Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Western Civilization is still feeling the effects of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. When Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church, “he shattered the notion of universal or objective truth” (Gerard Howlin, “Today everyone preaches something but no one believes in anything, Irish Examiner,” Jan. 4, 2017). Luther fostered the notion that the individual was the arbiter of what is true or false and what is right or wrong. With no objective truth, God was no longer the center of the cosmos; the individual was!
Americans highly value individual freedom. For many, freedom means the liberty to do as one chooses. To pledge allegiance to the flag or to burn the flag: it is all a matter of personal choice. For those of this mindset, the responsibility to the wider community cannot impinge on their personal freedom.
Today, the question of individual freedom and community responsibility has taken on a life-and-death urgency. Politicians and others have translated personal freedom to mean the ability to end one’s life. A well-respected legislator has recently remarked, “I think giving people the ability to make the decision at the end of life when it is their life is the decent thing to do.” A politician in favor of physician-assisted suicide has stated, “Aid in dying is about alleviating suffering and empowering those who are terminally ill to make their own health care decisions at the end of life.” Clearly, the value of individual freedom and compassion are invoked as the reasons to support physician-assisted suicide.
Suicide is always a tragic end to life. The Church understands the psychological and physical duress that may lead someone to take their own life. The Church acknowledges that their freedom of choice may indeed be limited. But, in no way, does this compassion for the individual change the nature of the act itself. In the Christian tradition, the taking of one’s own life has consistently been seen as an intrinsic evil. It is something objectively outside of God’s plan. No circumstances can make it a good thing. Thus, we do not refrain from judging the act itself as wrong, even as we commend to God’s mercy those who commit suicide.
For those who suffer greatly, compassion is always in order. But, compassion means alleviating the pain, making those suffering as comfortable as possible, assuring them even in their weakened state that they are of value in our eyes and God’s eyes. Medicine today can control pain. With palliative suffering, a doctor can alleviate pain without ending the person’s life.
The terminally ill, the disabled and the depressed deserve our care and assistance. How often in times of great suffering and great sacrifice the bonds of love and fidelity grow stronger! Accepting suicide as a solution for suffering sends the chilling message that a burdensome life is without any value. Accepting, promoting and legalizing physician-assisted suicide, even when done with the desire to be compassionate, is not a compassionate act. It devalues the most vulnerable among us, i.e. those incapacitated by sickness, disability or age, as well as those enduring the pains of mental illness.
The Netherlands was the first country to legalize doctor-assisted suicide. The Dutch Parliament made legal what was already being done, albeit as a crime. The results have not been encouraging. Voluntary suicide has become a mere stepping stone to involuntary suicide. Today, just about half of physician-assisted suicides are non-voluntary. Death is now an accepted way to deal with old age and mental illness.
Arguments for suicide or euthanasia are based on a false anthropology and misguided understanding of individual freedom. The human person is not the Creator. God himself is the author of life. No one is born of his or her own accord. God gives us life for us to treasure. He determines our birth and death. We are answerable to God for our lives. But, in a secular world where God and his moral order have been diminished or eliminated, there is very little to counter the campaign for self-determination of one’s entire existence.
No life is exempt from suffering. Not even the life of Jesus who suffered and died on the cross for us. Acknowledging that we can never fathom the mystery of suffering is recognition that we are not God. There is never a ready answer to the question of suffering. But, we do know that suffering is one of the primary ways that God communicates with us.
Pain and suffering point us beyond ourselves and make us question. As British novelist and apologist C.S. Lewis once said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Are we willing to listen to God or to the world? Do we as a people choose suicide as the answer to suffering and turn a deaf ear to God?