Euthanasia in the Roman Catholic Church Faith and Tradition
Brittany Maynard found out she was dying when she was twenty-nine years old. Newly married and full of life, Maynard learned that she had terminal brain cancer in January of 2014. In April, after multiple unsuccessful surgeries, she was given six months to live. She considered dying in hospice care, but balked at the image of her family surrounding her bedside, watching her die an agonizingly slow and painful death. Instead, Maynard and her husband moved to Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide—a specific type of euthanasia—is legal. She chose to pass away in November of 2014 after taking the lethal prescription prescribed by her doctor (CNN 2014). This is the reality of euthanasia in the twenty-first century, although it has existed for thousands of years; throughout classical antiquity, euthanasia was a widely accepted practice.
However, with the dawn of Christianity and Roman Catholicism, society’s view of euthanasia began to sour. While the Roman Catholic Church experienced the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and postmodernity, it remained steadfast in its condemnation of euthanasia. Only in recent years—notably the last two decades—has euthanasia again began to gain widespread traction. Nevertheless, from a strictly Roman Catholic perspective, euthanasia is morally unacceptable regardless of the circumstances; the intentional death of any human being is sinful due to the Christian belief of God’s sovereignty, the Church’s teaching on suicide and homicide, and the Catholic philosophy of suffering. These beliefs, however, do not fully align with the shared reality and experience—the sensus fidelium—of many church members, signalling a failure of reception.
From an etymological standpoint, euthanasia has an extensive history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comes from the Greek eu-, meaning “well,” and thanatos, meaning “death.” The word first appeared in its anglicized form in 1646, and is currently defined as “a gentle and easy death” (OED n.1.). This definition, however, fails to acknowledge particular aspects of euthanasia that are essential in understanding its meaning today. The definition posed by the Euthanasia Society of America and set forth in The Morality of Mercy Killing, written by Reverend Joseph V. Sullivan and published in 1950, is more appropriately nuanced: “the termination of human life by painless means for the purpose of ending severe physical suffering” (3). This definition is preferred for two reasons. First, it emphasizes action; euthanasia is not just death itself, but the act that causes this death. The Roman Catholic Church does the same in its own definition of euthanasia: “mercy killing” (Sacred Congregation 6). Second, it clarifies the specific purpose of euthanasia, which is to end a patient’s pain and suffering.
This comprehensive definition of euthanasia can be broken down further into various different subsets: voluntary, involuntary, passive, and active. An article from the database of the United States National Library of Medicine, titled Euthanasia: Right to Life vs. Right to Die, clearly defines these terms. The first two terms regard who consents to the procedure. Voluntary euthanasia is conducted with the patient’s consent, while involuntary euthanasia is conducted without. Involuntary euthanasia is only invoked when the patient—like someone in a coma—is completely and utterly incapable of making the decision themselves.
The latter two terms, passive and active euthanasia, acknowledge how the procedure is actually accomplished. Passive euthanasia is carried out by withdrawing or withholding life-sustaining treatment from the patient, while active euthanasia is carried out by intentionally introducing a lethal force to end the patient’s life (Chaturvedi and Math 1). Active euthanasia can be broken down even further, and this distinction rests on who ultimately administers the lethal force. If the patient administers it themselves, they are performing physician-assisted suicide; if the doctor administers it to the patient, they are performing active euthanasia (Dixon 3).
The concept of euthanasia is as old as the word itself. In A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America, Ian Dowbiggin asserts that, in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, “there was widespread support for voluntary death as opposed to prolonged agony” (3). In Greece, philosophers such as Plutarch, Plato, and Aristotle condoned—if not outright encouraged—the practice of euthanasia (Sullivan 7). Reverend Sullivan observes that “these men condemn suicide and homicide, and yet they view euthanasia as not only permissible but under certain circumstances as the ideal” (7). Like its Grecian counterpart, the Roman Empire’s attitude towards euthanasia was both reflected in and influenced by the writings of its moral philosophers. One such man, Seneca the Younger, explicitly advocates for euthanasia in his piece Epistulae morales LXX:
If one death is accompanied by torture, and the other is simple and easy, why not snatch the latter? Just as I shall select my ship when I am about to go on a voyage ... so shall I choose my death when I am about to depart from life. Everyone ought to make his life acceptable to others besides himself, but his death to himself alone. (10)
What Seneca and his Greek predecessors could not have predicted was the conception and subsequent domination of Christianity. This new religion believed in God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death. In the Old Testament, God declares, “It is I who put to death and I who give life” (Deut 32:39). Within this context, Seneca’s conviction that his death is “to himself alone” completely loses its accuracy; since God grants every man and woman the ability to live, it is only His to take away. This idea of God’s complete and utter sovereignty is reflected in the Statement on Euthanasia, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in September of 1991. The document defines life as “a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion” (4). This distinction between stewardship and mastery is necessary. As stewards, humans act as attendants to their own bodies; they oversee the daily operations of life. However, God as master has the ultimate and final decision-making power. Thus, to kill someone is to blatantly “reject God's sovereignty and loving plan” (Sacred Congregation 5). Through this understanding, euthanasia directly and blasphemously contradicts God’s will.
Though Greek philosophers accepted euthanasia and denounced homicide and suicide, the Catholic Church makes no such distinction. Active euthanasia is immoral because it is considered suicide; passive euthanasia is immoral because it is considered homicide. In certain instances, the procedure could be considered both. Naturally, this contributes to the Church’s argument against euthanasia. Suicide in the Christian tradition dates back to the Old Testament, in which four people—Samson, Saul, Abimelech, and Achitephel—commit suicide without reprehension (16). Despite this neutral biblical background, the Church has a history of considering suicide to be one of the gravest sins an individual can commit. As Joseph Bayly explains, “at one time the church taught that suicide was the greatest sin, greater even than murder. The reason: there is no opportunity to repent afterward” (74). Repentance is a deeply fundamental aspect of Christianity; to die without it is to risk the promise of eternal salvation. Homicide is far less complex than suicide. It is condemned outright in the Bible; to kill is to break one of the ten commandments, the most basic set of moral principles that humans must follow.
The sole purpose of euthanasia, as previously determined, is to bring an end to a person’s intense physical suffering. The Church’s own definition of euthanasia—“mercy killing”—implies a compassionate urge to release those suffering from their pain. However, the Catholic Church’s philosophy of suffering directly opposes this concept. Suffering is not meant to incite dread, and it should not be escaped; instead it symbolizes the devotion of an individual to God. As Pope John Paul II explains in Salvifici Doloris, to suffer is to share in Christ’s death and redemption (19). Jesus died a gruesome and painful death on the cross, and to suffer is to participate in this shared experience. As Reverend Sullivan explains, “we can never be like [God] in power or dignity. We can, however, become like him in our suffering. In other words, by suffering we become God-like” (75, 76). By participating in this practice of suffering, Christians can understand the pain and sacrifice of our God.
Ultimately, the church’s teaching is explicitly and unforgivingly clear in its condemnation of euthanasia as a “violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity” (Sacred Congregation 6). This teaching, however, fails to properly align with the lived experience of the laity. Movements to legalize euthanasia have been rapidly gaining momentum within the last twenty years, and this shift in perspective has manifested into approved ballot measures, court case victories, and effective state legislation.
In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize some form of euthanasia—in this case, physician-assisted suicide—by passing the Death with Dignity Act. It was implemented in 1997 (Oregon Department of Education 2018). Since then, Washington D.C. and six other states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—have followed suit. In 2017, a Gallup poll found that 73% of Americans support euthanasia, supporting the recent trend of legalization. This rate rose to 87% when focusing on people who rarely, if ever, attend church; it dropped to 55% when focusing on weekly churchgoers (Gallup 2017). This third figure is alarmingly high: over half of churchgoers disagree with the Church on an issue that the hierarchy deems irrefutable.
To the Roman Catholic Church, euthanasia is not a controversy at all. The Church’s argument, as outlined above, relies on ancient scripture, papal and curial documents, centuries of established Christian values, and a milenia of tradition. Yet there still exists this massive inconsistency between doctrine and the shared belief of the laity. This discrepancy signals a failure of the hierarchy. The Church has a responsibility to listen to its lay people and discern the sensus fidelium—Latin for “the sense of the faithful”—which means the “universal consent in matters of faith and morals” (CCC 28).
The congregation shares in the authority of church beliefs as a collective body, because each individual participates and shares in the gift of life and faith. If half of this body is in contention with the other, there is no “universal consent,” and the teaching may need to be reevaluated. This dissonance could also signal an issue with reception, which goes hand-in-hand with the sensus fidelium. The church is obligated to communicate its teachings with its laity; a teaching has only been fully received when the entire church body accepts it, based on a common experience of faith in the Holy Spirit. If this common experience of faith—the sensus fidelium—is not achieved, full reception is impossible. With 55% of churchgoers disagreeing with the Church on euthanasia, it is safe to argue that the Church either failed to properly discern the sensus fidelium or failed to properly communicate its teaching and demonstrate its beneficiality.
In the last century, the Church has made one significant adjustment to its doctrine regarding end-of-life care. This attempt to—partially—realign church doctrine with the laity’s sensus fidelium appears in the Declaration on Euthanasia. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declares:
When inevitable death is imminent in spite of the means used, it is permitted in conscience to take the decision to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted. (8)
While this situation could easily fall under the umbrella of euthanasia, the document is careful to differentiate between the two. Passive euthanasia is the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, some forms of which the church considers “normal care.” The situation laid out in the document only allows for the discontinuation of what Pope Francis defines as “overzealous treatment” or “disproportionate measures” (5, 8). Passive euthanasia is also explicitly intended to cause death; this proposed scenario is not explicitly meant to cause death, but rather to allow God’s plan to take its natural course. Subtleties aside, this is a progressive example of the Church’s ability to reframe its argument to better suit its laity, while still remaining true to its core values and beliefs.
Euthanasia is a complex and multidimensional issue with a long and rocky history. Today the Church continues its tradition of rejecting euthanasia based on its belief in the absolute sovereignty of God, its views on suicide and homicide, and its philosophy of suffering. However, modern medicine and technology continue to rapidly improve. With these advancements come longer life expectancies; with longer life expectancies come higher rates of terminal and chronic diseases. As the public need and support grows stronger for euthanasia, the Church may need to redefine and reframe its argument to align more properly with the sensus fidelium, or find a way to more effectively communicate its current teaching. Regardless of what the church does, the secular world will continue to change and adapt around it, as it has for centuries. Brittany Maynard was a beautiful person who perfectly represents the average non-churchgoers attitude towards euthanasia. This is why stories like hers are essential in any discussion of euthanasia; they can help the Church strengthen their arguments, while simultaneously reminding the Roman Catholic Church that these are real people with real families, pain, hopes, dreams, and beliefs, religious or otherwise.
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