Rev. Thomas Reese on Choosing to Die Well

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.


Everyone reading this column will die one day. We just don’t know when. But contemporary medical technology is increasingly forcing us to think about how.

Many people believe that Catholic theology requires prolonging life as long as possible, but this is not true. Since the 16th century, Catholic moralists have taught that one does not have to use “extraordinary means” to prolong the life of a person who is dying.

In addition, according to Pius XII and John Paul II, there is nothing wrong with using drugs to eliminate the pain of a dying person “even when the result is decreased consciousness and a shortening of life.”

“The duty to preserve life is not absolute, for we may reject life-prolonging procedures that are insufficiently beneficial or excessively burdensome,” the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in their “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” in 2018.

What the church opposes is euthanasia (the direct killing of a patient) or assisted suicide. That opposition was reiterated this week in Seattle, when an article by The Associated Press told the story of Robert Fuller, who in May used Washington state’s “death with dignity” laws to end his own life. Photos showing Fuller receiving a special blessing at the Sunday Mass before his suicide forced Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to clarify that the parish leadership had not known that Fuller intended to kill himself.

Assisted suicide was legalized in Oregon in 1994 and will be legal in nine states by the end of this year. With over half of Americans believing that doctor-assisted suicide is morally acceptable, this number will increase.

Much of the impetus for this movement is the fear of prolonged suffering prior to death now that medical technology can prolong dying.

Another fear is that prolonging death will lead to huge medical expenses that will bankrupt the dying person’s family. Parents who had hoped to leave a small inheritance to their children find it quickly wiped out by medical expenses.

Those supporting assisted suicide tout it as a free choice made by rational people. In reality, people requesting suicide may be suffering from depression or inadequate pain medication. There is also danger of coercion from people who do not want to bear the expense of caring for the dying. Assisted suicide would certainly reduce the costs to insurance companies and to government programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

So the question becomes: How free are these decisions?

From the Christian perspective, the dying period is a time for love, compassion and reconciliation. People should not be cast aside simply because they can no longer contribute to the economy. They should be cared for with love, respect and dignity.

But this does not mean prolonging life through extraordinary means.

According to the “Caring for People at the End of Life” by the Catholic Health Association, “What distinguishes ‘ordinary’ from ‘extraordinary’ in Catholic moral theology is not whether the treatment is ‘ordinary’ in the sense of being normal or frequently used, but rather whether the treatment is beneficial (ordinary) or excessively burdensome (extraordinary) to the patient.” Does “a particular medical intervention or procedure offer a reasonable hope of benefit to the patient that is not excessively burdensome”?

Pope Pius XII noted that what is “ordinary” can vary “according to circumstances of persons, places, times, and culture.”

Thus, in the 18th century, St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote, “There is no obligation to use an uncommon or costly medicine; there is no need to change one’s place of residence to move to a healthier climate; no one is held to employ a difficult means such as an amputation in order to preserve life; abhorrence of a treatment can render it extraordinary, in the moral sense.”

In 1980, the Vatican “Declaration on Euthanasia” stated, “one cannot impose on anyone the obligation to have recourse to a technique which is already in use but which carries a risk or is burdensome.”

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Source: Religion News Service