The Christian Family and the Defence of a Dignified End of Human Life
This article comes from The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church on page 281. The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church Christ – Our Pascha is “both a profession and an explanation of our Church’s faith in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To read the digital version of the Catechism, click here or purchase a hardcopy here.
Care for Sick Parents and Family Members
In the Holy Scriptures we read: “With all your heart honour your father, and do not forget the birth pangs of your mother. Remember that through your parents you were born; how can you repay what they have given to you?” (Sir 7:27-28). Respecting parents means relating to them with love, especially when they are weak and in need of assistance, for example, in old age.
In teaching about the family, Metropolitan Andrey emphasized the responsibility of children toward parents:
Good Christians are in life able to keep God’s fourth commandment to “Honour your father and your mother” even when parents are not good and, God forbid, are not deserving of respect; children are to respect them all the same, for such is God’s law. Christians know how bitter the fate of those who had not honoured their parents.
Metropolitan Andrey also cautioned children thus: “May God forbid that there should be any godless children among us who could dare one day to disrespect their parents or worse, raise their hands against them. God forbid that any parents should have reason to curse their children!”
Children ought to care for their parents in their illnesses and provide them material and moral support in their old age. “My child, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; even if his mind fails, be patient with him; because you have all your faculties do not despise him… Whoever forsakes his father is like a blasphemer, and whoever angers his mother is cursed by the Lord” (Sir 3:12-13, 16). Children ought to remember that respect and love for one’s parents carries an obligation to look after them for the duration of their lives. No one can ever be relieved of this duty. If parents have already left this life, then children are obliged to conduct a Christian funeral, carry out their final wishes, pray for them, look after their grave sites, and remember the anniversary of their deaths.
The Christian Understanding of Death
A Christian, having been made worthy of the divine life through the mystery of Baptism, already here on earth, lives the eternal life. For the believer, death is a consequence of the sin of our first ancestors. However, death was defeated once and for all by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who “to those in the tombs granted life.” For a Christian, one’s mortality is not a dead end, an exit into non-being, or the end of a human person’s existence. Death, like life, has meaning—a meaning which we discover in the light of Christ’s Pascha. Death is a passing over to new life, from earth to the heavens.
Death cannot be an escape from or a negation of life. Therefore, suicide—the conscious and wilful taking of one’s own life—is a grave sin, and the Church condemns it. Many social, psychological and other factors can lead a person to suicide, but the chief causes are hopelessness, loss of the meaning of life, rejection of God’s mercy, and despair.
A person does not have the right to dispose of his own life. Like a soldier who does not have the right to abandon his assigned post, when he leaves it wilfully, is considered a deserter; in the same way, a deserter is one who abandons his responsibilities and the post at which he was placed by God’s providence.
The Use of Pain Management
In accordance with Christian teaching, suffering, especially in the last moments of life, has a particular role in God’s saving plan. Our suffering witnesses to participation in Christ’s suffering and his salvific sacrifice. Therefore, some Christians favour limited use of palliative (painreducing) measures as a voluntary acceptance of the sufferings of the crucified Christ, at least in some small measure. However, such heroism should not be undertaken as a general rule. On the contrary, according to human and Christian prudence, it is fitting to offer the sick the use of medications, under the supervision and advice of a physician, that would reduce or eliminate pain, even if such medicines may impair a patient’s awareness. Nevertheless, it is important to ensure that use of such drugs does not interfere with the infirm person’s ability to prepare for a dignified death, that is, to express final wishes, to make a Confession, and to receive Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion.
Our greatest gift to our neighbour lies in self-sacrifice, especially for the preservation of another’s health and life. Contemporary medicine through organ transplantation can treat many of the sick, who until recently could only have expected death or, at best, a life of suffering and constraints.
Transplantation is a manifestation of compassion for our neighbours and of solidarity with them. Making a gift of one’s organs for transplantation is heroic service for the purpose of saving lives. This service was esteemed highly by Saint John Paul II: “Thanks to science, and to the professional training and commitment of doctors and health-care workers … new and wonderful opportunities are presented … to love our neighbour in new ways; in evangelical terms, to love ‘to the end’” (see Jn 13:1).
The selfless gift of a part of one’s own body (organ or tissue) for the good of another who has urgent need of it, is a manifestation of Christian love for one’s neighbour. On the other hand, the trafficking of human organs is intolerable and a moral evil: “Any procedure which tends to commercialize human organs or to consider them as items of exchange or trade must be considered morally unacceptable, because to use the body as an ‘object’ is to violate the dignity of the human person.”
A living person (the donor) can donate only one of a pair of organs on the condition that it will not jeopardize his or her own life. “[V]ital organs which occur singly in the body can be removed only after death, that is from the body of someone who is certainly dead. This requirement is self-evident, since to act otherwise would mean to cause intentionally the death of the donor in disposing of his organs.”
Euthanasia (from the Greek meaning good death) is an action or inaction which by its nature or its intention causes a person’s death with the purpose of eliminating all sorts of diverse suffering. Euthanasia is used not only on the gravely ill but also on newborn infants with birth defects. In addition to euthanasia “by individual request,” there is also “social euthanasia,” in which the decision to terminate a life comes not from the person himself but from society, when further medical treatment is deemed futile or excessively expensive, since the necessary resources could be used to treat many other people.
The Church teaches:
Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.
Sometimes, because of prolonged and unbearable pain, people may ask for death for themselves or for another. However, such pleas for death are not always a manifestation of a true desire for assisted suicide or euthanasia. In reality, the gravely ill person needs love, attention, prayer, and spiritual support. Those who are close to the infirm—parents, children, family members, friends, and also doctors, nurses, clergy and other members of the church community—are called to surround the infirm with such care.