The recent death of Brittany Maynard who took a lethal dose of drugs has sparked much controversy in our country and especially here in Oregon, since it was to here that she moved specifically so as to commit suicide under the so-called "Doctor Assisted Suicide" law. I noted my sadness on a Facebook entry recently which drew many comments both for and against her decision. A common argument is offered that we must be in the person's shoes to understand their plight. One person commented that they hated seeing their loved one die such a painful death which could have been eliminated if they would have directly ended it sooner. Another person commented that there were only two choices: die in great agony or be so drugged up that they are never awake or lucid. The most common argument I hear is that the person as a right to do what they wish. There were some beautiful comments about God's plan and the value of redemptive suffering. So, I thought, that I would reproduce my response to this lively thread here in our bulletin in order to shed some light on Catholic Social Teaching and my perspective as a priest:
My final thoughts in this lively discussion: We have long been idolitrizing personal rights at the expense of the common good. My life is not my own. It is God's. When I realize that, all life is more precious and full of dignity.
It is a fallacy of logic to demand that someone has to have had a similar experience in order to render a right judgement. Sometimes, personal experience can blind us to the objective truth of a matter and falsely justify it in order to maintain comfort about one's personal option. The value of a person isn't measured in their abilities or lack therein (autonomy, control, and the like). If that were true, then a person struck by paralysis would be less of a person. Not true. When someone is dying, the process of dying can be a very cleansing journey whereby the dying person is humbled and allows others to serve them, an act of love on both sides.
The natural dying process also allows for reconciliation and healing beyond a predetermined time frame. It [suicide] shuts out God who had plans for something miraculous in the journey. Palliative care can be done in such a way as to keep pain down and the person alert. In the final days or hours, the dying person may be unconscious, but the family or friends holding vigil are mystically bonded to each other and the dying person through the grace of God which has created unforgettable moments for all involved. There is no way to know all the good things that can happen in the full journey of natural death, but the facts are that it does happen, and all are better for it.
The natural dying process is a blessed journey. It helps the person discover new things about themselves that they would never have discovered by suicide. In those days and moments, much healing can occur for the dying person and all those with him/her. Praying in vigil with one who is near natural death is an encounter with God, the angels, and the saints. It is a corporal work of mercy which connects us to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, a connection that heals. It is a way of letting others serve the one dying. It is a way to allow love to break its romantic bonds to be seen in all its sacrificial glory.
Letting go instead of taking control is a spiritual good in the natural dying process. I hope that when my time comes, I will let others into my suffering so that we can all be transformed into the image of the Son of God. With faith in Jesus Christ, suffering is not an evil, but a door to sanctity. May all the souls of those dying allow others to love them to the natural end and so encounter Jesus Christ who suffered, died, and rose for us all. May we always conform our lives to His.
Fr. William Holtzinger