Enabling a Good Death

On a flight back to Tasmania recently I sat next to a young Protestant pastor. In our conversation he commented that he admired the Catholic Church for what it could offer to people as they were dying. He has recently spoken with a Catholic priest on this ministry and was greatly impressed with the pastoral approach offered by the Catholic Church.

It is clear that with the great scientific and technological advances humanity has been able to achieve over the last centuries our society has increasingly lost the full meaning and significance of death. The dying process has been largely institutionalised, removed from the context of home and family, and as something we grow up seeing first hand.

For the Christian however our whole life, properly understood, is really about our preparation for death, when we will face Divine Judgement. It is the one fixed thing in our lives we know we cannot avoid. But of course for us our physical death is not the end, rather, it is, we hope, the point in time where we will be invited to share eternal life with God in heaven.  

For this reason the Church has from its very beginnings developed a strong tradition of caring for people who are dying and for their families.  This is still the case today where Catholic providers deliver up to half of all palliative care services across Australia. The approach taken by these Catholic providers to palliative care is oriented to caring for and accompanying a dying person (whether Catholic or not) in the final phase of life, upholding that person’s dignity and respecting his or her spiritual, physical, emotional and social needs.

The end result of this process is that real compassion is given to the patient and their family and their human dignity is fully respected as they undertake this most significant of journeys – the journey from this world to the next. During this dying process the Church makes available several of its sacraments to give particular help, the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, the Sacrament of Confession and Holy Communion. Through these sacraments the person is able to undertake their final preparations before dying. Holy Communion given to the dying has special meaning. We call it Viaticum from the Latin word meaning “provision for a journey”.

When a priest attends to a dying person and says the Prayers for the Dying he begins with the words: “Go forth, faithful Christian.” The Church invokes the angels to accompany the soul on its journey towards God. Family members can assist the dying person by saying the soothing words of the rosary.

God did not intend for us to die. Death we are told in the Holy Scriptures has come about as a result of Original Sin. It is thus not unusual for a person to have an inherent fear of losing control of their mental and physical faculties and of possible suffering as they are confronted with terminal illness.  The fear of pain and losing control of their lives has tempted some in our society to advocate for an alternative approach to death that hastens the dying process by direct killing (euthanasia) or assisted suicide.

Since 2009 there have been three unsuccessful attempts to introduce euthanasia into law in Tasmania. Now another attempt is being planned.  It may well be that this new effort will receive more support because Victoria has recently legalised assisted suicide.

A person of faith will know that life is God’s gift to us. We did not choose to be born. Nor do we choose to die. We place our life in the hands of God. As Job said, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Apart from our beliefs about the dignity and value of all human life and God’s express command to not deliberately end the life of the innocent, there are a number of very serious threats to our society posed by the passing of euthanasia or assisted suicide legislation.

While such legislation passed after a thorough and exhaustive process might seem something as a panacea, experience overseas has shown that no set of supposed safeguards can ultimately protect the vulnerable and prevent wider negative cultural shifts.

Euthanasia or assisted suicide is not the answer for people who might be dying. As a society and as a Church we need to offer them something much, much better than abandoning them to hasten their death.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

October 13, 2019

Tags: Archbishop's Blog