A Short Catechism on Euthanasia

Rev Fr David Sherry, District Superior

Q. What is euthanasia?1

A. Euthanasia, sometimes called ‘assisted suicide’ or ‘mercy killing’ is an action or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death, with the purpose of eliminating suffering. 

Q. Why does the Catholic Church forbid euthanasia?

A. The Catholic Church forbids euthanasia because it is an act of murder. The Church, the Body of Christ, has the duty to clarify and protect the Natural Law, which is summed up in the Ten Commandments. 

Q. Is euthanasia a sin? 

A. Yes, euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is a mortal sin against the Fifth Commandment, which obliges man to protect and preserve his life, not harm or destroy it.

Q. What do you mean by ‘intrinsically evil’?

A. Some things that are sins are not evil in themselves but because of some circumstance. It is not evil to eat pizza and drink beer, but if I did it in a church, it would be a sin because of that circumstance of me being in a holy place. Other things are evil in themselves, ‘intrinsically’, which means that nothing can ever justify them. Killing an innocent person is one of these things.

Q. But surely, I have a right over my own body?

A. When we own something, we have a right to do with it as we please. When we are lent something, we can use it, but we have to look after it for the person who owns it. God, out of His goodness, freely gave us our life, it belongs to Him and we must use it in accordance with His law.

Q. Surely it is better to die with dignity than to suffer?

A. The purpose of human life is to know, love and serve God. It is doing that which gives us our dignity. Ending my life with dignity means dying when God wills, in the way that God wills, and in the state of grace. Saying that killing oneself, or allowing oneself to be killed, is to end one’s life ‘with dignity’ really means ending one’s life with the sin of pride.

Q. What about those who are in a permanent vegetative state or are otherwise severely impaired?

A. Regardless of what state a person is in, the commandment not to murder still applies. No one has a right to end the life of another because his physical condition is impaired. Furthermore, though a person’s body is severely impaired, his soul is still active; he may still be able to hear and know what is going on around him.

Q. But God would not want someone to suffer?

A. Suffering and death entered into the world because of the sin of Adam and Eve, not because of God. 

For God created man incorruptible, but by the envy of the devil, death came into the world. (Wis 2: 23)

Suffering is a consequence of Original Sin. A Christian suffering patiently with Christ does penance for his own sins and offers up sacrifice for the salvation of others. God gives him strength and grace to carry the cross, when he asks for it. He, the Lord of life, decides when all is consummated. 

Q. So, can we not relieve suffering?

A. Caring for the sick and seeking to relieve their pains using good means is an act of mercy and charity. It dignifies the carer in a similar way that patience dignifies the sufferer. Using evil means such as killing to relieve suffering, however, turns the carer into a murderer while relieving him of the need to show mercy and charity. “Mercy killing” is a misnomer because evil means are being used to relieve suffering instead of good means.

Q. What are the different types of euthanasia?

A. Euthanasia can be active or passive. Active euthanasia is a positive act which kills the person, for example, a lethal injection. Passive euthanasia is done by omitting something that should be done in order to cause death. Examples of passive euthanasia would be refusal to carry out routine surgery because we want the person to die, or 'terminal sedation', when a person is not given food or fluid and, because they are sedated, they are unable to cry out for food and fluid. 

Q. Do I have a duty to preserve my life?

A. I have a duty to preserve my life in accordance with the will of God, Who gave us life so that we could know, love and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next.

Q. What are these duties?

A. The duties are negative and positive.

Q. What do you mean by negative and positive duties?

A. A negative duty is the duty not to do something. A negative duty obliges us at every moment. For example, the commandment, Thou shalt not steal, always obliges. I must spend every moment of every day not stealing. A positive duty is the duty to do something. This duty does not oblige us at every moment. For example, the positive commandment, Keep Holy the Sabbath Day, does not oblige all the time, but only sometimes, that is, on one day a week.

Q. So, what are the negative and positive duties to preserve life?

A. The negative duty is not to do anything that directly or intentionally causes death. The positive duty is to take the ordinary means to preserve life. If necessary for some grave reason, it may be that we should take extraordinary means.

Q. What are ordinary and extraordinary means to preserve life?

A. Ordinary means are either basic care or ordinary medical treatment. Basic care means food, fluid, shelter or hygiene. These are not medical treatments. Ordinary medical treatment is treatment that is likely to be successful without great risk, without excessive burdens on the patient, and does not prevent some grave duty.

Q. What are extraordinary means to preserve life?

A. Extraordinary means to preserve life are medical treatments that have a poor likelihood of success, or are high-risk, or are excessively burdensome, or prevent some grave duty. The administration of food or fluid to a patient would be extraordinary only if it were delivered in a way intolerable to the patient.

Q. Is it possible to relieve pain in such a way that it has the side effect of hastening death?

A. Using the principle of the double effect, it is possible to provide pain relief that indirectly and as a sideeffect hastens death. However, one may never intend to cause death or deliberately hasten it.

Q. Should I take anything else into account before taking medication which makes me unconscious. Normally speaking, there is a duty to attend to the urgent needs of the soul by fulfilling all duties and receiving the Last Sacraments before administering pain relief to a degree that renders the patient unconscious.

  • 1Cf. Fr François Knittel SSPX, Au Service de la Vie (Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 2022); Philip Robinson, Euthanasia (Catholic Truth Society, London, 2004).

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