Since suicide is a sin, and therefore, assisted suicide is a sin, can and should a priest feel free to accompany someone dying of assisted suicide?
The simple answer to both questions is yes, because the priests (and Christians in general) should give comfort to the dying. And yet, many would object that by doing so, priests would be seen as sanctioning suicide. Shouldn’t they do everything they can do in order to detour people from committing suicide?
When dealing with these questions, we must first recognize the problem with the term “assisted suicide.” What exactly is it that we are talking about? When we look into the question, it is obvious that there are many equivocations which are involved, and what some people would label as “assisted suicide” would not actually qualify as to what is normally meant by moral theologians when talking about suicide. Catholic moral theology says that a patient is not required to have extraordinary medical interventions to prolong their life. That is, Catholic teaching does not promote a vitalism which says we must indefinitely prolong life by any means possible.
When it is possible for someone to have their life prolonged by such extraordinary means, but they do not accept it, their actions are not to be seen as suicide, even though by their action (or lack of action), they hasten their own death. Even if, by their inaction, they can be said to be involved in their own death, it is not suicide because they are not unnaturally hastening their own death. But many people, looking at it in regards the outcome, see it as a form of suicide, and see it as “assisted suicide” when a physician supports them in their position and does not give them extraordinary care to prolong their lives. This is certainly one of many problems which arise when the notion of “assisted suicide” is brought up. And it is not an easy issue, because it raises a different question, one which physicians find difficult to answer: what medical measures are extraordinary, and which are not? The answer depends upon the circumstances involved, for what can be extraordinary for one person is not for another. Measures which determine what is extraordinary include, but are not limited to, factors such as: the economic burden involved with the case, the amount of pain generated by the care, and the likelihood that a particular treatment will be successful. Extraordinary measures are often disproportionate to the results, and lead to a drastic degrading of the quality of life which is preserved, such as being hooked up indefinitely on a machine while being brain dead.
Thus, sometimes something as simple as providing hydration and nutrition through a feeding tube can be morally necessary, while in other circumstances, it would represent extraordinary measures which a patient does not have to accept. From one standpoint, it would appear the same thing is being done, and some, looking at that standpoint, would decry the just removal of a feeding tube as murder (or suicide if it was something the patient willed). But if it is demonstrably an extraordinary measure, the requirements for it as being what is condemned are not to be found. In such a situation, even if someone would call the removal of feeding tubes, accomplished through a living will, “suicide,” and indeed, “assisted suicide,” a priest should not only feel free to accompany such a patient, if they are asked and capable of doing so, they should feel obligated to do so as a part of their pastoral activity.
This, then, brings us back to the question, what exactly is the kind of “assisted suicide” which is objectionable? Simply put, it must meet the conditions involved in a morally unjustified form of “suicide” while also demonstrating some secondary medical means is given to help with that “suicide.” There are many ways medicine can be used in order to provide for such a death, but what is most common is death through chemical means, whereby a person takes of some sort of drugs which induce a coma, after which the physician provides another drug which leads directly to their death. But it is not the only way such a death can be obtained, and it is possible other “medically” induced deaths allow for someone to be more conscious on their way to death, and for them, the presence of a priest can be quite beneficial if they are allowed to be by their side.
We must be sure of what we mean when talking about suicide. Conventionally, and simply put, many people say that suicide is merely that action which directly leads to one’s own death. But if this is the case, if this is what is meant, then not all so-called suicides are objectionable: anyone who puts themselves in harm’s way to protect someone else, knowing that they will die as a result, can be said to have acted to hasten their own death, but by laying down their life for someone else, the death can be seen as a secondary effect and not receive moral condemnation. The moral problem involved with suicide, what makes it morally objectionable, is that life itself is a good, and so no one has a right to take the life from anyone, including oneself. But for someone to be culpable for their actions, they must be in the right frame of mind and have no outside coercion for them to act in such a way that they take their own lives. With these qualifications, it is easy to see the problem involved in judging any particular suicide, medically induced or not: we are unable to know the state of mind of the person who commits suicide, to know if they truly act with full knowledge and understanding of what they are doing, and with the freedom needed for their actions to be properly attributed to them. Having come to understand this difficulty in judging suicides, the church has wisely become much more pastoral instead of legalistic in dealing with them, which is why the church now allows funerals and burials for those who are known to have killed themselves. What is not known is the internal disposition, and that is what is needed to judge whether or not a particular suicide can be classified as a mortal sin. This is not the only problem. Even if a particular act of suicide was willed with perfect freedom by someone who truly understood their actions, in the time between their actions which lead to their death, and their death, nothing is known as to whether or not they had a change of heart but could not fix it; that is, it is possible for someone to repent before their death and so be forgiven for what they have done. If a priest were beside such a person, who truly repented, even if the priest cannot save their live, they could still help in their salvation, just as it would be good for anyone who is dying to have a priest beside them helping them prepare for their death.Thus, if non “assisted suicides” can be given such pastoral leniency and shown compassion, as it is often believed that they were not likely to have been in the right frame of mind, it is even more apparent, when dealing with so-called “assisted suicides” that the church needs to show mercy and comfort to those who are dying as a result of such a medically induced death. The reason why should be obvious: those who die from “assisted suicide” have usually had many years of pain and anguish, which would have caused all kinds of negative psychological influences, influences which would suggest the person is not entirely culpable for what they have done. Through the pain and suffering, and the changes such pain and suffering has done to them, they might wrongly believe that their life is being prolonged by extraordinary means, and so through their ignorance, they would not be culpable for what they have done to them to deal with their debilitating condition. It is impossible for us to know how mentally sound their decision was, and how free they were in their actions, to properly judge their guilt. When that is the case, the church must follow the pastoral approach it now gives to suicides in general. Priests should be compassionate and accommodating, helping those who ask for their help, even if the person has done something which has led to their own early death. This means that priests not only can, but should, accompany a person dying by “assisted suicide” who asks for them to be there, not because the priest accepts the death itself, but because they care about the wellbeing of the person and their spiritual fate. This is the same reason why the church permits priests to accompany those who are about to be executed: the church is not saying that the priest accepts the death penalty, but rather, the church cares about the state of the soul of the person who is about to die. And as the comfort shown to the condemned prisoner can actually lead to metanoia, so the comfort shown to someone who unjustly engages “assisted suicide,” while they are alive, can help lead to metanoia and bring a wounded soul back to grace before their death.
In this way, it is possible, not only to say priests should feel free to be beside someone dying of some sort of “assisted suicide,” there might be good reason to say that, as far as it is possible, priests should be accompanying such persons. As it is a virtue to comfort the afflicted, especially those who are dying, so priests are following their pastoral mission and the virtues involved with it by being with those who are dying because of “assisted suicide.” For then priests are imitating Jesus who came, not for the perfect, but for the imperfect, for the sinners needing grace. And if someone were to say priests, by accompanying those who commit suicide in any form, join in the guilt of such suicides, they only show the kind of legalism which those who opposed Christ used to condemn him, for Christ was charged as being a sinner because he accompanied sinners in his ministry. As Christ certainly is not guilty of sin, such a line of reasoning, known as guilt by association, is shown to be false and not worthy of consideration. Christ didn’t sanction the sins of the sinners he associated with, and priests, therefore, are not sanctioning suicide, even if they accompany someone partaking of “assisted suicide.”
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