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End of Life Issues

Death Penalty 

“The death penalty neither deters others, nor brings this perpetrator to understanding, but instead, in the worst of ironies, publicly validates the very act of taking a human life.” ~ Bishop Peter A. Libasci

As Pope John Paul II discussed in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, human life is a gift given from God, and every human being inherits the dignity of that life. The death penalty is contrary to this belief, as it affords the government the right to determine the time of death for those who have committed certain heinous crimes. While the Church recognizes the historical purpose of the death penalty, it seems that the penalty no longer has a place in modern society.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “Assuming the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude the recourse of the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, the authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity with the dignity of the human person” (no. 2267). As the Bishops of the United States have said, “sentences such as life in prison without parole provide non-lethal alternatives” to the death penalty and render unnecessary the use of the death penalty in the United States. USCCB, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, 2005.

Therefore, the possibility that no other means to deal with the aggressor’s presence could be used is almost inconceivable. In the Holy See’s Declaration to the First World Congress on the Death Penalty, it is stated, “It is surely more necessary than ever that the inalienable dignity of the human life be universally respected and recognized for its immeasurable value. The Holy See has engaged itself in the abolition of capital punishment…and does so in defiance of any assertion of a culture of death.”

Facts about Death Row

(Source: Death Penalty Information Center)

  • Over 3,100 inmates are on death row in 37 state and federal prisons. The largest number, over 700, is in California.
  • Since 1973, there have been over 140 exonerations of death row inmates.
  • Eighteen states do not impose the death penalty.
  • A 2009 poll commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Center found police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce crime. The police chiefs also considered the death penalty to be the least efficient use of taxpayers' money.

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Euthanasia/Physician-Assisted Suicide 

Watch Maggie’s Story below, a video featuring Maggie Karner, a 51-year-old mother of three diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who shares her own journey and the courageous witness of her father that taught her to face her own final days with true grace and dignity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines euthanasia as “an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded” (n. 2277).

Euthanasia occurs whether it is believed that one’s lethal act or omission is not what is intended but only the ending of suffering, or one intends both the death and the ending of suffering. Euthanasia is not designed to end suffering but rather to end the life of a person. This is a grave offense against the human dignity of the patient. Human dignity in this situation requires life-affirming acts of comfort care and pain management, love and support, not the abandonment of death.

Physician-assisted suicide may generally be regarded as any medical assistance deliberately given by a physician or health care professional to a person who wishes to undergo euthanasia. Given the affront to human dignity that physician-assisted suicide is, there is never any legitimate justification for it even if a checklist of conditions has been fulfilled to ensure that the patient is making a rational and self-directed decision. Truly autonomous decisions do not violate what the human person is, but fulfill the person’s God-given dignity and the good of human life. Physician-assisted suicide also represents a grave threat to the integrity of medicine.

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Life-Sustaining Treatment and Care 

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s - Romans 14:7-8

Life-sustaining treatment and care may be generally defined as any medical or surgical intervention or basic form of care without which a person cannot live. Stewardship of the gift of life includes the universal moral obligation to conserve human life in a way that corresponds appropriately to the condition of a person’s life—our own or anyone for whom we have responsibility. This means that life-sustaining treatment and care that has a reasonable hope of benefit and does not cause an excessive burden, is morally obligatory. Any life-sustaining treatment or care that does not have a reasonable hope of benefit or is excessively burdensome is morally optional. This principle from the Catholic moral tradition (the principle of ethically proportionate and disproportionate means) helps us to understand that the extremes of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide on the one hand, and over-zealous interventions on the other, are to be avoided.

The termination of life in its end stages violates the dignity of the human being in the same manner terminating it in its developmental stages does. In fact, far from being a humane and gentle way to end life, euthanasia can only distance us from our faith, as it assumes that at some point human life ceases to possess meaning. Only by seeing the value in every form of human life, even in those who are suffering, can we seek to understand God’s purpose for us.

In his encyclical entitled Evangelium vitae , Pope John Paul II writes, “when he denies or neglects his fundamental relationship to God, man thinks he is his own rule and measure, with the right to demand that society should guarantee him the ways and means of deciding what to do with his life in full and complete autonomy” (no. 64). He goes on to quote the Second Vatican council, stating “’It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute,’ and yet, ‘man rightly follows the institution of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person. Man rebels against death because he bears himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to mere matter’” (no. 67).

Reverend J. Daniel Mindling, O.F.M, Cap. reaffirms the pope’s dedication to life in his article entitled “Pope John Paul II: Dying with Dignity”, citing the pontiff’s struggle with his own illnesses towards the end of his life: “He instructed…with the witness of his own faith in the face of injury, suffering, hospitalization, illness, and dying.” According to Mindling, “All who respect their God-given dignity are called to be heralds of a ‘culture of life.’ Christ’s mission was to every human person, and our Lord had a passionate concern for the sick, the suffering and the dying.”

As Catholics, it should be our mission to show others the value in the lives they deem meaningless. Through our commitment to the corporal works of mercy, we should renew our dedication to visit the sick. If those who are infirm remain cared for, both physically and spiritually, it will be impossible to classify their lives as being without worth.

The principle of ethically proportionate and disproportionate means also applies to medically administered nutrition and hydration (“MANH”), including MANH for the patient who is permanently unconscious. Being permanently unconscious does not by itself make MANH ethically disproportionate, and therefore morally optional. It is important that decisions regarding life-sustaining treatment and care be made with a well-formed conscience. The moral teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church provides valuable guidance on the moral principles that should inform conscience about these decisions. Advance health care directives can be very important for expressing one’s well-formed conscience on the issue of life-sustaining treatment and care. 

 Three Beliefs: A Catholic Guide on Durable Power of Attorney for Heath Care in New Hampshire

Three Beliefs is a document from the Diocese of Manchester that gives valuable assistance to Catholics and others on end-of-life issues. Three Beliefs explains Catholic teaching on life-sustaining treatment and care and includes the New Hampshire Advance Directive form modified in such a way to make it consistent with both Catholic teaching and New Hampshire law. Three Beliefs contains a helpful FAQ section and wallet cards that include important information for health care providers.

The New Hampshire Advance Directive form was revised by a law that became effective January 1, 2014. Three Beliefs has been updated to include a form that is consistent with Catholic teaching and the changes to the New Hampshire form. If you completed an advance directive before 2014 and your intentions for your end-of-life care have not changed, you do not need to complete a new form as long as your advance directive was valid when it was executed. For example, if you completed the October 2007 version of Three Beliefs and signed the document before two witnesses or a notary public or justice of the peace, you do not need to complete a new advance directive form.

Additional Resources on Catholic Teaching on Care at the End of Life:

Organ Donation 

The waiting list for organs over the years has consistently exceeded the number of organs donated.  Organs for transplantation come from both living and deceased donors.  Catholic teaching holds that organ donation is a generous and noble act as long as adequate moral criteria are met.  Pope John Paul II described organ donation as a particularly praiseworthy example of everyday heroism if “performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope”  (The Gospel of Life, n. 86).  Some of these criteria include free and informed consent and the preservation of bodily integrity in the case of a living donor.  Particularly important for donation after death is that the donor is properly declared dead, either by cardiopulmonary or neurological criteria.  In order for the determination of death by neurological criteria to be morally acceptable, there must be rigorous testing that confirms the entire brain has irreversibly ceased to function.

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Palliative Care 

The challenges of serious and terminal illnesses can be overwhelming. Palliative care offers compassion, understanding, and expertise to treat the physical, spiritual, and emotional symptoms patients may experience so they may live life to the fullest extent possible. Palliative care typically combines medical skill with attention to the emotional as well as spiritual needs of patients. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the Church’s support for the seriously ill and encouraged the promotion of policies to create conditions where individuals may bear illness and the end of life in a dignified manner. The Holy Father said, “it is necessary to stress once again the need for more palliative care centres which provide integral care, offering the sick the human assistance and spiritual accompaniment they need. This is a right belonging to every human being, one which we all must be committed to defend.” Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for the Fifteenth World Day of the Sick, December 8, 2006.

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Alkaline Hydrolysis 

Alkaline hydrolysis is a method to dispose of human remains. In this process, the human body is reduced to bone ash and a sterile liquid substance through a chemical reaction. While the bone ash is returned to the decedent’s family, the liquid substance that is produced in the process is flushed away, usually into the public waste system. The Diocese of Manchester has opposed this process because Catholic teaching affirms the sacredness of every human life from conception to natural death. Every human person has an innate dignity that calls for the remains of every deceased person to be treated with the utmost respect.

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For more information, please contact:
Meredith P. Cook, Esq.
Director of the Office of Public Policy
(603) 663-0148
Twitter: @NHCatholicCitiz

Diocese of Manchester
The Catholic Church in New Hampshire

153 Ash Street, Box 310
Manchester, NH 03105-0310
(603) 669-3100
Fax: (603) 669-0377

© Diocese of Manchester