Sunday, November 11, 2007

Artificial Nutrition and Hydration for the Terminally Ill

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on November 11, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 2 Maccabees 7.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday 2007]

They were violent. They were brutal. They were merciless—and they were proud of it!
I’m speaking here of the Seleucid kings of the second century B.C.
And who, Fr. Ray, were the Seleucid kings?
Glad you asked!
Most of you, I’m sure, have heard of Alexander the Great. In the 4th century before Christ, Alexander conquered the Holy Land—and a lot of other places in the known world. When it was at its largest point, his empire stretched all the way from Greece to modern day Pakistan. Then he died.  After his death, his generals divided up his empire.  One of those generals was named Seleucus.  He began what historians refer to as the Seleucid Empire.
Eventually the Seleucids took control of the area we now know as Palestine.
Well, in 175 B.C. a descendant of Seleucus named Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power. King Antiochus, unfortunately, was not what you would call “a nice guy.” In fact, he was just the opposite—especially when it came to his relationship with the Jews. In 168 B.C., for example, he invaded the holy city of Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and instituted laws that prevented the Jews from practicing their religion freely.
Those who violated these laws and who tried to remain faithful to their Judaism were immediately put to death—like the 7 brothers we heard about in today’s first reading from 2 Maccabees 7. This, incidentally, is the “PG version” of the story. If you want all the gory details of what they did to these 7 boys—and their mother—you’ll have to open your Bibles later on and read all of 2 Maccabees 7.
Hopefully, you now see why I began my homily by saying of King Antiochus and his successors: “They were violent. They were brutal. They were merciless—and they were proud of it!”
As sick as it might sound, they reveled in the blood and the gore and the torture!
We, of course, are much more refined in the United States of America in 2007. And so we rightly call Antiochus and his friends “barbaric”!
But, unfortunately, at times we can be just as brutal as they were! We’re just more technological and sanitary in our contemporary brutality.
The horrible things we do to the embryo and to the pre-born child in the womb through embryonic stem-cell research and abortion certainly fit into this category, but so do other activities—some of them done very quietly in the name of compassion: compassion for the sick and the terminally ill.
This is something we all need to be aware of.
I have noticed, for example, a growing tendency in recent years among medical and hospice personnel to withdraw food and hydration very quickly from terminally ill patients—sometimes, in my estimation, MUCH TOO QUICKLY! There is, of course, according to Catholic moral teaching, a time when one can legitimately stop feeding and nourishing someone by artificial means (for instance, when death is only a few hours away and the feeding process is causing the patient a great deal of physical discomfort, or when the patient’s body isn’t able to assimilate the food and water because they’re in the final stage of their disease). But if the doctors tell you that grandma could die of her cancer “sometime in the next two weeks,” and then they tell you that they want to take out her feeding tube and IV drip TODAY, then you need to be an advocate for grandma and tell those doctors, “Don’t you dare!”
Because if they do those things—or if they refuse to hydrate and feed her artificially when death isn’t imminent—then it is highly likely that grandma will actually die from starvation and dehydration and not from her cancer!
Catholics are not bound to use “extraordinary means” to prolong life in the case of a terminal illness, but as Pope John Paul II made clear in an address he gave to a group of American bishops back in 1998, nutrition and hydration are to be considered ordinary care and ORDINARY means for the preservation of life—even when they’re administered artificially. They are not “extraordinary”!
In writing about that statement, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome recently said this: “The address of John Paul II to a group of bishops from the United States of America . . . on October 2, 1998, is quite explicit: Nutrition and hydration are to be considered as normal care and ordinary means for the preservation of life. It is not acceptable to interrupt them or to withhold them, if from that decision the death of the patient will follow. This would be euthanasia by omission.”
That’s the bottom line, my brothers and sisters: It’s euthanasia by omission.
Food, water, cleanliness, warmth and the like, are basic needs of the sick and the dying. They’re basic needs for all of us! We are obligated to supply these needs because each and every human person—regardless of how sick or weak or handicapped they are—has an inherent dignity, given the fact that they’re made in the image of Almighty God.
If you didn’t know this important teaching of the Church before (and some of you may not have), the fact is you do know it now! This means that God expects you in the future to be an advocate for the terminally ill, specifically your terminally ill relatives and friends.
And please also remember to pray every day for all doctors, nurses and hospice caregivers. Pray that they will be men and women of sound moral principles, who fulfill their true calling as instruments of God’s healing, and who do no harm to any of the patients entrusted to their care.