Living and Dying According to the Voice of Faith: A Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of the State of Michigan

Brothers and Sisters in the Lord:

Grace and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.

We, the Bishops of the seven Dioceses of Michigan, are taking the unprecedented step of writing this joint Pastoral Letter to share with you our Catholic convictions on assisted suicide and the meaning of genuine compassion. We take this extraordinary step because there is so much confusion and anxiety on moral questions surrounding dying and death. These critical questions call for a decisive response—from us as shepherds, from our whole Catholic community, and from all who share our respect for the dignity of human life.

In recent years, our Great Lakes State has acquired a dubious distinction as a high-profile, publicity-driven laboratory for assisted suicide. Current legislative and initiative efforts are seeking to legalize assisted suicide for vulnerable patients. It is from our pastoral concern that we seek to help Catholics form their consciences at this critical time.

The Church’s teaching on human life is based on the voice of faith which echoes in every human heart, the truth that we have been created in God’s image and likeness and are stewards of His gift of life. For us Christians, this voice of faith is reinforced by the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church over the centuries. This divine and human wisdom provides the answers we seek to the challenging and troubling questions about how we are to die.

The prospect of our own inevitable dying, and watching our loved ones die, naturally raises anxieties and fears about our capacity to bear the physical pain and psychological stress that might be connected to the dying process. We fear the possibility of being alone and forgotten. We perhaps lack the appropriate information about the proper steps to take in planning for our future death and that of our loved ones. We worry about the financial resources required for long-term care.

For many people the dying process is especially frightening because it seems to be the final and most complete moment of isolation, separation and loneliness. We imagine being caught in unending physical agony with no one who could possibly understand, much less comfort us. Following the voice of fear, we run away from death and desperately try to put it out of mind and sight—as far and as long as possible. And when it seems that death can no longer be avoided, we are naturally tempted to consider a quick escape or exit.

In the face of these questions and struggles, as a Church we have the good news of our faith in the Death-Resurrection of Jesus. We proclaim a message of hope: no one has to die alone or unwanted, in terrible physical pain or psychological distress. We put our faith and hope into concrete expression by promising to share our life journey with one another. As brothers and sisters in a family of faith, we live and die together.

As we all struggle to live and die well, we, your shepherds, want to offer consolation and guidance through this Pastoral Letter and related resources published by the Michigan Catholic Conference. These educational materials cover in greater detail the Catholic understanding of dying and death and the related questions which we raise in our Letter.

With the title, Assisted Suicide / The Catholic Perspective, this multi-faceted material is available through your parish. The theme of the project is Faith unto Life, Hope unto Death, Love unto Eternal Life. If you have further questions or would like a more in-depth presentation on any of these matters, please contact your parish or the Michigan Catholic Conference (1-800-395-5565).

This Pastoral Letter is divided into two parts: First, we present the teaching of the Catholic Church on dying and death; then, we explain why we profess these beliefs and how we can find peace for ourselves and our family by living and dying according to the voice of faith.

Dying is Part of Living

We often think that death is the end of the story. We forget that it is foreshadowed throughout our life; dying is woven into the very fiber of our life from its inception. The voice of faith reassures us that we need not fear death but at the same time, because we are human, we can still be anxious about the circumstances of our death. Not knowing what the future may hold, we do not want to give up all the opportunities and gifts around us. When it is time for us to leave this world, it is fitting that we should want to die in a way that is meaningful, even beautiful and inspiring—for us and for all those we love.

In the dying process, there is still a great scope for personal choice and responsibility: How we face the mysteries of suffering, dying, and death makes a critical difference for us and for our loved ones who wish to offer us compassionate support. As stewards of the gift of life, we see every aspect of life and death as part of a larger picture and part of our ongoing relationship with God and neighbor.

When We Say “No” to Assisted Suicide, We Are Choosing Life

Choosing death by one’s own hand contradicts our deepest identity as sons and daughters of God. Such an action also conveys a tragic message to our family and friends—that we reject their genuine love and our solidarity with them.

Suicide—the conscious choice to destroy one’s own life—is always morally wrong. Concurring with someone’s intention to commit suicide and cooperating in the process can never be condoned. Such assisted suicide is a perversion of genuine mercy. It is especially tragic when undertaken by physicians whose very professional code charges them never to harm but always to respect life.

For several years there has been a continuing debate about the legality—and practice—of assisted suicide in Michigan. On the national scene, the United States Supreme Court upheld laws banning assisted suicide in the states of Washington and New York and said there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide. We need such a statutory ban in our own state: to protect the vulnerable, to prevent unscrupulous and unethical medical practices, to guarantee the best possible care for all, and to affirm the value of human life.

Above and beyond what civil laws may say, we Christians are ultimately responsible to God our Creator. As a Church, we definitively say “no” to assisted suicide because we say “yes” to life—from the first moment of conception until our last natural breath. Suicide in any form prevents us from fulfilling the plan God intended for us when we were given life.

Euthanasia, or so called “mercy killing,” may at first sound like an appealing form of death because it proposes to eliminate all suffering. Yet it is not at all what it seems! By definition, euthanasia is any action that of itself and by intention causes death so as to relieve suffering. As Catholics we believe euthanasia is morally wrong because it is the destruction of life. It also opens the door to other potential crimes against life, especially against those who are chronically ill or disabled. Euthanasia is unnecessary as well as wrong because suffering and pain can be relieved in many morally acceptable ways.

Our Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services state that, “Dying patients who request euthanasia should receive loving care, psychological and spiritual support, and appropriate remedies for pain and other symptoms so that they can live with dignity until the time of natural death.” (par. 60)

Our Respect for Pain Management

As Catholics we recognize that life is not an absolute which must be preserved at all costs. We are not required to continue life in each and every circumstance.

Dying patients and their caregivers have the right and responsibility to determine whether a particular means of treatment is necessary. If, in consultation with their physician, they rightly judge a treatment to be useless or unduly burdensome, patients are free to undergo the treatment or to forgo it. When death is clearly inevitable and close at hand, a patient or caregiver can make the decision to forgo aggressive medical treatment which would impose an excessive burden on patient and family. In such cases, the Church particularly encourages pain management and hospice care for the dying. Further, patients and their caregivers have a legitimate right to insist on the best and most effective pain management and treatment to minimize suffering. One may even legitimately choose to relieve pain by use of medications which may have the unfortunate side effect of decreasing consciousness or shortening one’s life, if this is done with the intent of relieving pain, and no other means are available to serve this goal. This is very different from the direct intention to take life, as in euthanasia.

As family and friends gather around a dying person, powerful and mysterious gifts often emerge—reconciliation and healing where once there had been brokenness and division; peace and acceptance for all that has been; and the opportunity to express gratitude for a life well-lived. For such things to happen, we need time and the presence of supportive family and friends. These gifts cannot come to fruition when someone dies all alone in a motel room or in the back of a parked van.

Our Living and Dying Are Interwoven

No human being has absolute control over his or her own life; God alone has dominion over all creation. Since many aspects of life exceed our immediate control, we have to learn to accept gracefully the limitations imposed by time and circumstances, relationships and commitments, economic realities and other factors. We find peace of mind and heart precisely when we come to terms with the fact that life is a mystery, a gift from God, a blessing over which we do not have complete control.

We are born into a social network, a family of one kind or another, and various communities. Our life story is interwoven with those of our families and communities; we are accountable to them as well as to God. Our individual identity and rights do not separate us from others but should call us into greater communion and solidarity with them.

Every right brings with it responsibilities for the good of all. Our decisions about life and death are never purely private matters for many other persons are necessarily involved—doctors, nurses, family and friends. Our choices in dying have a profound impact on those we leave behind. They also influence others who are suffering in body or spirit, especially the elderly, the dying, the chronically ill, and persons who are physically or mentally challenged. By the way we live and die we can inspire and console them—or we can add to the voices that tell them their lives are burdensome and without value.

Being allowed to choose death does not serve personal autonomy. Consider what has happened in the Netherlands where physician-assisted suicide has been legally accepted. Dutch policies allow doctors to suggest and encourage euthanasia while not requiring them to offer alternatives. In this environment, confused and fearful patients have found themselves being led toward suicide without their full awareness or consent. In thousands of cases they have been killed without any request on their part. The “right” to choose death does not enhance choice but only brings more death.

Here in Michigan we are all worried about health care, and especially about economic pressures. Sometimes it seems that people’s ability to receive good care depends a great deal on whether providers see it as cost-effective. In this climate, people rightly fear that decisions about assisted suicide would be driven by cost concerns. Even Dutch physicians who practice euthanasia have said its legalization would be disastrous in our country where millions of people struggle to obtain basic health care supporting life. How tragic it would be if suicide became the first and only “health” procedure to which Americans are guaranteed a “right!”

What Does Compassion for the Dying Mean?

Euthanasia may be seen as the “dark side” of our conviction that medicine should solve all our health problems. If we cannot cure the dying, we are tempted to say that the “next best thing” may be the “compassionate” step of eliminating their very lives. This is not a healthy understanding of the role of the healing profession. Nor does it reflect authentic compassion.

Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” to share patiently in the experience of someone else’s pain—be it psychological stress or physical trauma. In the Biblical language, compassion has to do with the heart or womb. The heart is moved to love because the heart senses its solidarity with the one in need. Compassion also has to do with the womb; in the depths of our being we make space for the other. True compassion does not eliminate the sufferer but seeks to relieve the suffering. While medicine cannot solve every problem, it can help us to provide patients with the best possible support and comfort.

Having shared in the experiences of many dying people and their families, Dr. Ira Byock, President of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, has listed the “five last things” which people most want or need at the end of their lives: granting forgiveness, seeking forgiveness, expressing gratitude, demonstrating love, and saying good-bye. The compassionate presence of family and friends sanctifies the dying process by allowing these steps to occur among loving, supportive people.

How Do We Understand “Dignity” and “Death With Dignity?”

Our technological society sometimes seems to tell us that our dignity comes from being useful. At the very least, we must be able to take care of ourselves. Yet our own Declaration of Independence teaches us that our dignity comes from having been created by God with unalienable rights. Our Christian faith says something much more: we have value and dignity simply because we are God’s children, and we have been redeemed by the Death-Resurrection of Jesus. These are permanent gifts which death cannot destroy.

Even when we are dependent on medical staff, family and friends, we still have much to give to others. Silently but dramatically, dying persons remind us of our ultimate human vocation and destiny; in their absolute dependence, they teach us that being, matters more than doing.

Facing our inevitable death, we recognize our ultimate solidarity with every other person. Dying and death are not the final separation from others, but rather something all human beings have in common. No matter what other differences may separate us, in dying we enter into the fullness of human solidarity.

The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago offered us an eloquent example of how life and death are connected. By the way he freely embraced the prospect of approaching death, he taught us that the way we die is very significant, even a source of potential blessing and peace—for ourselves and for others. Instead of thinking of death as enemy, he came to see it as friend. Handing himself over to the process of dying from cancer, he allowed his own life story to be immersed in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Forming Our Consciences

The voice of faith challenges us to form our conscience by standards which transcend the values around us. Hearing our daily news in “sound bites” and feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of issues and the pace of events, we can look for expedient ways of solving problems, losing sight of the necessary steps of conscience formation: prayer, reflection, and dialogue.

Among the steps of conscience formation, one of the most critical and often overlooked is the necessity of study. What we read and hear influences our thinking and plays a critical role in shaping our judgments of conscience. We are blessed to have many excellent resources which can help us understand the Church’s teaching on the dignity of life: the Sacred Scriptures; The Catechism of the Catholic Church; and our Holy Father’s powerful encyclical, The Gospel of Life. More than ever, we need these sure and steady reference points as we go through the lifelong process of forming our consciences.

In our haste and under pressure, we can easily make the mistake of identifying what is “legal” with what is “moral.” They are not always the same! There are times when our state and federal legislation fall short of a moral standard which upholds the value and dignity of human life. The authority of all earthly governments is limited; first and foremost, we are under God’s law.

Our Christian consciences compel us to act in accord with God’s will, with His plan for our well-being. In the depths of our hearts, the voice of God reiterates the same ageless message: “Thou shalt not kill.” So it is that we must take the time to form our consciences rather than “going with the flow” of what is apparently convenient or popular.

Right now, throughout our state, two contrasting voices vie for our attention and seek to win our allegiance.

The Voice of Fear Says:

Zealously guard control of your own life and destiny; you can keep ultimate control by choosing when to take your life.

Look out for what is most expedient for yourself; let others take care of themselves as they can.

Exit this world while you are still at your best; otherwise people resent you for being a burden.

The Voice of Faith Says:

My life is a great blessing and gift; I trust that God who gave it to me will not desert me.

I am a part of a great family of humanity; how I choose to live and die influences the life and destiny of my brothers and sisters.

I will enter the dying process with all its mysteries with trust in God and in solidarity with my brothers and sisters; I will die with the dignity of letting myself be loved unconditionally.

We urge you to listen to the voice of faith. Pray over our message and consider its application in your own life. Discuss it with your families and friends and in your parishes. Let this voice of faith take root in your heart so it may influence all that you do and say, especially how you view dying and death.

We commend all those engaged in every aspect of caring for the disabled, the chronically ill, and the dying: physicians and nurses, pastoral care chaplains, hospice workers and care-providers, faithful relatives and friends. In your reverence for the bodies and spirits of your brothers and sisters, you are continuing the healing ministry of Jesus.

The entire Church thanks you, our brothers and sisters who live with chronic limitations, and especially those now in the process of handing their lives over to God. Your courageous witness of faith in Jesus and the Resurrection gives us hope and proclaims a message beyond words. For us, your very being is a voice of faith!

For our part, in our own name and on behalf of all our clergy, we pledge to be available for prayer, dialogue and consultation; we want to share with you and your families the journey unto life eternal. Together, may we live with “faith unto life, hope unto death, and love unto eternal life.”

We are at a defining moment for our State of Michigan. Our situation challenges us to remain true to the values of life and faith. May we live according to the voice of faith!

For Reflection

  1. As I consider the prospect of death—my own or that of a loved one—what conflicts do I sense within my heart between “the voice of faith” and “the voice of fear?”
  2. Do I see how dying and death are a part of life itself? In what ways might I be “dying” right now?
  3. Have I ever thought of suicide? What anxieties may have prompted such ideas? How did I resolve them? Have I ever experienced suicide among my circle of family and friends? How did we deal with it?
  4. How do I deal with the problem of civil laws which do not agree with my religious convictions?
  5. Do I understand what the Church teaches regarding pain management? Have I ever thought about advanced medical directives? Have I discussed them with family or care providers?
  6. Do I ever think about how my dying and death would affect other persons? How have I been touched and changed by sharing in the dying process of another person?
  7. Do I understand freedom as being committed to someone or something beyond myself?
  8. How would I define compassion? Try to recall a moment in your life when you experienced tender compassion.
  9. What is my idea of “death with dignity?”
  10. How do I hear and proclaim to others the voice of faith, “Choose life?” What further study would I like to pursue regarding the Church’s teaching on dying and death?

For Discussion

  1. One of the great blessings of our Catholic faith is that we have communities that can support us as we face dying and death. How might our parish take better advantage of the “opportunity” death presents us for shared reflection and prayer?
  2. How can we help our fellow parishioners face the reality of death as a gift and a friend?
  3. How can we make clear that suicide is always wrong without judging someone who has chosen this unfortunate action? How could we help the family experiencing such a death?
  4. As individuals and as a Church, what action can we take with regard to laws in our country and our state concerning assisted suicide and abortion or other life issues?
  5. How can our parish better teach the Church’s position regarding pain management and options which are morally acceptable as we face the dying process?
  6. What insights and emotions did you, and others with you, experience when you were near someone who was going through the dying process?
  7. How can the Catholic Church help people better realize what true freedom really means?
  8. How can the Church help our society develop a fuller understanding of genuine compassion?
  9. Discuss the principles of hospice care and how it differs from traditional medical treatment.
  10. What can our parish do to affirm and proclaim “the voice of faith?” What further opportunities for learning and/or discussing life issues would be helpful for me, my family, and our parish?

Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited. Additional copies of this Pastoral Letter may be obtained by contacting Karah May at (517) 372-9310.