Flick through a national newspaper and the chances are that you will find at least one account of someone suffering from a dreadful illness, where the underlying message from the editorial is as follows: wouldn’t it be better for this poor person, and for his nearest and dearest, if only it were possible to ease his way out of this life with a painless injection? The movement for the legalization of ‘euthanasia’ is gaining momentum. The Director of Public Prosecutions has even released guidelines advising people how to assist at suicides without facing prosecution, which is obviously an interim measure preparing the way for fully legalized assisted suicide. Meanwhile the media looks out for ‘hard cases’ to persuade us that a civilized society should provide the option for voluntary euthanasia. Once this principle is enshrined in the law, we can be sure that the road will have been laid towards the not so voluntary extermination of those who are deemed to be mentally incapacitated. There will be pressure on the elderly and infirm not to be a burden on their families and to “do the decent thing”, in much the same way that there is now pressure on a pregnant mother to “do the decent thing” when the innocent child in her womb is found to be imperfect.
When we understand the modern view of what a human being is, then it is not so difficult to see why so many decent and affable people do not have any objection to something like euthanasia. According to the current wisdom, a human being is an animal, who has arrived at his present form through a process of material evolution. He might be quite sophisticated as animals go, but ultimately he is just an animal. And what do we do with an animal when it is suffering and there is no hope of significant recovery? We put it out of its misery in the most painless way possible. That is the best thing to do, morally.
We should not need the Bible, or the Pope, or any religious argument, to convince us that man is more than an animal. Our capacity to know and to love, and to abstract universal concepts from the information that comes to us through our senses, are enough to suggest that in addition to his animal nature, man also possesses a rational nature. In classical philosophy, intellectual nature is always ‘spiritual’ and therefore not susceptible to the disintegration that affects physical bodies when they die. You don’t need to be a Catholic or a Christian, or indeed religious at all, to realise that the human soul is spiritual and therefore immortal.
Our Christian faith does, however, confirm and enlighten what we should be able to discern from reason alone. As far as evolution goes, the Church encourages scientists to investigate the origins of the human race, and remains open to the possibility that the human body is evolved from slugs, snails and puppy dog’s tails. In tune with sound philosophical principles, She also insists that each and every human soul is created individually by God, and that this makes every innocent human life inviolable and sacred to the Creator. The principle of ‘mercy killing’ is all very well when it comes to dispatching suffering animals, but it can never be applicable to human beings, whom the Holy Scriptures inform us are created in the image of God.
Divine Revelation furnishes us with knowledge of what happens at the end of our earthly life, when our souls and bodies are separated from each other in death. This mystery is beyond the scope of anything our unaided reason could establish with any certainty. At death, the human soul enters into the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for its particular judgment, where its eternal destiny is sealed. While we commend all souls to the mercy of God, and must never presume to pronounce God’s judgments on His behalf, we have to accept in general terms that the worst case scenario imaginable would be to depart from this life in the very process of breaking one of those commandments which were issued solemnly to Moses amid thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai.
The Church wants us to assist the dying to leave this world with as much dignity, love and encouragement as we can give them. This is why She sponsors hospices, and why a priest should always be on call to go to the bedside of someone who is dying. Our Lord has entrusted to us the words of eternal life which are able to give meaning and value even during the most terrible suffering. He has given us those Sacraments which are able to bring peace and hope, dispelling the shadows of anxiety and despair. The wisdom of the world would have us believe that human life has value when it is blessed with youth, health and prosperity. Our Catholic Faith tells us that we are to treasure human all human life in all conditions. We are made in God’s image. We are all sacred to Him.
Father Julian Large