“Life is precious. Life is sacred. And that is how it should be kept. – Gordon B. Hinckley.
The subject of ending one’s life is, to say the least, a complicated and ripe subject with difficult questions. These questions should include whether someone – the individual or a medical professional – has the right to end a life. This question leads to yet another, what is the difference between euthanasia and suicide?
Broadly speaking, euthanasia involves a doctor intentionally ending a patient’s life – at the patient’s request – in order to relieve suffering and pain. Suicide is the end of one’s own life – without any assistance – and is often committed impulsively.
Having differentiated between euthanasia and suicide, one can address the philosophical and theological issues involved. Questions like when is life no longer worth living? Should the individual make the decision alone or does society have the right to intervene? Is ending your life immoral?
In the following article, I will discuss what euthanasia and suicide are and their history. I will then explore what the Catholic Church teaches about the end of one’s life.
Euthanasia and its history
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, once said that no contemporary problem exists in a vacuum; every problem has a long story. So it is with euthanasia.
The word itself is of Greek origin and translates to a happy death. Euthanasia seems to have been an issue dealt with (or at least considered) at different levels of ancient Greek culture. Nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greek poet Aeschylus wrote: “It was better to die once and for all than to prolong my days in anguish. (Oates JW, O’Neill E. The Complete Greek Drama. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. New York: Random House, 1938).
In ancient Rome, the Empire provided means by which one could seek permission from the Roman Senate to end one’s life. If the Senate deemed that the reasons for euthanasia were valid, the individual was authorized to commit suicide.
The influence of Judaism and then of Catholicism in the Roman Empire led to the questioning of the practice of euthanasia. Yet despite religious objections to euthanasia, the practice would endure throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era.
In the 1870s, it was suggested that doctors use chloroform to cause the death of a suffering patient. The view that doctors should make it easier for their patients to die has been vigorously opposed by the American Medical Association, saying such a policy was “an attempt to make the doctor put on the robe of an executioner” .
Nevertheless, the arguments for opposing euthanasia and suicide are ultimately arguments based on religion and philosophy.
Catholic teaching on euthanasia
Historically, Catholicism has opposed euthanasia as being incompatible with human good and a breach of responsibilities to God.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas espoused Catholic teaching on suicide in arguments that would also influence Catholic teaching on euthanasia. Thomas Aquinas condemned suicide as an act against the innate desire to perpetuate oneself, an act against the nature of human beings.
Moreover, euthanasia and suicide were a rejection of the gift of life and a violation of God’s authority over life. This position illustrates the attitudes towards suicide that prevailed from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the Reformation.
To understand the Catholic argument against euthanasia and suicide, it is necessary to understand what Catholicism asserts about the nature of human beings and life itself.
There are two aspects under which this subject can be considered. The first is to accept that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). While this can be said of all living beings, human beings are unique in that they can choose to cooperate with God and, in doing so, be “partners of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). From the Catholic point of view, God is not only the cause of life but its sustainer (Hebrews 1:3). It is therefore obvious that euthanasia and suicide are rejections of God’s desire for human beings to cooperate with Him.
Catholicism also affirms that euthanasia and suicide are an affront to human dignity. Human dignity rests on the fact that the value of a thing is directly proportional to its creator. For example, the value of a work of art is often derived from the eminence of the artist. As God is infinitely good, his creation has infinite value.
The second aspect under which to consider euthanasia and suicide is drawn from natural law. A simple reading of the fifth commandment (thou shalt not kill) seems to include taking one’s life within its scope. For these reasons, the Second Vatican Council condemned “all crimes against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, voluntary suicide…” (Gaudium et Spes, n° 27) .
In this book, I have tried to bring a Catholic perspective to the very difficult subject of euthanasia and suicide.
Because all life is created by God, it carries within it a divine spark. Thus, the sanctity of life, which rests on the unique relationship of the human person with God, is the basis of the views of the Catholic Church on the value of human life.
While modern people place great importance on freedom, the value of human life derives from the fact that our lives do not belong to us. In accordance with divine sovereignty, God alone is master of life and death, and the end of human life is not subject to a person’s free judgment.
I will conclude by quoting the Catechism: “Whatever its motives and its means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the life of disabled, sick or dying people. It is morally unacceptable. Thus, an act or omission which, by itself or intentionally, causes death to eliminate suffering constitutes 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 in which one may fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be prohibited and excluded. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2277).