For the Juneau Empire, A BISHOP’S PERSPECTIVE
It was 11:30 p.m. and I had just finished watching the evening news before going to bed when the telephone rang.
At that time, I was stationed at Immaculate Conception Parish in Washington, Pennsylvania. Our parish was responsible for providing pastoral care to a 444-bed hospital. When I answered the phone, the nurse identified herself and indicated that a gentleman was close to death and would not last the night. His wife had asked that a priest come to provide the sacraments for him. I threw my clerical attire back on and went to the hospital. At the nurses’ station, I verified the patient’s name and situation, then proceeded to the room. It was there, in a dark room with a small light in the corner, that I found his wife sitting by his bedside. She was holding his hand and looking tenderly at her husband as he laid dying. I introduced myself and offered my support and prayers to her. She really didn’t take her eyes off her husband during our initial exchange. I placed my priestly stole around my neck and proceeded to celebrate the sacrament.
After our prayers, I asked how she was doing and if she needed anything. At that moment, she took her eyes off her husband and looked directly at me and said, “Father, it was over 50 years ago that my husband and I were married in your church. It was then and there that we vowed that we would celebrate our marriage in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. We have had some wonderful times and we have had some difficult times. We have three beautiful children who are on their way here from various parts of the country. While I do not know if they will arrive in time, I tell you that I will continue to sit here and celebrate this marriage of ours until death parts us.”
When I listened to her words of love and determination, I knew what I had just experienced was a moment filled with love and compassion. I considered myself privileged and honored to have experienced it.
Recently, people have paid renewed attention to the debate over physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in our society. Some have opted to take their own lives so as to “die with dignity” by avoiding pain and suffering that come from terminal illness. Physician-assisted suicide is wrong. As the American Medical Association notes, “physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”
While every illness and moment of suffering reminds us of our powerlessness and our limitations, it is an opportunity for good. When people suffer, it affords the family or the community the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with the ones who suffer and show charity for those who are ill. This expression of care and compassion binds members of the family and the community together in love — even within the global community.
In the Christian tradition, the cross of Jesus Christ is a vital part of life, for without it, pleasure becomes the highest ideal and the false criterion in making life’s choices. Moments of suffering are a part of life, and through them, we live life in the fullest sense. The mystery of seeing life through moments of suffering and sacrifice are at the core of our belief in Christ. This mystery applies to a mother who suffers great pain in childbirth or in the sacrificial love of a husband and a wife for each other in marriage. They bind themselves to each other “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do they part.”
For Christians, these sacrificial acts are rooted in the cross. Bearing various “crosses” in life is part of our human nature.
Supporters of physician-assisted suicide attempt to glorify “heroic” decisions to end one’s life or claim that such people are “champions” for the cause. This is alarming. In a state with a high rate of suicide, this is not helpful for our family members and friends who are struggling with depression, psychological and emotional trauma, disability or illness and are contemplating suicide.
Our culture has increasingly exalted the ability to shape our own destiny and be in control of our life choices and situations. This view means suffering and the process of dying is something to be avoided at whatever cost. These false beliefs are gravely misleading.
We are called to bring hope to those who suffer and are experiencing despair. Eliminating a person’s life or allowing them to take their own life cannot be construed as being charitable.
It’s sad that the proponents of physician-assisted suicide speak with shallow clichés couched in the language of dignity, choice and self-determination which ostensibly appear reasonable and compassionate. It is never morally permitted to intentionally take innocent life.
I am against any death sentence, whether it is imposed by the state, oneself or by a mother in the case of a child in the womb. Life is sacred and it is a gift from God, and our society should uphold and defend the dignity and sanctity of every life, from the moment of conception until natural death.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.