Father Michael F.X. Hinkley
Between life and death, there is the hard-to-accept experience of dying. A dying person can know that death is near without accepting the dying process. It’s not uncommon to hear the soft and tired voice of a dying person adrift in question: “I’m ready to go, why won’t God take me now?”
No other experience of life is feared as much as the experience of dying. While our collective human spirit often explains death as a time of eternal peace, a final rest from the labors of life and the ultimate embrace of God’s love, we fear the lived experience of the dying process. This personal and collective anxiety affects our ability to make clear and sound health care choices at the end of life.
The ethics at the end of life are not a new concern for the Church. The moral tradition of our Catholic faith has long held that the experience of dying has great significance for both the one who suffers and society.
Pope Pius XII’s numerous writings and statements addressed to health care professionals present fundamental Christian principles essential to sound ethical decisions in modern medicine. As health care technologies began to develop, Pope Pius XII saw the need for further study and review of what these medical advances would mean for the human dignity of patients, especially those dying.
Concerned with the care of unconscious, dying patients, the Pope proved to be open to the empirical truths available to modern medicine, such as the question of when death occurs. The Pope’s position in 1957 left it to medicine to provide a clinical definition for death to be employed by both the health care community and Christian ethics. To be clear, the Pope saw the progress of health care ethics dependent upon moral theology’s providing needed ethical reflection. To this end, the Pope made a statement to an International Congress of Anesthesiologists: “It remains for the doctor ... to give a clear and precise definition of ‘death’ and the ‘moment of death.’”
The Church has consistently taught that at the moment of death there is a complete separation of the soul from the mortal body. Moreover, the Church maintains that death is an inevitable fact of our human condition and must be appreciated and accepted by the health care community as natural and not an admission of failure.
The acceptance of death as part of life is an essential part of the Church’s response to modern challenges in health care. In 1980, building on the foundation of ethical thought before him, Pope John Paul II called for a “re-personalization of medicine.” No matter what the medical condition of the human person, John Paul II, as did Pope Pius XII, found “appropriate” care must be provided the human person. Thus, even the dying person needs appropriate comfort care and must never be seen as anyone other than a human person with God-given dignity.
In his encyclical Evangelim Vitae, Pope John Paul II, explains that modern society is influenced by a pervasive “culture of death” that demeans human life and suffering, especially among the vulnerable. Here the Pope’s voice speaks to not only the health care professional, but also to all people of good will. He calls for all to realize that the way we care for the dying is a statement of who we are as a society.
Pope John Paul II states: “We never celebrate and exalt life as much as we do in the nearness of death and in death itself. Life must be fully respected, protected and assisted in those who are experiencing its natural conclusion as well.”
Mindful of the late Pope’s concern for protecting the dignity of the dying, the General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, held Feb. 24-27, 1999, called for a greater effort devoted to training and forming health care workers to exercise their vocations with “the proper human and professional competence” that entails appreciation for the meaning of life and respect for the dying. Part of this formation is to appreciate the importance of “the comforting presence” of the dying person’s relatives and caregivers. In this way, our common vocation to love is realized.
The ethical imperative to provide proper care and comfort for the dying person is supported with great eloquence by St. Augustine: “Let love stir your heart to action now, not to do what you do for display, but out of an inner richness of compassion, thinking only of your fellow human being who is in need.”
To care and comfort a dying person is to embrace the Gospel, bringing its truth to light in the anxious experience of dying. Thus, to continue to love with hope and charity admits the darkness of death’s approach is to truly live. This is how the saints face their death – anxiety gives way to faith’s anticipation of eternal life as death becomes a final passage of love eternal.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you I am going to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:1-2)
Father Michael Hinkley, parish priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, holds advanced degrees in spiritual theology and marriage and family studies, and a doctorate in moral theology.