The Catholic Church opposes euthanasia, understood as the deliberate killing of a person in order to end his or her suffering. We profess that all human life in endowed with dignity and value, whether healthy or sick, productive or disabled. Life is God’s gift to us and is ours to treasure and protect, not to destroy. When people’s lives are compromised by chronic pain or debilitating illness, we are right to do everything reasonably possible to eliminate their pain, treat their illness, and maximize their comfort. It is never right, however, to seek to eliminate a person’s suffering by deliberately putting that person to death.
The Catholic Church opposes euthanasia. We profess a firmly pro-life, pro-human-dignity ethic. As a result of that, however, we Catholics can sometimes be overly reluctant to allow our loved ones to go home to God. We sometimes fear that, by not taking every possible life-saving measure to preserve the lives of our loved ones, we might be doing something wrong.
This can also make us feel conflicted. On the one hand, we want to value and protect human life at all stages. On the other hand, our faith teaches us to look beyond this life to the ultimate fulfillment and eternal joy of the life of the world to come. We don’t want to do violence to the lives that God gave us. We don’t want to assist in another’s suicide or otherwise commit euthanasia. But we also don’t want to cling so closely to this mortal life that we seem reluctant to enter into the immortal life of God’s heavenly kingdom.
Let us, therefore, try to distinguish as clearly as possible between euthanasia, which the Church condemns, and letting a loved one die in way that demonstrates surrender to the will of God and hope for everlasting life.
The difference between committing euthanasia and letting a loved one go home to God is a matter of our intentions. It’s about what we intend to bring about by the actions we chose. Committing euthanasia means intending to bring about the death of another person, either as an end or a means. When we do not intend to bring about death, we do not commit euthanasia. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “overzealous treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. (CCC 2278)
Let’s try to unpack what that means. First, consider the word “intend.” To intend something is to propose to do it. Anything that you freely decide to do is something you intend, or put another way, it’s something you do intentionally. Next, let us consider how we might intend some things as “ends” and some things as “means.” To intend something as an end is to intend it for its own sake. For example, you might decide to take a walk on a beautiful day just because you want to, because taking a walk seems good for its own sake. To intend something as a “means” is to intend it for the sake of something else. For example, you might take cold medicine in order to suppress the symptoms of a cold. You don’t take the medicine because you like taking medicine. You take it for the sake of something else, in this case, for the suppressiing the cold symptoms.
A person who commits euthanasia intends to bring about another’s death either as an end or a means. It’s possible that the death could be intended as an end. The one person might just hate the other and want that person dead. (This would not truly be euthanasia, though it might appear to be.) Far more likely, and more in keeping with the definition of euthanasia, is the case in which one person intends to bring about another’s death as a means. Death is intended for the sake of something else, namely, the elimination of suffering. The person who commits euthanasia doesn’t simply want the other person’s death. He wants to eliminate that person’s suffering. He still commits euthanasia because he intends to bring about the other’s death as a means to that end.
When we let our loved ones go home to God, we do not intend their deaths in any way, whether as ends or as means. We do not propose or decide to bring about their deaths. Rather, having judged that any further intervention would be futile or disproportionate to the burdens involved, we let our loved one die, believing that, by the mercy of God, death will be for them what is was for Jesus: a passage to new and everlasting life.
Letting a loved one die is not the same as intending her death. Intending death means deciding to bring it about. Letting someone die means accepting death as a natural result of illness. Someone who lets a loved one go home to God might intend to forego invasive treatment or withdraw ineffectual or disproportionate life support. But that is not the same as intending death. The one person’s death, in that case, is not caused by the other person, but by illness from which that person suffered. Far from being an act of killing, as is the case with euthanasia, letting a loved one go home to God can be an act of faithful surrender to God’s will and hopeful longing for the life of the world to come.