Q&A with Fr John Flader: Defending the right to live

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Nurses provide care to a patient in palliative care. Photo: CNS photo/Philippe Wojazer, Reuter
Nurses provide care to a patient in palliative care. Photo: CNS photo/Philippe Wojazer, Reuter

I work as a nurse in a palliative care ward and sometimes have to defend the Church’s teaching on euthanasia before other nurses, who argue that it is better to let suffering people die than to keep them alive with their suffering. How can I convince them otherwise?

Apart from the usual arguments against euthanasia, some of which we find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraphs 2276-2279, the Letter Samaritanus bonus of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated 22 September 2020, offers some very helpful reflections on the value of human life.

The tendency of many people is to say that it is better to die and thus end one’s suffering than to stay alive in suffering. Yet life itself, even with suffering, is always a gift of inestimable value.

As the Letter says, “Human life is a highest good, and society is called to acknowledge this. Life is a sacred and inviolable gift and every human person, created by God, has a transcendent vocation to a unique relationship with the One who gives life. The invisible God out of the abundance of his love offers to each and every human person a plan of salvation that allows the affirmation that life is always a good” (n. III).

God has given each person existence, life, and a certain time on earth during which to work out their eternal salvation. Only while they are alive on earth can they do this.

When they die it is too late. In the last stages of life, many people come to believe in God or come back to the practice of their faith and receive the sacraments.

And if they accept their suffering and offer it to God, their very suffering purifies them of the effects of sin and prepares them for heaven. Yes, as the Letter says, “life is always a good.”

The Letter goes on to say: “God the Creator offers life and its dignity to man as a precious gift to safeguard and nurture, and ultimately to be accountable to Him.” And later: “Life is the first good because it is the basis for the enjoyment of every other good including the transcendent vocation to share the trinitarian love of the living God to which every human being is called: The special love of the Creator for each human being confers upon him or her an infinite dignity” (ibid.).

It is the dignity that only man, made in the image and likeness of God and called to eternal life with him, possesses.

A patient is pictured in a file photo chatting with a nun at Rosary Hill Home, a Dominican-run facility in Hawthorne, N.Y., that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and have financial need. PHOTO: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz

Moreover, “The uninfringeable value of life is a fundamental principle of the natural moral law and an essential foundation of the legal order.

Just as we cannot make another person our slave, even if they ask to be, so we cannot directly choose to take the life of another, even if they request it.

Therefore, to end the life of a sick person who requests euthanasia is by no means to acknowledge and respect their autonomy, but on the contrary to disavow the value of both their freedom, now under the sway of suffering and illness, and of their life by excluding any further possibility of human relationship, of sensing the meaning of their existence, or of growth in the theologal life” (ibid.).

Thus, to end someone’s life, even if they ask for it, is to exclude any further possibility of their relationship with others or, more importantly, with God, to whom they will have to render an account of their life in the judgment.

This is what we mean when we say that the right to life is inalienable: it cannot be alienated, surrendered, given up.

“Moreover, it is to take the place of God in deciding the moment of death. For this reason, abortion, euthanasia and wilful self-destruction (…) poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practise them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator” (ibid.).

Since it is God who has given life, it should be God who decides when it should end. He is all wise, all loving, all merciful. He knows what is best for us.

When a person is suffering, they may think a good God wouldn’t want them to suffer like this, and they may ask for their life to be ended.

But, for all we know, when their earthly suffering has ended, they may very well now be suffering far more in purgatory. God may have disposed that they should suffer a little longer on earth in order to go straight to heaven when they died. God knows what is best. Let us trust him.

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