Addressing suicide

Friday, September 06, 2019 - Updated: 2:12 pm

By David Mills

People got upset. Last week the Associated Press ran a story about an elderly man in Seattle who was dying of cancer and decided to get help to end his life. You can do that legally in Washington and people will help you.

The article indicated that Robert Fuller’s parish approved. It even included a picture of a priest blessing him after Mass, along with children in their white first Communion robes.

The priest, it turns out, was visiting that day. Someone told him a man near death wanted a blessing, so, of course, he blessed him. The pastor had tried to talk Fuller out of killing himself. The story explained none of that.

More and more people believe in letting sick people kill themselves with a doctor’s help. Those of us who have been with a dying friend can understand why. What does the church say about what’s called assisted suicide? The same thing she says about suicide in general, except that at least one more person is involved.

The Catholic Church teaches that killing yourself, with or without help, is a grave wrong. Our lives are not ours, they’re God’s. They’re not ours to take. As Catholics, we live in light of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and second coming. In other words, we know Jesus went through what we will go through. We trust God that all our suffering will be redeemed and transformed.

The church also tells us we can put our suffering to use. We can offer it up. As the American bishops said in their statement, “To Live Each Day with Dignity”: “We know as Christians that suffering itself need not be meaningless. … Suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of others.”

The catechism talks about this. The language sounds a little cold for such a painful subject because it’s a guidebook. It says suicide “is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.”

However, the church also teaches that many things may reduce the person’s responsibility. You have to be pushed very far to want to do that. We know, for example, how crushing depression can be.

The church insists there’s always hope. The catechism explains: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

A little cold, as I said, but it points us to warmth, to God’s love and mercy. In its formal way, the catechism shows us two ways God loves us. He gives us rules for living and he rescues us when we fail. In this case, the church tells us that killing yourself is a grave sin (the rule), but you may not be very responsible for it, and the God who loves you can save you anyway, and wants to save you (the help).

This teaching applies to assisted suicide. If you’re not allowed to take your own life, you’re really not allowed to help someone else take his. In his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” St. John Paul II said that by doing that you’re committing “an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested.” It’s “a false mercy.” You may think you’re helping, but you’re not.

There’s a huge amount more to be said about this. Assisted suicide’s only going to get more popular and legal in more states. Read the bishops’ “To Live Each Day with Dignity,” which is helpful (and short). You can find it on their website (tinyurl.com/assistsui), along with more helpful things. “Evangelium Vitae” offers a much richer reflection on the subject. It’s harder to read, but it’s worth it.

The bishops described assisted suicide as an offense against human dignity, which everyone should see. They also stressed how the practice would grow to include people who aren’t that sick and people the doctors think should die.

People do need help in dying, but help in dying well. It’s on us. “A caring community devotes more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives,” the bishops said. “True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem.”

Mills edits the Hour of Our Death website (www.hourofourdeath.org).

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