There is a controversy brewing over whether it is pastorally appropriate to celebrate the sacrament of the sick with someone who has chosen to ask for assisted suicide or who is going to be euthanized.
For many years the celebration of this sacrament was known as the “the last rites” and it was the final step in the transition from this life to the next. This sacrament has brought comfort, forgiveness of sins, grace and healing — both spiritual and sometimes physical — to terminally ill persons in their last days and hours.
Over time, the way in which we celebrate this sacrament has changed. It is not called the last rites any longer. Today it is celebrated as the sacrament of the sick or holy anointing of the sick. The rite is for those who are gravely ill or struggling under the burden of years and whose health is failing with age and infirmity, or for those who are dying.
The sacrament of the sick has several ways that it can be celebrated and options for prayers and blessings recognizing the different circumstances of serious illness, old age, prolonged suffering and imminent death.
All forms of the sacrament, though, have certain things in common: the prayers of the rite ask God in various ways for forgiveness of sins, strength to bear the cross of suffering and healing in mind and body. The sacrament assumes that the person being anointed wishes to be restored to health or is preparing for their final journey, entrusting their last moments to God’s love and mercy.
Priests who have been in ministry several years recount stories of anointing people who have recovered from their illness against expectations, who have experienced relief from their suffering and who have been strengthened and encouraged by the sacrament to face their suffering and approaching death with peace. Priests have witnessed healings that science cannot account for by modern medical intervention alone.
Pastoral care for persons who are suffering takes various forms. Often it takes the form of visits to the suffering person to spend time listening to their life story, sharing memories good and troubling, talking about things that she or he wishes to get off their chest, prayers with and for the suffering person and often for family members who are present. This first line of ministry, a ministry of presence, is not an empty gesture.
Studies now show that a great risk factor for serious health issues and an early death is social isolation. Being alone and feeling disconnected from the community, unnoticed and unloved is a greater predictor of an early death than diabetes or heart disease. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta remarked: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love.”
Being physically present at the bedside for someone is a great blessing to give a suffering family member or friend. A person contemplating assisted suicide fears physical pain, does not want to be a burden on family or friends, recoils at the thought of being dependent on others for care and dreads the idea of dying alone. All of these are genuine fears, but as a society we have solutions for these anxieties. With palliative care we can manage pain and other symptoms of suffering; and the supportive presence of family and friends brings genuine comfort and alleviates the fear of being unloved or alone facing our final days and hours of life. The spiritual care of the church and its members, ordained and lay faithful, are important parts of this ministry of accompaniment in life’s final stages.
The celebration of the sacrament of the sick is a Catholic Christian’s affirmation of trust in God’s mercy and healing love. It is a statement of faith on the part of the suffering person that God is the Lord of our life and our death and that he can bring comfort, forgiveness of sins and healing either spiritual or physical (or sometimes both) into our lives.
Requesting to be anointed before asking for assisted suicide is a direct contradiction of both the purpose of the sacrament of the sick and a counter-witness about trust in God’s mercy. The church cannot celebrate a sacrament for the forgiveness of sins when the person asking for this grace is about to do something that is gravely morally wrong.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church unambiguously gives the Catholic teaching on euthanasia and assisted suicide: “intentional euthanasia, whatever its forms or motives, is murder. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment” (CCC, nn. 2324-25).
Asking for the sacrament of the sick is making a statement about the value and truth of the church’s teaching and her agency as God’s instrument of mercy here on earth. Asking for the sacrament in advance of rejecting the church’s clear teaching on the value of human life is a counter-witness. Requesting that the pastor be present for this decision to end one’s life is asking for the church to sanction or bless a decision that she stands in firm opposition to as morally wrong.
Priests and lay faithful will accompany the ill, the suffering and the dying on their journey and will prove by their presence and prayers that all human life is valued, loved and has dignity. The church and her ministers, however, cannot in good conscience condone the decision to be euthanized or to ask for assisted suicide by celebrating the sacrament of the sick with those in this situation who request it. It is a difficult position to take but one that is true to our Catholic faith, the tradition of our church and the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ.
Prendergast is the Archbishop of Ottawa.