The Good Samaritan who goes out of his way to aid an injured man (cf. Lk 10:30-37) signifies Jesus Christ who encounters man in need of salvation and cares for his wounds and suffering with “the oil of consolation and the wine of hope”. He is the physician of souls and bodies, “the faithful witness” (Rev 3:14) of the divine salvific presence in the world. How to make this message concrete today? How to translate it into a readiness to accompany a suffering person in the terminal stages of life in this world, and to offer this assistance in a way that respects and promotes the intrinsic human dignity of persons who are ill, their vocation to holiness, and thus the highest worth of their existence?
The remarkable progressive development of biomedical technologies has exponentially enlarged the clinical proficiency of diagnostic medicine in patient care and treatment. The Church regards scientific research and technology with hope, seeing in them promising opportunities to serve the integral good of life and the dignity of every human being. Nonetheless, advances in medical technology, though precious, cannot in themselves define the proper meaning and value of human life. In fact, every technical advance in healthcare calls for growth in moral discernment to avoid an unbalanced and dehumanizing use of the technologies especially in the critical or terminal stages of human life.
Moreover, the organizational management and sophistication, as well as the complexity of contemporary healthcare delivery, can reduce to a purely technical and impersonal relationship the bond of trust between physician and patient. This danger arises particularly where governments have enacted legislation to legalize forms of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia among the most vulnerable of the sick and infirm. The ethical and legal boundaries that protect the self-determination of the sick person are transgressed by such legislation, and, to a worrying degree, the value of human life during times of illness, the meaning of suffering, and the significance of the interval preceding death are eclipsed. Pain and death do not constitute the ultimate measures of the human dignity that is proper to every person by the very fact that they are “human beings”.
In the face of challenges that affect the very way we think about medicine, the significance of the care of the sick, and our social responsibility toward the most vulnerable, the present letter seeks to enlighten pastors and the faithful regarding their questions and uncertainties about medical care, and their spiritual and pastoral obligations to the sick in the critical and terminal stages of life. All are called to give witness at the side of the sick person and to become a “healing community” in order to actualize concretely the desire of Jesus that, beginning with the most weak and vulnerable, all may be one flesh. It is widely recognized that a moral and practical clarification regarding care of these persons is needed. In this sensitive area comprising the most delicate and decisive stages of a person’s life, a “unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary.”
Various Episcopal Conferences around the world have published pastoral letters and statements to address the challenges posed to healthcare professionals and patients especially in Catholic institutions by the legalization of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia in some countries. Regarding the celebration of the Sacraments for those who intend to bring an end to their own life, the provision of spiritual assistance in particular situations raises questions that today require a more clear and precise intervention on the part of the Church in order to:
‒ reaffirm the message of the Gospel and its expression in the basic doctrinal statements of the Magisterium, and thus to recall the mission of all who come into contact with the sick at critical and terminal stages (relatives or legal guardians, hospital chaplains, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and pastoral workers, hospital volunteers and healthcare personnel), as well as the sick themselves; and,
‒ provide precise and concrete pastoral guidelines to deal with these complex situations at the local level and to handle them in a way that fosters the patient’s personal encounter with the merciful love of God.
I. Care For One’s Neighbor
Despite our best efforts, it is hard to recognize the profound value of human life when we see it in its weakness and fragility. Far from being outside the existential horizon of the person, suffering always raises limitless questions about the meaning of life. These pressing questions cannot be answered solely by human reflection, because in suffering there is concealed the immensity of a specific mystery that can only be disclosed by the Revelation of God. In particular, the mission of faithful care of human life until its natural conclusion is entrusted to every healthcare worker and is realized through programs of care that can restore, even in illness and suffering, a deep awareness of their existence to every patient. For this reason we begin with a careful consideration of the significance of the specific mission entrusted by God to every person, healthcare professional and pastoral worker, as well as to patients and their families.
The need for medical care is born in the vulnerability of the human condition in its finitude and limitations. Each person’s vulnerability is encoded in our nature as a unity of body and soul: we are materially and temporally finite, and yet we have a longing for the infinite and a destiny that is eternal. As creatures who are by nature finite, yet nonetheless destined for eternity, we depend on material goods and on the mutual support of other persons, and also on our original, deep connection with God. Our vulnerability forms the basis for an ethics of care, especially in the medical field, which is expressed in concern, dedication, shared participation and responsibility towards the women and men entrusted to us for material and spiritual assistance in their hour of need .
The relationship of care discloses the twofold dimension of the principle of justice to promote human life (suum cuique tribuere) and to avoid harming another (alterum non laedere). Jesus transformed this principle into the golden rule “Do unto others whatever you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). This rule is echoed in the maxim primum non nocere of traditional medical ethics.
Care for life is therefore the first responsibility that guides the physician in the encounter with the sick. Since its anthropological and moral horizon is broader, this responsibility exists not only when the restoration to health is a realistic outcome, but even when a cure is unlikely or impossible. Medical and nursing care necessarily attends to the body’s physiological functions, as well as to the psychological and spiritual well-being of the patient who should never be forsaken. Along with the many sciences upon which it draws, medicine also possesses the key dimension of a “therapeutic art,” entailing robust relationships with the patient, with healthcare workers, with relatives, and with members of communities to which the patient is linked. Therapeutic art, clinical procedures and ongoing care are inseparably interwoven in the practice of medicine, especially at the critical and terminal stages of life.
The Good Samaritan, in fact, “not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead; he takes responsibility for him”. He invests in him, not only with the funds he has on hand but also with funds he does not have and hopes to earn in Jericho: he promises to pay any additional costs upon his return. Likewise Christ invites us to trust in his invisible grace that prompts us to the generosity of supernatural charity, as we identify with everyone who is ill: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). This affirmation expresses a moral truth of universal scope: “we need then to ‘show care’ for all life and for the life of everyone” and thus to reveal the original and unconditional love of God, the source of the meaning of all life.
To that end, especially in hospitals and clinics committed to Christian values, it is vital to create space for relationships built on the recognition of the fragility and vulnerability of the sick person. Weakness makes us conscious of our dependence on God and invites us to respond with the respect due to our neighbor. Every individual who cares for the sick (physician, nurse, relative, volunteer, pastor) has the moral responsibility to apprehend the fundamental and inalienable good that is the human person. They should adhere to the highest standards of self-respect and respect for others by embracing, safeguarding and promoting human life until natural death. At work here is a contemplative gaze that beholds in one’s own existence and that of others a unique and unrepeatable wonder, received and welcomed as a gift. This is the gaze of the one who does not pretend to take possession of the reality of life but welcomes it as it is, with its difficulties and sufferings, and, guided by faith, finds in illness the readiness to abandon oneself to the Lord of life who is manifest therein.
To be sure, medicine must accept the limit of death as part of the human condition. The time comes when it is clear that specific medical interventions cannot alter the course of an illness that is recognized to be terminal. It is a dramatic reality, that must be communicated to the sick person both with great humanity and with openness in faith to a supernatural horizon, aware of the anguish that death involves especially in a culture that tries to conceal it. One cannot think of physical life as something to preserve at all costs –which is impossible – but as something to live in the free acceptance of the meaning of bodily existence: “only in reference to the human person in his ‘unified totality’, that is as ‘a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit’, can the specifically human meaning of the body be grasped”.
The impossibility of a cure where death is imminent does not entail the cessation of medical and nursing activity. Responsible communication with the terminally ill person should make it clear that care will be provided until the very end: “to cure if possible, always to care”. The obligation always to take care of the sick provides criteria to assess the actions to be undertaken in an “incurable” illness: the judgement that an illness is incurable cannot mean that care has come at an end. The contemplative gaze calls for a wider notion of care. The objective of assistance must take account of the integrity of the person, and thus deploy adequate measures to provide the necessary physical, psychological, social, familial and religious support to the sick. The living faith of the persons involved in care contributes to the authentic theologal life of the sick person, even if this is not immediately evident. The pastoral care of all – family, doctors, nurses, and chaplains – can help the patient to persevere in sanctifying grace and to die in charity and the Love of God. Where faith is absent in the face of the inevitability of illness, especially when chronic or degenerative, fear of suffering, death, and the discomfort they entail is the main factor driving the attempt to control and manage the moment of death, and indeed to hasten it through euthanasia or assisted suicide.