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For a Lady Pope

The Catholic Church and Euthanasia

There is enough written on this subject to cover pages and pages. This isn’t our intention. Our only objective is to provoke questions. Why not subscribe to euthanasia, why not be in favour of it?

Active and passive euthanasia

Euthanasia refers to the practice of intentionally ending the life of a third party in order to relieve pain and suffering. Passive euthanasia is usually defined as withdrawing medical treatment with the deliberate intention of causing the patient's death. Active euthanasia is taking specific steps to cause the patient's death, in order to end the patient’s suffering.

Artificial prolongation of life means continuing to give excessive treatment to the patient who is at the end of his life. In order to avoid artificial prolongation for someone who it is thought cannot be reanimated, the doctors will only administer pain relief if the patient has severe respiratory problems or a heart attack, etc..

Euthanasia is different to assisted suicide (Switzerland), which is ‘is the common term for actions by which an individual helps another person voluntarily bring about his or her own death.’

Palliative care

Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress of a serious illness—without wanting to provoke the patient’s death. The goal is to improve the quality of life for both the patient and the family.

Those opposed to euthanasia very often advocate palliative care.

It is sometimes difficult to make the distinction between active and passive euthanasia. During therapy given to relieve pain, some people administer high doses of sedatives, notably morphine, which can lead to early death whether or not this is the intention. Using palliative sedatives, the patient is put into a deep sleep, where he is no longer fed and then people wait for him/her to pass away. It is a form of euthanasia because it involves the administration of mortal doses of substances that will eventually provoke the patient’s death.

The Church’s position

The catechism tells us that whatever the motifs and means, direct euthanasia used to end the lives of people suffering from severe handicaps, or who are critically or terminally ill is, according to the Catholic Church, morally inadmissible.

Whatever the intention, any action (or non-action) to relieve pain, that results in someone dying, constitutes murder and shows a fundamental disrespect for human dignity and for God, the creator.

The suspension of onerous, dangerous or disproportionate medical procedures can be legitimate because it is the refusal of artificial prolongation. Such decisions have to be taken by the patient if he/she is competent and mentally capable or, if not, by those who are legally able to make such decisions.

Even if someone’s death is considered imminent, the normal care that is given to a sick patient at this stage, cannot be legitimately interrupted. Using analgesics to relive the suffering of the dying person, even if there is a risk it might shorten their lives, can be considered morally correct if the aim isn’t to cause death.

To conclude, the Catholic Church fervently condemns euthanasia but not palliative care. In a document published in September 2007, it reminded everyone of the obligation to feed and water people in vegetative states. It also asked for people not to be confused by the argument upheld by the media, that people are in favour of euthanasia, when in fact they are simply opposed to artificial prolongation.

We should also note that Judaism and Islam completely condemn euthanasia. Respect for human life is absolute and unconditional. It seems that there is a certain tolerance for passive euthanasia. They accept that legislation can determine the conditions in which a doctor may stop treating a patient who is being kept artificially alive and for whom there is no hope of recovery.

Legislation in countries which allow euthanasia.

Euthanasia is forbidden in the majority of countries. Only three countries have voted in favour of legislation: Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is allowed in Switzerland and the American States of Oregon and Washington. Some countries have legalised the suspension of care when it is requested by the patient and have excluded artificial prolongation and instituted initiatives to accompany the dying.

The principal arguments put forward by advocates for active euthanasia are varied:

Suicide is an act that theoretically everyone can practise. Certain terminally sick patients cannot commit suicide (quadriplegics, those in a coma..). Why don’t they have the same right to commit suicide? Why can’t they be helped?

Moreover, partisans for euthanasia who respect the principle of separation of the Church and State, say that religion shouldn’t be involved in politics. In certain cases, a number of people who have religious beliefs may consider euthanasia as a desirable option. Before the 1990s, the majority of western populations were opposed to euthanasia. However for some years now, this majority (around 60%-80%) has declared that euthanasia is acceptable in certain conditions, for example, when someone who has an incurable condition is in the final stages of their life and suffering intolerably.

Those who are in favour of euthanasia ask the following questions: do we have the right to take away someone’s “autonomy”, in other words, do we have the right to decide when someone’s life will end? Isn’t the right to human autonomy a necessary compliment to human rights in general?

Studies show that doctors have been confronted by insistent demands from patients and that they have practised euthanasia in good faith. Legislation exists that clarifies the situation and protects doctors from judicial proceedings.

Legislation on euthanasia does however, and rightly so, impose very strict terms and the procedures that doctors have to follow is clearly defined. Thus, in Belgium, the law requires there to be precise information about the patient’s illness and the possibilities for palliative care, a second independent doctor has to be consulted and the maximum time allowed to elapse between the patients written request and the act of euthanasia being committed, is one month.

Suicide and religious funerals

Firstly a few words on suicide, which irrefutably show the Church’s condemnation of suicide. According to the catechism, “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”

If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.” The catechism allows that “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

In earlier times, the Church forbade people who had committed suicide from having religious funerals. There has clearly been a change to this way of thinking and, in general, priests no longer refuse religious funerals. The catechism states that, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

However Canon Law (Can. 1184) states that Church funeral rites  are to be denied  to apostates, heretics and other manifest sinners unless they gave some signs of repentance before death.

Protestant churches allow funeral services for people who have committed suicide and consider the religious ceremony to be particularly appropriate in order to express God’s sovereignty. According to these churches, one shouldn’t be afraid of God, as he doesn’t ostracise any of his children. It is also seen as the occasion to evoke and proclaim his hope in eternal life. Protestant churches tell us that a person who has ended his own life should be respected, even if we don’t understand his decision, and his family need to be supported.

Should the Church intervene in certain situations?

It can be said that the objective of the Catholic Church’s directives on euthanasia is to give its followers principles and general advice on how to behave. Should the Church then intervene in particular cases and publicly give judgement?

Hasn’t the Church scandalised a good part, if not the majority of its congregation in dismissing and condemning people who have asked for, or assisted in, euthanasia? It is understandable that the Catholic Church refuses to trivialise the use of euthanasia but is focusing on certain individuals the best way to put forward its arguments?

Let’s have a look at some examples:

Terry Schiavo was born in the USA in 1963. She was bulimic and after having vomited repeatedly and violently, she had a drawn out cardiac arrest, which resulted in irreversible brain injury. In 1991, the doctors announced that she was in an irreversible vegetal state. In 1998, her ex-husband asked that they stop artificially feeding her. Her parents fought against him but the American justice system dismissed their case in 2005. The doctors unplugged the catheter which fed her.

On the 26th July 2005, the Minister of Health and Welfare in the Vatican, His Eminence Javier Lozano Barragan declared that Terry Schiavo’s doctors had “killed her.”

Another case to hit the headlines happened in Italy. Piergiorgio Welby was 60 years old and entirely paralysed due to muscular dystrophy that had started in the 60’s. In 1977, he was put on an artificial respirator, given a catheter to feed him and was linked up to a vocal synthesiser so that he could speak. In 1966, his situation deteriorated. An anaesthetist turned off his respirator and Welby died. The affair went before the tribunals. The Roman judge acquitted the doctor, saying that it was a legitimate gesture of refusal to maintain artificial prolongation of life.

The Catholic Church refused to allow Piergiorgio Welby to have a religious funeral though, saying that his will to die “confirmed publicly and repeatedly (..) contrasted with the Church’s doctrine”. Cardinal Ersilio Tonini stated that the Church should stand firm because this man’s suffering and his death had been used as instruments.

Again in Italy, the father of a young woman named Eluana Englaro had been asking since 1999 for his daughter, who had fallen into an irreversible vegetative coma after being in a car accident in 1992, to be taken off the life support machine. The Italian final court of appeal lifted the judicial obstacles and authorised the doctors to stop feeding the patient, who was then aged 37. Eluana Englaro died on February 9th 2009, three days after the feeding tube was removed. She was also given sedatives to relive any pain she might have been suffering from. Her death occurred in a period when the political-religious climate was extremely tense.

His Eminence Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, described the decision as “an extremely serious one, both morally and ethically, as it had led to a young girl’s death.” As for the Vatican’s “health and welfare minister”, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, he considered the act to be an “abominable assassination.” When the death was announced he did however say that he hoped that “God would pardon those who had led her (Eluana) to such an extremity.”

In Portugal, in August 2011, Ramona Estevez, aged 90, fell into a deep coma following a stroke. The patient’s relatives asked for the catheter, that had been feeding her for a month, to be removed. The Health Advisor of the Anadoulsian Junta gave his authorisation. His Eminence José Vilaplana, Bishop of Huelva, condemned this as an act of euthanasia by omission. He declared that; “any act aiming to cut off food or liquid from the patient is an act of euthanasia, whereby the person’s death is a result of hunger and thirst rather than of the sickness itself.”

And finally, in Holland, in August 2011, the parish priest of Liempde, P. Norbert der Sluis, refused to allow one of his parishioners who had committed suicide to have a religious funeral. The family asked Mr Norbert for another priest to preside over the religious ceremony but this was also refused. The family then went to the neighbouring parish of Oedernrode where the priest was somewhat more accommodating and organised the funeral. P. Norbert der Sluis justified his position by saying that he was simply obeying Catholic Church instruction.

The Liempe Parish Council (an association responsible for the material interests of the parish) reacted instantly and even told the diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch to find them another priest The diocese supported the Leimpe priest but sent him away for two weeks in order to give everyone the time to calm down.


The speed at which ideas change and evolve is surprising. Some would say that it is a matter of getting away from the norm, others that we are simply now more aware of the human problem of how to treat the end of our lives.

Continuing to feed a 90-year-old woman, who is in a profound and irreversible coma following a stroke, is for many Catholics a form of artificial prolongation of life. Surely it’s both imprudent and tactless to treat people as assassins, if in specific cases like this, they decide to stop artificially feeding a patient?

In defending their position on these cases, the Catholic Church is just rubbing its congregation up the wrong way. Can the Church really make such condemnations when it isn’t always fully aware of the medical facts?

50 years ago, the majority of the Church’s followers thought that it wasn’t right for religious funerals to be held in cases of suicide or euthanasia. Today, the majority of the congregation now think that these funerals should take place. They might accept that the Church gives instruction, but they can no longer accept that it can decide for everyone, especially dead people. Only God can judge. Why can’t the Church act like a mother with her children?

The refusal to allow religious funerals to take place is, for some, a life-lasting, dishonourable gesture, which reveals the Church’s severity, intransience and lack of humanity. For others, those who categorically refuse to accept the absolute rule of the protection of life, are simply excommunicating themselves from the Church.

The gap is widening between the enlightened conscience of the congregation and the Church hierarchy, which claims that it has an enlightened conscience.

The main problem is that the Catholic Church condemns indiscriminately. An encyclical that has never been reviewed, declares that the use of any artificial contraception (including withdrawal, which is probably the most natural) is a crime, alongside abortion. Passive or active euthanasia is also a crime. Crimes are being committed everywhere. People will soon come to realise that the Church condemns all these acts using exactly the same terms.

It seems that the Church can only be lenient when it comes to paedophilic clergy, who are never expulsed even if they have, in their own way, “killed” the souls of minors and made some lives so unbearable that the victims have committed suicide. What, suicide? You mean that a young person has had the audacity to commit suicide? What a reprehensible gesture! Well, as he’s committed suicide, we really don’t think that he should be allowed a religious funeral. But of course, the priest who committed these acts of paedophilia will have a religious funeral. That goes without saying. What, you don’t understand??? My God!!

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