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Palliative care is not enough — Catholics must share Christ’s hope, says Vatican

Vatican City, Sep 22, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- Palliative care for the dying is important, but medical interventions are not enough; Catholics have a responsibility to be with the suffering and to communicate the hope of Christ, a new Vatican document on euthanasia said Tuesday.

While palliative care is “essential and invaluable,” it is not enough, a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said.

“Palliative care cannot provide a fundamental answer to suffering or eradicate it from people’s lives,” the congregation said. “To claim otherwise is to generate a false hope, and cause even greater despair in the midst of suffering.”

“Medical science can understand physical pain better and can deploy the best technical resources to treat it. But terminal illness causes a profound suffering in the sick person, who seeks a level of care beyond the purely technical,” it continued.

“Palliative care in itself is not enough unless there is someone who ‘remains’ at the bedside of the sick to bear witness to their unique and unrepeatable value. Pain is existentially bearable only where there is hope.”

The CDF presented the 45-page letter, Samaritanus bonus: on the Care of Persons in the Critical and Terminal Phases of Life, at a press conference Sept. 22. It was approved by Pope Francis on June 25 and signed by CDF prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria and secretary Archbishop Giacomo Morandi. 

The letter reaffirmed Catholic teaching on a range of end-of-life issues, underlining the moral impermissability of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and recalling the obligation of Catholics to accompany the sick and dying through prayer, physical presence, and the sacraments. 

The Vatican document also pointed out what it described as cultural obstacles obscuring the intrinsic value of every human life: the notion of “dignified death” as measured by a person’s so-called “quality of life,” a false understanding of compassion, and an individualism which sees the other as a limitation or threat to one’s freedom.

So-called “compassionate” euthansia holds that it is better to die than to suffer, the CDF noted. “In reality, human compassion consists not in causing death, but in embracing the sick, in supporting them in their difficulties, in offering them affection, attention, and the means to alleviate the suffering.”

Cardinal Ladaria said Sept. 22 that “a compassion that is not accompanied by the truth, by respect for human life in all its phases of existence, is a compassion that is not just, is not right.”

Catholics need to know how to show authentic compassion and to witness to Christian hope, the CDF document argued.

“In the face of the challenge of illness and the emotional and spiritual difficulties associated with pain, one must necessarily know how to speak a word of comfort drawn from the compassion of Jesus on the Cross,” it said. “It is full of hope — a sincere hope, like Christ’s on the Cross, capable of facing the moment of trial and the challenge of death.”

“The hope that Christ communicates to the sick and the suffering is that of his presence, of his true nearness,” the letter explained. “To contemplate the living experience of Christ’s suffering is to proclaim to men and women of today a hope that imparts meaning to the time of sickness and death. From this hope springs the love that overcomes the temptation to despair.”

The document said that Catholic priests and others should avoid any active or passive gesure which might signal approval for euthanasia and assisted suicide, including remaining in a room while the act is performed.

But to someone who is considering taking that action, the presence of a witness to truth, charity, and hope can be powerful, Ladaria said.

“The witness of Christians, the witness of Christian healthcare workers, the witness of all the Christian relatives of this person, etc. can be something very determinative” in helping a person to turn away from the decision to end his or her own life, he said.

Ladaria encouraged offering a “witness of presence” to those who were seriously ill and dying.

When a person sees no other hope than assisted suicide, “if he sees someone who clearly does not accept this solution, but is there beside him, and does not abandon him, and is next to him, maybe this can be a factor which helps him to reflect,” he said.

“I believe that in every man there is some reserve of hope,” the cardinal stated. Communicating the truth with charity, being present to someone who feels hopeless, could help them to think and reflect, it “makes this person see that there is, however, hope, there is hope. That hope never ends!”

Priestly ministry to the sick at the end of life, a symbol of the solicitude of Christ and the Church, “can and must have a decisive role,” and makes proper priestly formation vital in this area, Samaritanus bonus said. It also noted that because priests cannot always be present at a bedside, physicians and healthcare workers need formation in Christian accompaniment too.

“In this essential mission it is extremely important to bear witness to and unite truth and charity with which the gaze of the Good Shepherd never ceases to accompany all of His children,” it stated.