Monday, August 10, 2015

“Money can buy anything, but it cannot bribe death.”

“Don’t fancy that your age can make you look forward to a long life. It is too uncertain, my dear boys. Rather, it is quite certain that someday you shall die and that a bad death brings eternal misery. Therefore, be more concerned with keeping yourselves in the state of grace in order to meet death than with anything else” – St. John Bosco: (1815 – 1888: Italian Roman Catholic priest that founded the Salesians)

Gospel Text: (JN 12:24-26)
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

Jesus teaches that when the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it produces fruit. We often interpret that as dying to our false selves in this life. However, it also applies to the way we die, a topic we are not good at facing in our society. One application isassisted suicide and euthanasia. This topic is too complex to explore deeply in a couple of paragraphs, yet we can look at general principles to better understand what is in the news and how it might fit with Jesus’ words.

By means of definition, assisted suicide occurs when an “assistant” provides the means for ill or suffering persons to take their own lives (lethal medications, gun/ammunition, carbon monoxide hood, etc.) but the assistant does not participate in the act. Euthanasia occurs when someone actively participates (or acts alone) to take the life of persons who are ill or suffering, sometimes with permission or even at their request. The Catholic Church condemns both, proclaiming that we need to alleviate end-of-life suffering by utilizing effective pain relief, employing hospice and palliative medications early in the process, and ensuring every patient has proper, compassionate care, rather than ending the suffering by killing the patient. Death should rightly occur because of disease, illness, or injury, not human actions.

Yet the Church also clearly teaches that this does not mean we are morally bound to use every means known to humankind to keep our bodies alive until our bodies simply can’t take it anymore. Life is not the ultimate good. God created us as finite beings and death is a normal, natural, expected occurrence. We are not supposed to be here forever, and God has something better in store. At some point, it is time to let go of life, die, and go home.

Recognizing this fact, in document after document the Church calls for “acceptance in the face of death”, and weighing the potential burdens and costs of treatment against the potential benefits it could offer. It is morally and ethically OK to stop or refuse treatments that only serve to prolong dying or that cause increased pain and suffering in the dying process. For instance, a patient experiencing a recurrence of aggressive cancer can morally and ethically refuse a last-ditch round of harsh chemotherapy, believing it would prolong the dying process complete with painful, debilitating side effects, and instead choose to maximize the quality of whatever life remains. This is not assisted suicide nor euthanasia. Death occurs naturally, caused by the underlying disease or illness, and the patient is free to more fully enjoy their final days on earth, hopefully surrounded by supportive family and friends.

Jesus says “Whoever loves his life will lose it.” We are called to cling to nothing, not even life itself. If instead of viewing death as the ultimate evil, as something that must be fought with every ounce of strength until the last moment, perhaps we can get better at accepting death with faith, dignity, and grace. Perhaps we can better utilize the benefits of hospice and palliative care for weeks or months instead of hours or days before death, enabling us to be more present to loved ones as we die. Perhaps we can then achieve the goals we long for – whether reconciling with someone, tying up loose ends, or having time to properly say goodbye. Perhaps by the way we die, we can be a visible sign to the world that we are part of something bigger, that this life is not the ultimate good, and that we can sink into the river of God’s peace and love as we take our last breath. The issues are not so simple, yet we can do a much better job of valuing life even as it ends. And what a witness that could be!

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