Recently, Pope Francis met with a contingent of people who suffer from Huntington’s Disease, a rare genetic illness that causes movement, cognitive and psychiatric disorders. “For Jesus,” he told them, “disease is never an obstacle to encountering people, but rather, the contrary. He taught us that the human person is always precious, always endowed with a dignity that nothing and no one can erase, not even disease.”
I was struck by this because those who are tempted to use Colorado’s new physician-assisted suicide law cite their loss of dignity as a reason for doing so. They feel like their life no longer has value, that they are a burden, or that their suffering is too great. Priests throughout the archdiocese have also been thinking about people in these circumstances since the new law passed. They have come to me and asked, “How can I respond to someone who asks for the sacraments but has requested assisted suicide?” They recognize the seriousness of the matter for salvation of the souls involved.
These kinds of questions led the four bishops of Colorado to discuss how to respond in a way that encourages an encounter with Christ and offers true mercy, rather than the illusion of false mercy that assisted suicide presents. Our discussions resulted in a set of recently published guidelines for priests called, “Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit,” which this column briefly summarizes.
At the heart of these guidelines is the importance of true compassion and mercy, which always sees the dignity of the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and points them toward the good. When people describe someone or an action as “compassionate,” what they usually have in mind is pity – feeling sorry for the person who is suffering. But real compassion is deeper than that: when someone has compassion, they share in another person’s suffering as if it is their own and they are willing to suffer with the person. Likewise, mercy is not just removing suffering, it always desires the true good for someone and is willing to remove any obstacles to that good.
Assisted suicide, on the other hand, is a false mercy. While it may end suffering, it simultaneously introduces a barrier to a person’s salvation, which is the greatest good possible. With assisted suicide and the official request process it involves, one encounters an action that contradicts the foundational gratitude we should have for life as a gift from God and a rejection of the way Christ taught us to live and die.
On this last point, the way that Pope St. John Paul II died comes to mind. Although he was suffering, he loved his life until the end and did not reject it or end it prematurely. His final words captured his pursuit of the greatest good: “Let me go to the house of the Father.”
As my brother bishops and I thought about assisted suicide and the way it treats human life as disposable, we sought to guide priests toward a response that is compassionate, merciful, and rooted in the dignity of the human person on their journey to the Father.
For that reason, “Into Your Hands” emphasizes the need for priests to accompany people grappling with terminal illnesses, urging them to make personal sacrifices for those they encounter who have decided to commit assisted suicide. At the same time, the guidelines also say that unless a person is repentant and willing to carry out a penance, then priests cannot grant absolution for requesting assisted suicide. In a similar way, those who have not received absolution for requesting assisted suicide cannot receive the Last Rites or Viaticum, since they remain in a state of sin. Every Catholic needs to understand the gravity of assisted suicide and how it violates the 5th Commandment – “Thou shall not kill.”
The state’s acceptance of this law creates a culture that treats certain people’s lives as disposable and involves various sectors of society in facilitating their deaths. Because of the risk that people might believe the Church is supportive of assisted suicide, the bishops of Colorado have decided to allow burial but not funeral Masses for those who die by assisted suicide. The Church in her faithfulness to Jesus Christ and his teachings, can never give the impression of supporting sin and that which is opposed to the culture of life.
The Church desires to respond to those facing terminal illnesses with compassion that is grounded in the truth and points them toward the good. To that end, the archdiocese has compiled a list of Catholic hospice and palliative care facilities, which will be distributed to all parishes over the Memorial Day weekend. Those who have questions about this important issue can also visit www.archden.org/life for additional resources.
Let us follow the example of St. Mother Teresa who spoke to the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast about the importance of loving people when it hurts. She said, “How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? And so, it is very important for us to realize that love, to be true, has to hurt. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is not true love in me and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.”