Let Church Speak out on Death, Dying

By Burlis, Paul | National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Let Church Speak out on Death, Dying


Burlis, Paul, National Catholic Reporter


The century continues to be drenched in death. Increased population and sophisticated technology have facilitated mega death on a brutal scale. Back in the 1950s, there was much talk of collective neurosis in the aftermath of World War II and the atomic annihilations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People, it was said, had lost hope in the future. Living on the edge of the abyss, many gave themselves to short-term goals or hedonistic distractions.

While the threat of nuclear omnicide may have receded, we have recently witnessed genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in parts of Africa. We are over-familiarized with death on a massive scale, which yet we keep at a distance even as it deepens and intensifies the anxiety all persons experience concerning their own deaths, especially in times of grave illness.

The portrayal of death for entertainment, especially in movies and television, shows it in false and often glamorized perspectives that blunt the brutality of murder and violence.

In such a context it is not surprising that physician-assisted suicide is currently a major preoccupation. Its legalization is under consideration by the Supreme Court. People are crying out for assistance in coming to terms with death and especially with dying.

The Vatican and many bishops' conferences and individual bishops have updated traditional teaching on treatment of persons who are terminally ill but whose dying could be prolonged by various technologies. There is no need to rehearse this teaching, although one regrets some statements (such as the Pennsylvania Bishops' Conference and the Maryland Catholic Conference) that require artificial food and hydration for terminally ill patients and those in a persistently vegetative state up to the point of death. While each case should be judged individually, and with allowance for responsible decisions by patients and their families, it seems preferable to discontinue artificial feeding and hydration when the dying process has irrevocably taken over.

All agree that no one should be caused to suffer unnecessarily and that pain management may require dosages that indirectly hasten death in a way that is foreseen but not directly intended.

Aside from the moral reflections referred to, the Catholic church has superbly rich resources, sacramental, pastoral and liturgical, for dealing with sickness, dying, death and burial. Perhaps, at this time of anxiety and questioning, there is need to articulate this teaching in a way that speaks to contemporary needs and apprehensions. But this should, I believe, be done in living dialogue with the whole people of God and not just in issuing further pastoral statements, valuable as these are.

Would it not be extremely helpful for the bishops to issue a draft statement on the mystery of death in all its dimensions and complexities and then hold hearings on that draft in each diocese. …

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