Vatican reaffirms, clarifies Church teachings on end-of-life care

VATICAN CITY — With the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia in many countries, and questions concerning what is morally permissible regarding end-of-life care, the Vatican’s doctrinal office released a 25-page letter offering “a moral and practical clarification” on the care of vulnerable patients.

“The Church is convinced of the necessity to reaffirm as definitive teaching that euthanasia is a crime against human life because, in this act, one chooses directly to cause the death of another innocent human being,” the document said.

Titled, “‘Samaritanus bonus,’ on the Care of Persons in the Critical and Terminal Phases of Life,” the letter by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was approved by Pope Francis in June, and released to the public Sept. 22.

A new, “systematic pronouncement by the Holy See” was deemed necessary given a growing, global trend in legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, and changing attitudes and rules that harm the dignity of vulnerable patients, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, congregation prefect, said at a Vatican news conference Sept. 22.

It was also necessary to reaffirm Church teaching regarding the administration of the sacraments to and pastoral care of patients who expressly request a medical end to their life, he said.

“In order to receive absolution in the sacrament of penance, as well as with the anointing of the sick and the viaticum,” he said, the patients must demonstrate their intention to reverse their decision to end their life and to cancel their registration with any group appointed to grant their desire for euthanasia or assisted suicide.

The letter reaffirmed that “any formal or immediate material cooperation in such an act is a grave sin against human life,” making euthanasia “an act of homicide that no end can justify and that does not tolerate any form of complicity or active or passive collaboration.”

For that reason, “those who approve laws of euthanasia and assisted suicide, therefore, become accomplices of a grave sin that others will execute. They are also guilty of scandal because by such laws they contribute to the distortion of conscience, even among the faithful.”

The letter also underlined a patient’s right to decline aggressive medical treatment and “die with the greatest possible serenity and with one’s proper human and Christian dignity intact” when approaching the natural end of life.

“The renunciation of treatments that would only provide a precarious and painful prolongation of life can also mean respect for the will of the dying person as expressed in advanced directives for treatment, excluding however every act of a euthanistic or suicidal nature,” it said.

Other aspects of end-of-life care the letter detailed included: the obligation to provide basic care of nutrition and hydration; the need for holistic palliative care; support for families and hospice care; the required accompaniment and care for unborn and newly-born children diagnosed with a terminal disease; the use of “deep palliative sedation”; obligation of care for patients in a “vegetative state” or with minimal consciousness; and conscientious objection by health care workers.

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