The Sick and Dying
“They stripped and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead.”
Today’s gospel speaks to us of Jesus’ great concern and love for the sick and dying. Throughout His public ministry, Jesus’ compassion and love for the sick shines through. In several instances, we read how Jesus cured the sick and restored them to friendship with His Father. The Church continues Jesus’ ministry of caring for the sick and dying with deep compassion and respect for human dignity.
The Church especially continues Christ’s ministry to the sick and dying through the Sacraments. In offering the Sacrament of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and Viaticum, which is Holy Communion of the Sick and Dying, the priest brings to those who are ill the loving and redeeming embrace of Jesus. In these moments rich with grace, the priest acting in the Person of Christ brings to the patient, forgiveness, inner healing and strength for what lies ahead. Together with deacons, religious, lay ministers, and volunteers, the priest shares with the patient, and with the patient’s family, the Good News of Jesus, the Gospel of life and salvation. Through the grace of God, patients are enabled to unite their sufferings with the Lord’s so as to share His everlasting joy and glory. So also the Church reaches out to families facing the serious illnesses of loved ones with deep respect for the precious gift of life and with the hope for the gift of eternal life.
The principles at the heart of the Church’s moral teaching on the ministry of the sick and dying are important expressions of Christian reverence for the gift of human life. We believe that each person is created in God’s image. By taking on our human nature, that is, by fully sharing our life, the eternal Son of God taught us how precious each human life really is in His Father’s eyes. Our God in heaven knows and loves each one of us. What happens to us on this earth matters to Him. The Lord is especially close to the vulnerable and suffering. Contemplating our crucified Savior, we can regard no human life as useless or burdensome. Each person is precious in God’s eyes and called to eternal life and joy.
This is the basis for the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person and our duty to foster and sustain human life. Our faith teaches us to see human life as a precious gift from God. We are not its owners, but its guardians. As such, we must oppose direct attacks on innocent human life. In that spirit, the Church proposes six moral principles to guide our choices about medical care and treatment in time of serious illness and imminent death. The first four are self-explanatory. I will elaborate on the last two.
First, our most basic God-given right is the right to life. Secondly, we do not have the right to take our own lives, nor directly to bring about the death of any innocent person. Thirdly, our Christian faith reveals the true meaning of human suffering. Fourthly, each of us is obliged to care for the gift of life and health which God has given us.
Fifthly, no patient is obliged to accept or demand useless medical interventions. What is meant by “useless” medical interventions? A medical treatment is “useless” to a particular patient if it cannot bring about the effect for which it is designed. Such an intervention is both ineffective and medically inappropriate. For example, if a patient is given a drug to fight an infection, but subsequently the infection proves resistant to the drug, this proposed remedy is useless and need not be provided. On the other hand, a medical treatment should not be deemed useless because it fails to achieve some goal beyond what should be expected. For example, a feeding tube is used to provide nutrients to a patient no longer capable of eating. The tube is useful when it delivers these nutrients to the patient who, in turn absorbs them. A feeding tube must never be described as useless if the nutrients it provides are unable to cure an underlying medical condition, like cancer, or coma, or some other serious medical condition. The feeding tube should not be expected to restore the patient to consciousness or to remove any other debility not related to the need for nutrients. Patients should be guided by a presumption in favor of medically assisted feeding of food and water, unless the patient becomes physically incapable of absorbing the nutrients the feeding tube delivers. Food and water must never be withdrawn in order to cause death.
And finally, there is no moral obligation to employ useful but excessively burdensome medical interventions. A seriously ill patient is not necessarily obliged to employ every possible medical treatment even those which promise some benefit. In many cases, there is no obligation for patients to accept interventions which are “too” burdensome. “Too” burdensome, is defined as “too painful,” too damaging to the patient’s bodily self and functioning,” “too psychologically repugnant to the patient,” “too restrictive of the patient’s liberty and preferred activities,” “too suppressive of the patient’s mental life,” or “too expensive.” These are often referred to as the “terrible too’s.”
While the most basic principles of Christian morality oblige us to preserve human life, nonetheless, individuals need not undertake excessively burdensome efforts to preserve their lives. A patient may reach a morally acceptable decision to forego a potentially beneficial medical treatment proposed by his or her doctor because the treatment itself is too burdensome. For example, a person may judge in good conscience that the pain and difficulty of an aggressive treatment for terminal cancer is too much to bear, and thus decide to forego that difficult treatment. Here, the ethical judgment to be made is whether the benefits of a proposed treatment warrant the significant difficulties and suffering which it may bring to a particular patient.
Conversely, it is always morally wrong to forego a potentially useful medical treatment because of a decision that one’s very life is too burdensome and thus no longer worth living. Such a decision opens the door to euthanasia. We should not stop medically useful interventions because we are tired of living or feel we no longer have a contribution to make. Nor can we in good conscience elect to forego a medically beneficial treatment in order to avoid the suffering which the disease itself brings.
In short, patients may morally decide that a particular form of treatment is excessively burdensome, but they may never morally decide that their very lives are so burdensome that they may forego the normal medical means of sustaining their lives. Nor may anyone ethically make such a decision for anyone else.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our prayer today dear friends in Christ, is to ask Our Lord and Our Lady for the special grace to stand strong in our Christian witness in the face of challenges to the worth and dignity of human life. For we must believe that this teaching reflects the wisdom and love of God, the author and loving Sustainer of all life. As believers, we do not deny the reality of suffering or despair in sickness and at the approach of death. Faith in Christ eases the pain of human separation and anxiety over our mortality. For we are daily challenged to listen to the words of St. Paul, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We know that Jesus, the Bridegroom, is coming for each of us at the hour of His choosing. We await and prepare for His arrival, not in fear, but full of expectant hope. We are confident that at His gentle approach every tear will be wiped away by the One who has conquered sin and death and made us heirs to eternal glory.
Mary, Health of the Sick, pray for us!
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Cycle C
Sunday, July 10th, 2016