Fidelity, Suffering and Assisted Suicide
Fr. Brian Carpenter
Originally posted on 6/5/2011
The death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, commonly referred to as “Dr. Death,” once again brings the discussion about end-of-life issues to the foreground.
Dr. Kevorkian was infamous for assisting people who were terminally ill commit suicide. This intention, on the surface, may seem quite noble. After all, if someone has a terminal illness, why make him suffer? Doesn’t it seem more compassionate to allow the patient to dictate how he will chose to die? When a beloved pet is terminally ill, its owners often euthanize the pet so that it does not have to suffer. Why should we not show the same compassion to people?
Assisting someone with a terminal illness to end his life may seem compassionate, but is this really compassion, or does it actually undermine the dignity of the person? When Christians hold that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, they make an essential claim that the entirety of a human person is sacred. That is to say, human beings are not sacred based on what they can or have accomplished. They are sacred because they are made in the image and likeness of God. Each person has a sacred dignity. This dignity needs to be upheld to the extent possible. While human life is not an absolute, that is, there are some conditions under which it can be permissible to take a life, taking a life is an extremely serious matter. In fact, the only situations where taking a life can be morally justified is when the life being taken poses a direct threat to the lives of others that cannot be removed by other means.
With assisted suicide and the so-called right-to-die movement, this justification is not present. Consequently, there is nothing noble in euthanizing a human patient. In fact, just the opposite is true. The dignity of the patient as a human being, made in the image and likeness of God, is destroyed. Implicit in physician assisted suicide is the notion that human suffering has no value. Rather than linking human suffering to the passion endured by Christ, the right-to-die movement would bypass the cross altogether. Unfortunately, Christ told us that the way to follow Him is to take up our cross, not to avoid pain and suffering (cf. Luke 9:23).
The objection, of course, is that the type of suffering Christ seemed to be talking about was persecution for beliefs. The right-to-die movement on the other hand is speaking of people dealing with biological illness. However, when we examine the Passion, it becomes clear that what pleased the Father was Christ’s fidelity and obedience (cf. Phil 2:6-11). Similarly Christ is insistent that His disciples must be obedient to His teachings (cf. John 15:14). In other words, Christ asks us to remain faithful to Him, just as He was faithful to the Father.
This fidelity requires that, in the face of adversity, whether it is caused by human motives or natural evils (illness, earthquakes, floods, etc.), we trust that He has not abandoned us or left us orphans (cf. John 14:18). Our fidelity requires us to believe that our suffering has a purpose, even when that purpose is not clearly understood. During Christ’s passion, the apostles were unable to make sense of the events that they were witnessing. It was only after the resurrection that they were able to understand the suffering Christ had to undergo. Similarly, we may not always be able to understand the events of our own lives, but this does not mean that we have a right to end our lives when our suffering seems unbearable or meaningless. Rather, it is a time for us to show our fidelity to Christ. We must trust that our suffering is not for naught - that there is some meaning to our suffering, even if we cannot comprehend that meaning.
Remaining faithful to Christ means accepting and professing that Jesus Christ is Lord. This belief necessitates a corollary belief that I am not God. If Jesus Christ is Lord, and I am not the Lord, then what logically follows is St. Paul’s statement that “your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19 my emphasis). Recognizing that we are not our own, but that we belong to God as temples of the Holy Spirit (and this is true whether in the prime of life or on death’s door) then we must also accept that “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord.”
The “decision” to prematurely end life to avoid suffering represents a decision made for selfish reasons. It is a form of “living for oneself.” Living for the Lord, on the other hand, means that our motives are not based on what best suits my individual desires. Rather is means surrendering to the will of God by placing my life into His hands.