By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — A conference gathered at the Catholic Center Oct. 13 to discuss something people don’t really like to talk about but most think about — death.
Michelle Strauss, administrative assistant of the diocesan Respect Life Office, gave a PowerPoint presentation on suffering and death, understanding the documents surrounding moral medical decision making, euthanasia and organ donation, and spiritual and material preparation for death, all from a Catholic Christian perspective.
Strauss, who holds a Master of Science in Studies of Marriage and Family from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, opened her presentation with the “Meaning of Suffering and Death.” Combining personal anecdotes with Biblical texts, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and selections from Dante’s Inferno, she talked about human dignity even in the face of suffering, secular and Catholic Christian perspectives of suffering and death, and reflections on heaven, hell and purgatory.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator who is its sole end” — in other words, life is a gift from God, from conception to natural death.
Suffering, whether moral or physical, is a part of the human experience, Strauss said. Because God is the source of human dignity, through God they maintain that dignity, which is part of love.
“He created Adam, and gave him all the animals and birds to name, master and care for, but Adam was still alone. So God put Adam into a deep sleep, and while he was asleep, took one of his ribs and created another human. When Adam awoke and saw her, he was ecstatic and joyful, saying, ‘At last! This one will be called Woman, for she is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.’ We were created in the image and likeness of God, just as Adam and Eve were, the likeness of the Trinitarian God. That likeness is a gift of self. We give of ourselves; die to ourselves, to be one with God. As humans we give of ourselves to another, we love each other, and often, nine months later, that love has a name.” She laughed and patted her midsection. “Yes, I’m sure you all can see I’m 5 months pregnant. That’s the relationship intended for us by God. Unfortunately that intended relationship was distorted by original sin. After the Fall, life became more worldly rather than Godly, and intentional reduction; a form of blindness, and incapacity to see the deep meaning of our bodies and our lives. Life became a more diminished existence.”
Men and women today witness, as Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially for the weak and defenseless. “In addition to the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war, new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale … Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person … whatever insults human dignity … all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.”
Pope John Paul II considered decisions that go against life arising from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future mitigate responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make those choices which are in themselves evil.
But, he added, “Today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social and political level, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the above crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights.”
Seen from a secular perspective, suffering is an absolute evil; death is either senseless, if it occurs before the person grows old or in an accident; or a right, to be acted upon as the person wishes.
The secular perspective doesn’t view death as the continuation or passage to eternal life. And suffering is not dignified in an “analgesic society,” Strauss said. Christians see suffering and death differently; to Christians suffering becomes redemptive and death is viewed as a passage to eternal life, she said. “But because original sin is still with us, it’s like we haven’t worked out for a few months. We just can’t lift its weight off our shoulders. It affects our perspective.”
Strauss pointed out that Christ won the victory over death on the cross, which sheds new light on the meaning of suffering and death. “It is through Christ that we see that suffering is not pointless and death helps unravel the riddle of life,” she said.
Strauss concluded the first part of the presentation with some reflections on heaven, purgatory and hell.
“We all want to be in heaven,” she said, but it takes a lot of work and as St. Augustine said, sin turns us in on ourselves. Hell was not created by God but by errant human freedom. She showed a slide of a medieval representation of hell: a huge, winged Satan encased to his waist in ice, and those condemned to hell enveloped in flames. “Purgatory,” Strauss said, “is also a burning, but it’s a redemptive, cleansing burning and it’s not forever. Someday we’ll be free and enter haven, Seen from that viewpoint, suffering and death can be dignified and a path toward sharing in the life of Christ.”
With the Catholic Christian perspectives of suffering and death as a backdrop, she then moved into moral medical decision making — until natural death. “Human acts are not just physical events,” she said. “They are outward expressions of a person’s choices, the embodiment of those choices. We don’t just think things and then they happen. In order for something to happen we must act. Our actions are intrinsically connected to our choices. Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in In Veritas Splendor that it is precisely through his actions, that “man attains perfection as man …our free choices do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but … give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his most profound spiritual traits.”
In other words, through our human acts we become more — or less — like God, Strauss said. “A moral act can change through its ulterior end,” she continued. “For example, singing an aria is good — singing an aria in the hall of a dormitory at 3 a.m. to disturb the peace is not good. In Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, William May states that ‘the morality of human acts is judged in totality. The object, end and circumstances must be in order for an act to be morally good, and the object takes primacy.’”
She urged those present to educate their consciences so that moral decisions were made for medical care when the time comes. She quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “‘The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.’ You know you’re doing the right thing.”
Blessed Pope John Paul II termed the attitude of society toward anything inconvenient, burdensome or painful, including unplanned pregnancies, pain and suffering, to be one of a culture of death. Men and women today are constantly confronted by that culture. The pope also urged men and women to “follow Christ – not just by imitation but by becoming conformed to him; hold fast to the very person of Christ.” By doing so, Strauss suggested, we can be confident our decisions, actions and choices are the right ones.
She discussed ordinary v. extraordinary medical care. Ordinary medical care involves nutrition and hydration, even if given by artificial means, for as long as the person can assimilate food and water. Some medical procedures can be considered extraordinary and undertaken only if there is a reasonable chance of success and if the treatment is not burdensome either physically or financially to the person or the caregivers. It used to be that when a person became aged or ill, death was knocking on the door. That’s not the case today. “Death is more complicated than it was in the past,” Strauss said.
Euthanasia, the intentional killing of a person by an act or omission, has a long history. It was practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, Socrates and Hippocrates all wrote about euthanasia. The practice of mercy killing, putting someone out of their misery, was present in the Middle Ages and during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century through today. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith defines euthanasia as “…an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated.”
Strauss quoted Blessed Pope John Paul II in Evangeliam Vitae: “At the other end of life’s spectrum, men and women find themselves facing the mystery of death. Today, as a result of advances in medicine and in a cultural context frequently closed to the transcendent, the experience of dying is marked by new features.” He went on to explain that suffering seems unbearable in a culture that values life only if it brings pleasure and well-being, and death is senseless if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and interesting experiences. But, death becomes “a rightful liberation” once life is no longer meaningful due to pain and suffering. Seen that way, the temptation is there to have recourse to euthanasia, to take control of death or bring it about before its time – “gently ending” one’s own life or that of others.
The means of euthanasia vary. Certain drugs are injected, dehydration and starvation, or suffocation by gasses or plastic bags. But, no matter how euthanasia is performed, the taking of life, whether as an act of violence or to bring death before its time, is not a moral act.
Strauss then discussed organ donation. The Church says “organ transplants are in conformity with moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent … or if brought about by the disabling mutilation or death ….”
For an organ transplant to be moral there must be informed consent, Strauss said. There are registries, including on the back of a drivers license, through the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act or lawful organ procurement organizations.
Whether consenting to an organ donation, accepting or refusing certain medical treatments, documentation is needed. Approaching death is an emotional time for a person and for those who love that person. Conversations about death and dying should take place before that time arrives. There are a number of documents available: “5 Wishes,” living wills, advanced directives, Medical Power of attorney, Health care agents or proxies. Living Wills are signed, witnessed and notarized documents that allow a patient to direct that specified life sustaining treatments be withheld or withdrawn if the patient is in a terminal condition and unable to make health care decisions.
Living wills and advance directives sound good, but there are risks, Strauss said. It is impossible to determine in advance exactly what your ailment will be or the circumstances surrounding the ailment. Living wills are often developed by those promoting euthanasia and the terminology is vague and changeable.
By appointing a health care agent or proxy, you appoint someone you trust to address health care issues as they arise in the future. A health care agent is a person designated by the signer of a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, a signed notarized or witnessed document in which the signer designates an agent to make decisions in the event the signer becomes incapacitated. In the State of Missouri, that agent is required by law to be age 18 or older and likely to be available in the distant future. He or she should know the Catholic Church’s teachings, speak regularly with the person who designated them before the situation becomes critical.
The Missouri Catholic Conference, assisted by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Thomas More Society and the Kansas City- St. Joseph diocesan Respect Life Office, recently introduced a new durable power of attorney for health care document that was approved by all four Missouri bishops.