Pro-Life Office


Understanding Suffering and Death

Segment Six: Understanding Suffering and Death

Overview: Compassion means to “suffer with.” In our contemporary culture, a “misplaced compassion” and “misguided pity” (15) have led to increasing calls to legalize euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Part of the challenge of living out the Gospel of Life is to help the terminally ill understand the Christian meaning of suffering and death (97).

Talking about death and dying can be very difficult for some. Helping a loved one through his or her last days on earth can be emotionally, physically and spiritually draining.

Throughout the Gospel of Life, we are urged to remember and respect the dignity of all human persons from the moment of conception to the time of natural death. Life is a beautiful gift of God which we must treasure. But, does the Church’s teaching on the value of life require that physical life be preserved at all times and at all costs in every circumstance, including burdensome medical treatments?  Of course not.

Many people approach their final years with fear about being hooked up to machines, or suffering alone in pain, or of being a burden on their families, especially as the cost of medical care skyrockets. What message of hope does the Gospel of Life offer them?

Our Christian hope springs from our understanding of the ultimate purpose of human life. Our human life is an unrepeatable and unique gift from God. This relationship with God is eternal which gives our lives a special dignity. Part of God’s plan for human life involves the death of the earthly body. In accepting death, we affirm God’s care and plan for our eternal lives. So there is no need to accept extraordinary medical treatment in order to try to prolong human life. It is unnecessary and may actually interfere with God’s natural plan.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide violate human dignity. Not only do these practices take the lives of innocent people, they also attempt to eliminate God from the meaning of human life.

With increasing calls for legalized assisted suicide, such as that which has occurred in the state of Oregon, Catholics committed to the Gospel of Life need to be able to offer hope and care for the dying and their families. Many in the medical profession offer expert help and support in hospice care. Legal professionals offer assistance in the preparation of health care proxies so that family members can help ensure their loved ones will receive appropriate medical treatment as death progresses. Increasing numbers of Catholic parishes are involved in efforts to offer practical assistance like home visitations, respite care, and meal preparation for families whose loved ones are dying.

On the pastoral and education front, the Gospel of Life calls for a better understanding and consideration of the Christian understanding of suffering and death. “Even pain and suffering have meaning and value when they are experienced in connection with love received and given” wrote John Paul. He continued, “Death …is the door which opens wide on eternity…”(97). In his later years, as pain and illness overtook his once athletic frame, John Paul II lived out the meaning of living and dying in the Lord (cf. Romans 14:7-8) by  connecting his suffering to the mystery of Christ’s redeeming love on the cross. What a beautiful testimony his last years were to the meaning of the Gospel of Life. Like John Paul, there is a special role for the elderly in our culture to be signs of hope as they give meaning to the dignity of life when aging and sickness bring pain and loss of autonomy.

Gospel of Life (15, 46, 47, 97)
Massachusetts Catholic Conference, “In Support of Life” program on end-of- life issues including a sample health care proxy:
John Paul II, Apostolic Letter On the Meaning of Human Suffering (Salvifici Doloris), February 11, 1984.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why does the Church teach that extraordinary or burdensome medical care at the end of life is not necessary?
  2. What are some of the critical distinctions between rejecting extraordinary medical treatment and allowing physician-assisted suicide?
  3. How can a health care proxy help families in providing the best possible care for loved ones at the end of life?
  4. How does the life of John Paul II show us both the fullness of life and the ultimate meaning of human suffering and death?