A Shepherd's Message: True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with the one who suffers. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands.

July 19, 2011

The Bishops of the United States met in June, as they do each year, for their summer meeting. There was some irony about the place of our meeting: Seattle, Washington, a state where physician-assisted suicide is permitted. One of the documents the Bishops’ Conference was considering was a formal policy statement on that very issue. As Chair of the Pro-Life Committee of the Bishops’ Conference, it was my responsibility and honor to shepherd the statement through its various stages and amendments to its final form and voting. I am pleased to report that the Bishops voted overwhelmingly for its approval.

The title of the policy statement is “To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician Assisted Suicide.” Up until now, the Bishops’ Conference as a whole has never issued a formal document on this issue, though many bishops in various states have written and spoken about it. Because of a strong resurgence in the activities of the assisted suicide movement in recent years and the targeting of a number of states to legalize this practice, the Pro-Life Committee last November urged the Bishops’ Conference to respond. The same Committee was charged to draft a policy statement and as its Chair, I must say the Committee worked with intense speed and thoroughness and was able to receive consultation from a number of other Bishops’ Conference Committees, as well as amendments from individual bishops.

Since it is a policy statement, the document is short and direct. Accompanying it is a website being developed to give further facts, documents, resources, questions and answers, much doctrinal background. The website will be available through the Pro-Life Committee website of the Bishops’ Conference and will be constantly updated with new information.

What does the document say?

It begins by speaking of the dignity of our life, our desire to live in virtue and security and our hope that we will end our days surrounded by loved ones and ready to enter with hope our final destiny with the Lord. Yet many people today are afraid of the dying process for a number of reasons. How we respond to people’s fears is an important factor in judging our society. At the very moment when people may feel their lives diminished or of lesser value, it is our responsibility to assist them and show them their intrinsic worth. This is especially true with the medical profession, whose role is to heal. If cures are not possible, good palliative care and assistance is most required. The campaign to legalize suicide with the assistance of a physician is a real contradiction of the true care we owe to someone seriously ill or dying – and a denial of the purpose of medicine and the medical art.

Society, medicine and religious faith have long rejected the idea of assisting in another’s suicide. Our own Catholic teaching views suicide as a grave offense against love of self, others and God, the author of Life. It is always a tragedy — one that a compassionate society should work to prevent.

The proponents of physician assisted suicide bring forth arguments from choice or freedom. The Bishops’ statement reviews them and shows them to be lacking in substance. Instead, such arguments offer a very narrow and distorted view of human freedom. Particularly disturbing are proposals for physician assisted suicide for the disabled, who even now struggle against great odds for their human rights.

The most profound reason why the campaign for assisted suicide is a threat, and not an aid, to human freedom has to do with the very reality of the human person. The founders of our country declared that each human being has certain inalienable rights that governments must PROTECT. The first right is the right to life. It is named before the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the condition for enjoying all other rights and all other goods. Other rights lose their foundation if life itself can be destroyed with impunity.

Our Christian faith goes even further in its understanding in seeing life as the gift of God, the Creator. Each human life is sacred. One cannot uphold human freedom by undercutting its foundation, the sacredness of human life, of each person.

The assisted suicide movement is a false compassion. It wants to eliminate suffering by eliminating the person. True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with the one who suffers. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands. It instead helps to meet the needs of physical pain and to overcome the greater pain, isolation and loneliness.

I hope you can read the whole statement and receive further information from the eventual website.

May God grant us true compassion and active engagement in showing love and support to the seriously ill. Our love will be stronger than death. †