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Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo

The Church can help the dying

Voices July 9, 2018

Suffering patients can be offered the the sacraments, by answering moral questions about treatments, and by responding to requests about planning the funeral Mass, writes Msgr. Lopez-Gallo.  (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, is very concerned about the consequences of the legalization of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide by the Supreme Court of Canada, which has created great confusion over the morality of such choices.

Last month he sent out to all parishes a pastoral letter on the issue, which I reproduced in my last column along with the first of five questions he dealt with in liturgical guidelines issued last fall.

The second question is: “What does the Church do on behalf of the suffering and dying?”

The Archbishop explains: “In imitation of Jesus’ own actions of caring for the sick and suffering through her health-care mission, the Church has distinguished herself by doing good to those who suffer, and she teaches all of us to do good with and through our suffering. Loving care for the sick – whether family, friend or stranger – marks the life of believers and ennobles human heart.”

He continued:

“Suffering can be alleviated and transformed, even when a cure is impossible or death is imminent. As Catholics, we also believe in the best possible symptom control and pain management in such circumstances. We are strong advocates of making palliative care more accessible to all Canadians. In good conscience a patient may request all the medication needed to control pain; but to request death by euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide because it involves another human being in this case, medical professionals become the patient’s agents or proxies in taking life. This entails the moral abuse of other persons, and this too is objectively sinful.”

The physician who euthanizes or who assists a suicide is an accomplice who morally commits a felony. The same is applied to a doctor or nurse who performs an abortion. “A person who actually procures an abortion incurs an ipso facto excommunication” (canon 1398). Sometimes it is the mother herself who makes the decision and asks for the child to be eliminated.

The third question is: “What will the Church do to help me when I am coping with a terminal diagnosis?”

“When our own life or the life of a loved one is threatened by illness, accident or advanced age, the best thing we can do is to call for a priest as soon as possible. He will be able to offer the merciful love of Christ in the healing power of the sacraments. He may also help to answer any moral question about medical treatments and give the reassurance needed to overcome spiritual suffering. Moreover, he may answer concerns and requests in planning the Funeral Mass.”

The archbishop continues, saying: “We should never be afraid of calling for a priest’s services. Even though a person may have lived apart from the Church for a long time, Christ’s arms and his heart are always open.

“If a Catholic brings up the idea of physician-assisted suicide as a potential choice for himself or herself, the priest must do everything in his power to explain the Church’s teaching and gently move the person to accept natural death as essential to the duty of accepting God’s plan for our lives, a plan which includes death. No human person is the arbiter of his or her own life or death.

“We do not choose when we come into this world; we do not have the authority to choose when we leave it. God alone is life’s Author; we may never force his hand. A priest can help the patient and family to experience the loving presence of Jesus in the mystery of the Cross, and find strength to accept ‘a death like his.’ He will help the patient to prepare for the ‘life of the world to come’ and he will also dedicate his own prayers and penance to dissuade the sick person from death by euthanasia or suicide.

“If the person cannot be dissuaded and does choose either euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, the Church still hopes that God will be merciful and that the dying person will turn to him in repentance, seeking forgiveness in the last moments, even without the visible help of the sacraments. For all God’s children for whom Christ suffered and died, we pray ‘Lord, have mercy.’”

I am sure that whoever reads these guidelines written by our archbishop will receive great help for himself or for other people who will find in it the sound teaching of our Christian faith. I will always remember how comfortable and content I was when my friend Mustapha, a practising Muslim, showed me an issue of The B.C. Catholic. I asked him if he was thinking of becoming a Catholic and he replied: “No, Father, but I like to learn how great is the mercy of God, and Pope Francis describes it so beautifully.”

[To be continued.]