| Stewardship of the end-of-life
Having reached middle age myself, I am reminded almost daily of the aging process and the eventual end of life here in this world. Furthermore, I have many friends and colleagues who are endeavoring to walk with their aging parents as they rapidly approach life's sunset. I know this is a difficult subject — one fraught with great emotion and many personal feelings.
I don't pretend to provide answers for every situation, and recognize that many families and individuals face gut-wrenching and morally vexing dilemmas when it comes to end-of-life issues. I propose that we look to Christian Stewardship principles to shed light on the issues surrounding how we approach the end of our mortal lives.
The first CS principle we should reference is that our lives are gifts from God. Though we have been granted stewardship of them, God remains the owner and the one who exercises sovereignty over them. What this means for us is that our own desires and those of our loved ones are not the ultimate considerations when it comes to how we conduct our lives. We must look to God's law, the teachings of the Church and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
"From the moment of conception, the life of every human being is to be respected in an absolute way because [the human person] is the only creature on earth that God has 'wished for himself' and the spiritual soul of each [human being] is 'immediately created' by God; his whole being bears the image of the Creator. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being," "Donum Vitae (Gift of Life), Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).
Respecting and honoring God's gift of life is a Christian imperative and leads us to another CS principle that can help guide us: the sanctity and dignity of all human life. We have a responsibility to handle our lives with respect to this tenet even as we approach death. "Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person … can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law … the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree," "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II, March 25, 1995). Though this principle means we strive to preserve life (sanctity), it also means life must be honored (dignity). There is a point at which the dignity of human life can be negatively affected by the lack or use of certain medical interventions.
As an example, it is not dignified for a person to be delirious with pain when we have the reasonable means to give them a modicum of comfort. On the other hand, neither is it dignified for a child of God to be medicated to the point of incoherence or unconsciousness in order to avoid all sensations of pain. There is a balance, and human dignity is our guide. "The Catholic principle of sanctity of life affirms that life is a basic good, but it is not an absolute good to be preserved at all costs. The discontinuing of medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of 'overzealous' treatment.' " (Evangelium Vitae)
This last point was aptly demonstrated in the final days of Pope John Paul II as he moved toward death. Though I found it painful to watch his frail form, I greatly respected and appreciated how he stayed at his residence and continued to greet the crowds who came to see him right up to the end. I pray that each of us, by God's grace, can return our lives to him with equal dignity when our time comes, and help our loved ones do the same.
(Walt Sears is director, Pastoral Year Program, at St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park.)