BLOOMFIELD – What started as Father Daniel A. Cronin’s doctoral dissertation has been published as a book and republished 50 years later as a gift to the author, who now has the title archbishop emeritus.
Called "The Moral Law in Regard to the Ordinary and Extraordinary Means of Conserving Life, the original dissertation is still the seminal sweeping overview of Catholic moral teaching on ordinary and extraordinary means of conserving human life.
" … Archbishop Daniel Cronin’s survey of moral theology on the topic of ordinary and extraordinary means remains the standard reference work on this critically important distinction for end-of-life decision making," writes Marie T. Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy and ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, in the foreword.
Dr. Hilliard also writes that the work has been "[c]ontinuously cited since its original publication."
After the dissertation was first published in book form in 1958, it later was included in another book that was published in 1989. The new edition is titled Ordinary and Extraordinary Means of Conserving Life. Its editor is Edward J. Furton, director of publications at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
In his writing, Archbishop Cronin applies Church teaching to medical treatment from the 13th century on. He provides specific examples while looking at how, through the years, advances in medicine relate to the obligation to preserve life.
He said he chose a topic that hadn’t been researched before, to his knowledge.
"My only intention was to do a good job, that’s all," Archbishop Cronin said in an interview at the Transcript. "I had absolutely no intention of this becoming a landmark work or something they’d be reprinting 50 years later. I wanted a passing grade. A little bit better, if possible."
The then-Father Cronin, who was ordained in 1952, was sent to the Gregorian University in Rome by his Archbishop, Richard J. Cushing of Boston, to earn a doctorate in sacred theology.
"This is basically a history of the teaching on ordinary and extraordinary means on the part of the Church down through the centuries," the archbishop said with a glance toward the book.
"I actually started out with ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ so I went way back.
He said that the dissertation required him to seek the great theologians’ references to the topic going back to the late Middle Ages.
"I went through all their writings, which was difficult. You didn’t have copy machines; you didn’t have Google; you didn’t have anything. I had to take all those old tomes and go through them line by line to find out if they said anything about this subject.
"Every once in a while, they’d have a little section on ordinary and extraordinary means. And I’d take that out" for the dissertation, he said.
Most of his research took place in the Gregorian library, where he was not allowed into the stacks; he had to ask a Jesuit brother to get the book he needed.
"I would be sitting there for hours after hours, copying this stuff, then reading it over again to make sure that it was the correct rendition of what they said."
Then-Father Cronin applied those moral teachings to medical treatment through the years.
"Of course, in those days, it was interesting to see what they used to consider an extraordinary means," he explained at the Transcript. He used amputation as an example of a procedure that was regarded as extraordinary in the Middle Ages.
"And another thing, too, is the pain and suffering, which is one of the excuses that render a [procedure] extraordinary and therefore not obligatory, will probably disappear because of things like arthroscopic surgery. In the old days, they had to slice you open, but now they make three holes and they’re in the next room working the machines."
The end product of the author’s research is a "superb historical survey," Dr. Furton says in the book’s preface, "but given how rapidly medicine is evolving, it is also an interesting historical document itself. The work appeared in the 1950s, and it is striking to see how much things have changed in little more than half a century."
He goes on: "Having reviewed historical teaching on the difference between ordinary and extraordinary means, Cronin was well positioned to counsel physicians against this ‘life at all costs’ attitude. The physician has no moral obligation, he writes, to use all available means to extend life, but only the obligation to use those measures that constitute ordinary means of treatment."
Archbishop Cronin’s dissertation was written before any pope had addressed ordinary and extraordinary means. Pope Pius XII as the first to address the subject, in a speech to a medical group in November 1957.
"No papal documents before or since contradict Cronin’s work," Dr. Hilliard says in the foreword.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center published the book for the 50th anniversary of the original printing of his dissertation and the awarding of his doctoral degree in sacred theology, but it only became available several months ago.
Archbishop Cronin said he is happy that other scholars still can have his "500 years of theological history in front of them, right in this book."
"It was a labor of some commitment but it was also a labor of love," Archbishop Cronin recalled.
After defending the dissertation in Latin, he was awarded his doctorate summa cum laude.