to alleviate suffering. Doctor-assisted suicide occurs when a doctor assists the patient to end his own life, even though he does not directly administer the lethal drug. It is doctor-prescribed death,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

The address marks the launch of an archdiocesan campaign to educate Catholics about a current ballot initiative that seeks to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the state. 

The so-called “Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act” seeks to allow adults, 18 years of age and older, to be able to self-administer lethal drugs if their physicians have determined they have a terminal disease that “will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months.” The provision also requires that the process be “entirely voluntary on the part of all participants” and the adult has “the capacity to make health-care decisions.”

Parishes and religious shrines received a DVD and CDs of the talk. To some parishes, audio recordings of the cardinal delivering the message in Spanish and Portuguese were also given.

In his address, the cardinal addressed misconceptions about Catholic teaching on suffering and medical treatment, the ramifications of related measures taken in the Netherlands and in Oregon, and flaws in the structure of the bill.

“The bill also requires two witnesses to attest to the patient’s competence. But one of the witnesses can be a total stranger, and another can be the sick person’s heir. Alfred Hitchcock would make movies about this stuff,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

Stephen Crawford, communications director for Dignity 2012, the supporting group of the initiative, spoke to The Boston Globe about the campaign.

“The College of Cardinals’  opposition to the Death With Dignity Act has been widely known for some time. We respect their opinion. We believe that the people of Massachusetts are ready for the discussion about providing terminally ill patients with greater choice and compassion in their final days,” Crawford said in a Feb. 11 Globe article.

Integrated Messaging

Besides the DVDs and CDs, parishes received posters, pew cards, brochures and a resource guide about the situation. One can watch the cardinal’s message on a new website, created in response to the ballot initiative.

The website also contains all of the printed materials in an electronic format, along with resources and links about the Church’s teaching on end-of-life care. Future educational events will be listed, and archdiocesan news articles and opinion pieces are currently linked on the site.

According to Janet Benestad, the secretary of faith formation and evangelization for the archdiocese, images on the website were carefully chosen from real-life Catholic health organizations and are of real patients and caregivers.

She said existing brochures on the related topic “tend to be very glum.”

“You know, pictures of people looking hopelessly out a window or trays of pills — things like that. I was determined that that would not be the images people would see,” said Benestad.

Instead, she said the images would be of “capable, expert people taking care of people who are very sick and doing it in a joyful and steadfast way. You know, an image of hope.”

Some of these images are also intercut in the cardinal’s video message.

The archdiocesan effort is a collaboration of several groups in or associated with the diocese.  One of the groups Benestad and her team worked closely with was the media group headed by Scot Landry, the secretary of Catholic media for the archdiocese, which includes an in-house printing operation.

For Landry and associates, this is not a new process. The group has worked a number of previous campaigns, from last year’s “Catholics Come Home” to a reoccurring effort to promote the sacrament of reconciliation called “The Light Is On for You.”

While every diocese may not have the in-house capabilities of Boston, Landry said, “I think it’s critical to have a communication operation that can get messaging out in various formats and various languages quickly.”

“There are plenty of people who have the skills out there who can freelance.  It’s important to build a relationship with one, so that after you do it (a campaign) the first time, the process and the time to execute it the next time is just shorter — because you’ve invested into the relationship.”

Important Points

Alexis Walkenstein watched the cardinal’s message during Mass at St. Patrick’s Parish in nearby Natick and called it “terrific.” She said the archbishop “hit all the right points on why doctor-prescribed death is not compassionate care of the sick.”

Walkenstein is the vice president of media and communication for the Maximus Group, a public relations firm that often promotes Catholic movies and books. 

She noted the crucifix that hangs in the background behind Cardinal O’Malley during his video address.

“That was a visual reinforcement of the message from the cardinal that we don’t shrink back from suffering, but we enter in with the Lord,” said Walkenstein.

However, Cardinal O’Malley, Benestad and Landry want to drive home two messages to Catholics about Church teaching: Suffering is not a “good” expected for Catholics to just grin and bear without aid and that Catholics do not have to accept every medical treatment available for their medical condition.

“Burdensome and futile treatments may be refused, as in the case of older patients who need not have risky surgery or painful chemotherapy in order to gain a few more months of life,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

The next significant step for the ballot initiative happens on March 6, when members of the Massachusetts Legislature accept testimony about the initiative. According to Benestad, even if the legislature were to strike down the proposed measure, only around 11,000 additional signatures would be needed to get it on the ballot.

The view of the cardinal was that Massachusetts’s voters would see the initiative on the November ballot. He called on Catholics to join with others who are concerned about the ballot measure, such as advocates for disability rights and members of the “healing professions,” and promote “life-affirming solutions” for the “hardships” of those who are seriously ill or disabled.

“We should ensure that the families of people with terminal illnesses will never feel that they’ve been left alone in caring for their needs,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

Toward the end of his address, he asked parishioners to do three things — visit and pray for the sick and dying and pray for their caregivers; resist believing language used by proponents of prescribed suicide such as “dignity,” “mercy,” “compassion” and “aid in dying,” and finally to become educated “as much as possible on assisted suicide and share that knowledge with others.” He directed people to the printed materials and the website.

As he stated earlier in his address, “St. Paul exhorts us today to be imitators of Christ, who stretches out his hand in compassion toward the sick. This is the model that we as Christians have emulated for centuries in our hospitals, nursing homes and treatment centers.”

Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from Boston.