The variety of issues that surround the prospect of dying grow increasingly complex with each passing day. However, the Catholic moral tradition on end-of-life treatment provides a balanced view that both rejects euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide while also encompassing the prospect of refusing burdensome medical treatment. Thus, the Church rejects any activity that directly or intentionally ends your own life or the life of someone else while allowing the refusal or withdrawal of forms of medical treatment that “do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or [that] entail excessive burden, or impose excessive expense on the family or the community” (ERD, Dir. 57).
Trying to Understand the Christian Meaning of Death
Death is an inevitable part of life after the Fall, but the reality of death was not part of God’s original plan of creation. While certainly God the Father created Adam and Eve as mere mortals, God had not destined that men and women die; no, death is a consequence of Adam’s sin and contrary to God’s plan. Intentional death is not a solution to life’s difficulties, while the prospect of dying should never be viewed as the ultimate enemy. Moreover, Christ’s death on the cross has destroyed unending death and, so, transformed the curse of death into a blessing. For those who have been baptized into Christ’s death, then, have undergone conformity to the death of the Lord Jesus and have begun an entirely new life that has an eternal dimension to it. In Christian thought, death is once for all—namely, it marks the completion of an earthly pilgrimage and holds out the prospect of eternal life, but there is no second death or reincarnation. Human beings are understood to be embodied spirits—a body and a soul. Each person is the result of human biology and divine ensoulment, wherein God creates the individual soul or spirit. Every decision made cannot be framed merely in earthly terms because the lives of faith-filled people also entail an eternal destiny which might also lead to a heavenly destiny because of the fact of the reality of redemption wrought by Christ.
Spiritual Life and Mortal Life
It is important that the average Catholic understand the crucial relationship and difference between the life of the soul and the mortal life of the body. This complex phenomenon means that the life of the soul is important in deciding about the legitimacy of accepting or refusing a variety of life-saving medical treatments. As both a spiritual and material entity, what might be beneficial to the body could prove to be detrimental to the soul. Many heroic and/or saintly actions have placed bodily health at risk, while yielding great spiritual benefits like holiness of life. But vicarious suffering—freely taking upon oneself the suffering of others—is not mandatory because it is supererogatory. Saintliness and holiness of life is a universal call, but for far too many it is an unattainable goal. The virtuous life lies somewhere along the spectrum between too much and too little. So, there is an enormous difference between mandating the avoidance of sin (i.e., creating a floor below which no one can go) and demanding heroic action (i.e., an unlimited ceiling that always appears too high).
As embodied spirits, both spiritual and material, certain medical procedures which could benefit the body may not be required for the soul housed within that body. Bodily health, then, cannot be determined independently from the health of the soul. Moreover, what might fulfill the need of bodily health often can conflict with overall spiritual well-being—the conflict between virtuous living and the demands of bodily health. Spiritually speaking, we are obligated to avoid mortal sin but there can be no moral obligation to practice heroic virtue. Therefore, some medical interventions will save a person’s life but leave the individual so wracked with pain or incapacitated that life after treatment would require heroic efforts and a degree of sanctity few possess. Thus, “to forgo extraordinary or disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death” (Evangelium vitae, n.65). Human suffering has meaning, but that position can be maintained without unnecessarily consenting or too quickly demanding that another person undergo such a treatment. Death is not the enemy; mortal sin or eternal separation from God is. Medical treatment can be legitimately rejected based upon the expense or degree of suffering it entails, despite its proven ability to prolong life. Disproportionate treatment—the burdens outweigh the benefits—can be refused or withdrawn.