Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Playing God 2: The Right to Die With Dignity

Not yet picked up much in the English language press but the Spanish newspaper El País reports today that "the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has sent a letter to the bishops and provincial superiors of 41 Italian priests telling them to meet with the priests to bring them into line, evaluate their orthodoxy and adherence to the Church and the Pope and eventually to punish them." The priests' crime? Signing a statement that appeared in the Italian magazine MicroMega last March against the law regulating living wills that was passed by the Italian Senate days after the death of Eluana Englaro, a woman who spent 17 years in a persistent vegetative state before her father finally won permission from the courts to withdraw the artificial feeding and hydration that were keeping her alive.

The statement itself is brief and definitely within the parameters of Catholic bioethical teaching:

"The law on living wills that the government and the majority are preparing to vote on imprisons the freedom of all actors involved at the ultimate moment of death. Defining forced nutrition and hydration as ordinary and obligatory care, and not as extraordinary therapeutic intervention, the law annuls any possibility of making a judgement on aggressive treatment. The individual, family and doctor are powerless in the face of an external will that imposes a protocol that is only political and not moral. Life must always be respected unconditionally, as long as it remains a human life with the consciousness, dignity and strength to bear it.

Death is a natural event to which all are called, for believers it is the culmination of life, the threshold that leads to eternity. The decision to end a semblance of an existence is the exclusive domain of the person concerned who has the right to express it in advance in a will or through the family in consultation with the doctor who is acting with knowledge and conscience. By the power of reason and in the serenity of faith, we are opposed to legislative action which mortifies the informed and responsible freedom of conscience in the name of principles that are not the responsibility of the state, much less a government and a parliament which are acting in an ideological manner under the emotional manipulation of a painful affair (Eluana Englaro). As believers, we believe that just as anyone is free to live their lives, they may also decide to die in peace, when there is no hope of improving their condition of human existence."

According to El País, the first signatory, Paolo Farinella, a priest from Genoa, has already been called in and questioned by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, bishop of Genoa and president of the Italian Bishops Conference. Farinella characterized the meeting as open and calm. He was shown the CDF note and invited to prove his orthodoxy and responded that the statement was inspired by texts from the German Bishops Conference, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini and Pope Paul VI.

However, another signatory, Goffredo Crema, withdrew his name from the statement and Farinella told El País he thinks Crema might have been intimidated into doing that.

This case is not about euthanasia. It is about the right we should all have to die a peaceful, dignified, and natural death without being forced to subject ourselves or our loved ones to artificial measures aimed only at maintaining bodily functions when there is no reasonable hope of recovery. Among my immediate relatives we have an understanding that none of us wants to be kept alive by artificial means if we are in a persistent coma or terminally ill with no prospect of recovery. I have no problem honoring these preferences and do not see them as contradictory to my Catholic faith. I do object to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith trying to intimidate priests who are only publicly stating what most Catholic faithful believe -- that decisions about death are to be made by individuals according to their beliefs and in consultation with their families, doctors, and ministers, not in accordance with some protocol imposed by the state.

Photo: Eluana Englaro's father holds a picture of his late daughter, before the accident that left her in a coma.

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