Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

As we celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Archdiocese, we look back… on July 22, 1960 when ground was broken for St. Philip Church, East Windsor.
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Making Sense of Bioethics

Sometimes people will point out: “We euthanize our pets when they suffer, and they are clearly creatures of God, so why can’t we euthanize a sick and suffering person who wants it? It seems like we treat our dogs and cats better than we treat our suffering family members.”

The way we treat animals, however, should not be the measure of how we treat fellow human beings. We keep animals as pets, but we don’t do the same with humans. We use animals to make clothing and food, but we don’t do the same with humans. For all our similarities to the rest of the animal kingdom, we are aware of a fundamental difference in kind between ourselves and our furry friends. We are not meant to die just as animals do, or be euthanized as they are. The death of a human is a more complex event that has other important realities associated with it.

In euthanizing a cat or dog, an assessment about the nature of the creature is rolled up into our decision to proceed. Our pets seem to process the world around them mostly in terms of pleasure and pain, oscillating between these two poles as they instinctively gravitate toward pleasurable experiences, and engage in “mechanisms of avoidance” when they come up against pain or discomfort. Animals lack that uniquely human power to reason about, resign themselves to and allow good to be drawn out of pain. Animals can’t do much else in the face of their suffering apart from try to skirt around it, escape the situation or passively endure it. Because of our strong sense of empathy, humans find it more emotionally acceptable to “put the animal to sleep,” rather than watch it suffer a long and agonizing death.

But it would be false empathy, and a false compassion, to promote the killing or suicide of suffering family members. As human beings, we have real moral duties, and better options, in the face of our own pain and tribulations. On an instinctual level, we tend to recoil and do our best to avoid suffering, just like animals. But we are able to respond in a way that animals cannot, and even willingly accept our suffering, which is unavoidably part of the fabric of our human existence. None of us lives out our life without encountering some suffering, even if it may be purely internal, like the agony that comes from loneliness, isolation, depression or rejection. Every person must, in one way or another, confront suffering along the trajectory of life, and human maturity is partially measured by how we deal with suffering.

Those who live with serious disabilities, through their determined and beauty-filled lives and example, remind us every day of the good that can be drawn from suffering. The way they deal with their struggles manifests the depths of what it is to be authentically human. It is precisely disability, with its disfigurement, impairment, vulnerability and dependance, that challenges us to grasp the outlines of our human journey in a less superficial way, and to value human life and protect human dignity in sickness as well as in health. Victoria Kennedy spoke to this same point when describing Senator Kennedy’s final months:

“When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer, he was told that he had only two to four months to live. … But that prognosis was wrong. Teddy lived 15 more productive months.… Because that first dire prediction of life expectancy was wrong, I have 15 months of cherished memories. … When the end finally did come – natural death with dignity – my husband was home, attended by his doctor, surrounded by family and our priest.”

As human beings, we reach beyond the limits that suffering imposes by a conscious decision to accept and grow through it, like the athlete or the Navy Seal who pushes through the limits of his exhaustion during training. We enter into an awareness of something greater behind the veil of our suffering when we come to accept it as an integral component of our human condition. We also give positive example, strength and encouragement to the younger generation as they witness our response to, and acceptance of, our own suffering. Our trials and tribulations also teach us about our reliance on God and the illusions of self-reliance.

On the other hand, if our fear of suffering drives us to constant circumlocution and relentless avoidance, even to the point of short-circuiting life itself through euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, we can miss those mysterious but privileged moments that invite us to become more resplendently human, with all the messiness, awkwardness and agonies that are invariably part of that process.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

alertAt the Spring Assembly of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Joseph Tobin suggested that a delegation ofbishops go to the border to see for themselves what was happening to newly arrived immigrants, families and children. On July 1 and 2, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops conference, and five other bishops conducted a pastoral visit to the diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Stops included Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle with the community, a visit to anHHS/OBR Shelter and Mass for the families there, a visit to the Customs and Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX, and a press conference at the end of their visit. Catholic News Service accompanied the bishops on their border trip. 

  1. Backgrounder and analysis of the bishops’ trip to the border: Cardinal DiNardo told CNS, “You cannot look at immigration as an abstraction when you meet” the people behind the issue.
  2. At final press conference, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said the church was willing to be part of any conversation to find humane solutions because even a policy of detaining families together in facilities caused “concern.”
  3. Bishops serve soup to immigrant families at a center run by Catholic Charities and listen to their stories. Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera said he found hope in hearing the people in the room talk about what’s ahead. They didn’t speak of making money but of finding safety for their children, he said, driven by “the most basic instinct to protect your family.”
  4. At an opening Mass he Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine near McAllen, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville told Massgoers, “The bishops are visiting here so they can stop and look and talk to people and understand, especially the suffering of many who are amongst us,”

A delegation of U.S. bishops goes on a fact-finding mission at the U.S.-Mexican border to learn more about Central American immigration detention.

Following their visit to an immigrant detention center, U.S. bishops said they are even more determined to call on Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.