Archbishop Bohan's response to Supreme Court of Canada decision legalizing physician-assisted suicide
Last Updated on April 28, 2015
Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Archdiocese of Regina.
Since the founding of our country, it has been against the law for someone to take another person’s life, including to help someone commit suicide. A recent ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada has changed that by striking down the laws prohibiting physician assisted suicide in Canada.
The court has stated that any “competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition” has the legal right to physician assisted suicide.
Despite its very great importance, I believe you will find this ruling unhappily full of imprecise words. What does one mean by “competent adult person” or “grievous medical condition”, or “enduring suffering?” Such an elite group as the Supreme Court of Canada should be capable of better than that. We are talking about giving permission to take the life of another human being! I mention this as one of several criticisms that have been leveled at this ruling. You may find these in the public media as well as the Catholic media. Indeed, a recent column in the Regina Leader Post argues that in recent decisions of the Supreme Court we “find a court seemingly detached from any intellectual moorings whatever.”
Intellectual moorings are extremely important, but so are spiritual and moral moorings. We are, after all, human beings. As Catholics, this ruling comes into direct conflict with the teachings of our Church and with our spiritual and moral convictions about the dignity of every person and the sacredness of human life. These convictions are not simply “private beliefs,” they are the standards by which we live our lives. To assist someone to take their own life is “a murderous act.”
We all find it difficult to see people suffer at any time in life, especially those we love. At the end of life, it can be particularly difficult to see anyone afflicted with great suffering. So, why is suicide, or helping someone else to commit suicide, not acceptable for us?
As Catholic Christians, we believe that each of us is responsible for our life before God, because it is God who has given it to us. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for God’s honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. Taking one’s own life, therefore, is not an acceptable option to deal with the burdens of human life.
Do we have an obligation to do away with all human suffering? Every person reading this letter knows what pain and suffering is. Pain and suffering are part of every person’s life and will be wiped out only when there are no more people on this earth.
As people of faith, we deal with suffering and we confront the reality of suffering with a hope that strengthens us. We are confident that all suffering ends when we leave this world and enter into the “new heaven and the new earth,” where God himself will be with us and will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Rev. 24) This gives us hope, a deep and consoling hope, as we face the sufferings we need to deal with in this life. Is this not a more satisfying and more human than the logic that says the best way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate the sufferer?
In the Salve Regina, a favourite prayer of Catholics, we “ send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears!” Heaven on earth – life without suffering – is an unfounded fantasy. We live, then, with the real world and its reality of pain and suffering that can sometimes be “intolerable”.
But in this “valley of tears,” we base our Christian life on Jesus’ command that we must “love one another.” This command of Jesus means that we must work for our neighbour’s good. The elderly and the sick are particularly vulnerable. As such, care for them must be a priority for Christians.
As people of faith we believe that we must accompany those approaching death. We must help ease their suffering and comfort them by all means possible. The Supreme Court in its ruling presumed that the choice before people was either unendurable suffering or suicide. Is it not strange that no mention was made of another way already at hand: effective, compassionate and comforting palliative care? “This includes relief of pain and other distressing physical symptoms, together with assistance in responding to the spiritual, emotional and family needs at end of life. It is extremely important that we continue to affirm the worth, value and dignity of each with compassion and many acts of kindness.”
The Canadian Medical Association has referred to assisted suicide as a “therapy.” Again…very strange! Therapy surely means taking action to better a person’s life, not to end it. Palliative care is therapy. Killing someone is not.
As Catholics we have always believed that suffering is not only something we painfully endure, but also something that has power for good. This comes from our fundamental belief that Jesus’ suffering and death saved us.
Jesus teaches us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for someone else. Through his own intolerable suffering, through this act of “no greater love,” Jesus saved all of us from a future which held only eternal death for us. Jesus’ suffering and death gave us fullness of life forever. In Jesus we learn that suffering and sacrifice are able to redeem. Ask parents, ask physicians, ask teachers, ask friends, ask anyone who loves someone.
The horrors of war are filled with the sacrificial heroism of people who deliberately gave up their lives, often in great violence, pain and personal suffering, to save their comrades. This moves us and strengthens us. Suffering, sacrifice and courage have the power to enable others.
What if Terry Fox had been given the option of suicide and decided that, rather than face the ravages of cancer, he would get a doctor to end his life? Despite his debilitating illness, he set out to run across Canada in his Marathon of Hope which inspired and encouraged and motivated thousands of people to face the painful challenges of life with courage and hope. And it still does now, all these years later.
Every one of our lives is a struggle to overcome adversity. We look for people around us who take up the battle and so give us courage. People who were dragged into the destruction of addictions and who fought to become clean or sober. Soldiers who came back from war severely incapacitated and damaged and who rebuilt their lives through heroic effort. And on and on. As Catholic Christians, we believe that we can join our suffering to that of Jesus himself and by doing so we can direct our pain to a powerful good rather than letting ourselves be destroyed by it.
This does not mean that we seek suffering or glorify it. Indeed, we are called to combat it through efforts like good palliative care. But we recognize that suffering is an inevitable aspect of being human, and that the only way to finally eliminate suffering would be to eliminate humanity. Jesus has showed us a better way. We can suffer with and for one another, thereby bringing hope into the most hopeless situations. This is the literal meaning of “compassion,” to suffer with the other, not to eliminate them.
We can never judge other people and their decisions in difficult and crushing circumstances. We can only make our own commitment to follow the call and example of Jesus as best we can. In our current situation, I call on Catholics to work for the relief of suffering through the promotion of palliative care, but also to bear with one another in all our sufferings so that we can show the world a truly human answer to the problem of suffering. We have always before us the words God spoke to us through Moses: “I have set before you, life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
May God bless you, my dear brothers and sisters, and stir up in you the fire of the Holy Spirit. And may the Gifts of the Holy Spirit comfort and strengthen you as you bear fruit for God from day to day.
Yours sincerely in Christ, Most Rev. Daniel J. Bohan Archbishop of Regina