A case of euthanasia

This discussion at the facebook page called ‘Ask a Catholic Priest‘ is very disturbing. The same case is also discussed at ‘Ask a Catholic‘. Both discussions show that many Catholics, including some priests, do not understand the basic teachings of the Church on ethics.

… my Mother passed to the Lord on May 12 of this year. She was in the hospital with septic shock. After two days in the ICU the doctors told us that she could not live and would die within two more days, at the most. I immediately called for the Priest Chaplain, who came at once and gave her the Last Rites, thank God. Then the family, about 30 in number, started talking about removing life support (a ventilator, a kidney dialysis machine and she had 8 IV bags). I gathered them all together in the waiting room and explained that our Church is a life-affirming Church, that we don’t believe in killing sick people so that we may be out of our pain at their being sick. I begged my father to continue “extraordinary means” for up to the 2 days the doctors gave my Mom to live, telling him that it would not harm Mom in any way, she was not suffering, it would not be overzealous, burdensome or disproportionate and that it would be a demonstration of Faith and Hope to allow her do die in God’s time, not in my father’s time. He ignored me and terminated life support about 10 minutes later. Mom died about 15 minutes after that, with me holding her hand and praying. I think my father committed euthanasia and excommunicated himself latae sententiae, but I’ve spoken to 2 Priests and they just don’t want to listen to my argument that his intent was to cause death to relieve suffering, which didn’t exist. I am in turmoil and think he should be tried in a Church court, but it seems that with all the politically correct Priests we have here in southeastern Pennsylvania, that might not happen. Did my father terminate life support with the wrong intent and therefore excommunicate himself? How do I go about requesting a Church trial?

In my opinion, the continuation of life support for 2 more days is not extraordinary. This person died as a direct result of the removal of life support, rather than being allowed to die naturally, so the chosen act has an evil moral object and is intrinsically evil. This act was an act of murder, specifically the type of murder called euthanasia.

A medical measure is extraordinary if it provides no benefit to the patient, such as continuing life support when the patient is in a coma that is probably irreversible, or if it is a high-risk procedure that is unlikely to be of benefit. Continuing life support when a patient is not in a coma, even for weeks or longer is not extraordinary because the patient is daily benefiting from the procedure by being kept alive.

On the question of excommunication, the father would only be excommunicated latae sententiae if he committed formal heresy by knowingly rejecting the teaching of the Church against euthanasia. There is no automatic excommunication in the Latin Rite for murder or euthanasia, only for abortion. (The Code of Canon Law for Eastern Catholics does have a latae sententiae excommunication for any type of murder.)

My assessment of the comments:

“There comes a time when no amount of machines or medicines, prayer or supplications, can change the outcome.”

The fact that the outcome cannot be changed does not justify removing life support. Even if a person will certainly die in a few days, or a few hours, the direct and deliberate killing of an innocent human being is not justifiable.

“Euthanasia can be active or passive, direct or indirect. What he did was direct passive euthanasia.”

There is no such theological distinction in Evangelium Vitae (as this commenter claims) between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ euthanasia, nor between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ euthanasia. Euthanasia is a type of murder, which is intrinsically evil. All intrinsically evil acts have an evil moral object; all intrinsically evil acts are directly related to their moral object. The direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human person is murder. If a killing is morally indirect (not merely physically indirect), then it is not murder, but might still be immoral (based on intention or circumstances).

The distinction that is made in Evangelium Vitae is between euthanasia by commission or by omission. Removing life support is an act of commission, not omission. Euthanasia by omission would be to omit a life-saving procedure (not to withdraw an existing procedure). A sin of omission is an interior decision not to commit a morally-required exterior act. But in any case, both types of euthanasia are the grave sin of murder.

“the only one who can judge your fathers motives is your father and His God.”

As disciples of Christ, we are called not to judge persons (Mt 7:1). But we are called to judge acts, as to their morality (Lk 12:57; Jn 7:24). The morality of any act depends on three things: intention, moral object, circumstances. So we can judge an intention. Now if an intention is entirely interior, and is not expressed in any way, we would have no knowledge on which to base a judgment. But in so far as an intention is expressed, it can be judged. Also the person in question could reasonably ask his father his intentions in this grave matter, so again the intention can be known and judged.

On the question of forgiveness, the father must repent of this grave sin if he is to be forgiven by God, by the Church, and by his child. Until he repents, the child should be praying for him. Also, it is not hatred to recognize that a grave sin was committed and to condemn that sin.

“I suppose the ‘sticky point’ for me revolves around my father’s intent.”

Euthanasia is intrinsically evil because it has an evil moral object. Euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. If the intent is not known, then the act can still be judged as a type of murder, even if we do not know whether or not it is murder. Notice that the intended end is good in any case of euthanasia, to relieve suffering, and yet the act is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. A good intention does not justify an intrinsically evil act.

It is not clear to me whether the father had the good intention to relieve suffering or not. If he did, his act was the gravely immoral act of euthanasia. If he had a bad intention, such as to spare himself pain or money, then the act is still a type of murder, but becomes even more sinful by a bad intention.

“Removal of the ventilator would mean, not that you were killing her by depriving her of oxygen, but that the condition she had was killing her.”

This claim is absurd, and would in effect justify many different cases of euthanasia. The removal of a ventilator, except in cases of brain death or irreversible coma, kills the person by taking away a necessary and ordinary measure: assistance breathing. The patient has a right to life and to the available medical procedures that will continue her life. The deliberate removal of a ventilator from someone who cannot breathe on her own is a type of direct and deliberate killing, and therefore a type of murder.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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