A heated debate: Is killing an acceptable end to human suffering?

(CNA) -Two worlds collided when scholars with opposite viewpoints met in Boulder, Colorado to debate the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

“We have a right to look at the proper response to someone who wants to commit suicide. We aren’t talking about general morality – we are talking about society and public policy protecting the general welfare,” stated Wesley Smith, a lawyer, author, and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, an intellectual arm of ministry on the campus of The University of Colorado Boulder sponsored the Feb. 4 event – their eighth annual in the ‘Great Debate’ series. The topic in question was “Should the U.S. legalize doctor-assisted suicide?”

The debate of this issue was particularly timely given Colorado’s HB 1135 bill, known as the ‘Colorado Death with Dignity Act,’ that would allow physicians to prescribe lethal pharmaceuticals to terminally ill patients in order to end their lives. The proposed legislation will be heard in committee on Feb. 6.

California is also considering an assisted suicide bill. Similar measures have already been legalized in Oregon, Montana, Washington, New Jersey, and Vermont.

The measures have sparked controversy, drawing opposition from disability rights groups who claim that they would discriminate against those with disabilities and dangerously fail to screen for and treat depression, instead sending patients home with lethal drugs. In addition, critics including the Catholic Church warn that such legislation would send the message to society that suicide is an acceptable way to deal with suffering.

Smith, who serves as a consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide as well as the Center for Bioethics and Culture, also voiced opposition to the legalization of assisted suicide, while Dr. Michael Tooley, an author and philosophy professor at CU Boulder, known for his works on causation and ethics, argued in defense of such measures.

“There are cases when a person is better off dead than alive, a view that should be determined by the actual person – a life that he or she would want to live or not, and it should not be a spur of the moment decision,” argued Tooley.

He said that physician-assisted suicide may be in the best interest of a terminally ill person when this decision to end the patient’s life does not violate the rights of the patient or anyone else, and when it would benefit – rather than harm – the person involved.

On the other hand, Smith held that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide would make a strong statement about the quality and worth of humanity in general, creating a slippery slope.

“When we say that someone is killable – which is what we are saying when we point to certain categories of people in physician-assisted suicide – we are creating a profound inequality of life,” Smith stated, arguing that if a terminally ill patient can be killed, than anyone who is suffering from back pain, depression, or chronic pain could have that same “right.”

In fact, Smith argued, physician-assisted suicide is not really about patients suffering from a terminal disease.

“This is not an issue that is about terminal illness at all. In fact, the concept of terminal illness is a kind of hide-the-ball circumstance, a false flag game to get people’s minds off of what’s really involved in this issue,” he said.

According to Smith, the bottom line behind physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia and related procedures is the premise that killing is an acceptable end to human suffering.

“Why now?” he questioned “When 100 years ago, at the time when people died in agony from a burst appendix, they weren’t talking about suicide and euthanasia. Now, when we don’t have to die in agony, we are talking about euthanasia?”

When society sees the elimination of suffering as the foundational purpose of society, he said, this mindset will spread to other circles – including those who suffer from depression, mental illness, and disabilities – giving them the green light to end their lives as well.

“There are a lot of people who suffer far more extremely than the terminally ill and for far longer periods,” he charged.

Even if physician-assisted suicide is initially legalized for only the terminally ill, it will eventually broaden to include the legal killing of those who are not terminally ill, Smith said, point to the examples of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Countering this belief, Tooley maintained that a person should be allowed to make the decision to die on the condition that they are terminal and have a good reason to end their life.

Although there may be dangers associated with legalizing assisted suicide, the professor argued that similar dangers are also presented when it is not legal.

“The rights of individuals are more likely to be violated when physician-assisted suicide is not legal rather than when it is permitted,” he said, and it is more likely for people to die from passive euthanasia if there are not laws mitigating choice in the matter.

“It should be up to the individual if his or her life is worth living,” Tooley maintained, because choice has a fundamental role in the issue, especially when this choice does not violate anyone’s rights, interfere with the patient’s obligations, or make the world a worse place.

“It does make for a far worse world because it’s not a choice,” rebutted Smith, “it’s the end of choice.”

“We should say no to their killing and yes to their caring,” Smith stressed, because the lives of people with sickness, disease, and disability matter.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”