The Chicago Tribune
ran an opinion piece by Robert McClory on Sunday that addressed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s clarification regarding the care of people in a vegetative state. In that statement, the CDF confirmed what most Catholics already understood:
[T]he provision of water and food, even by artificial means, is in principle an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life for patients in a “vegetative state” . . . . [T]his ordinary means of sustaining life is to be provided also to those in a “permanent vegetative state,” since these are persons with their fundamental human dignity.
No surprise there. However, McClory suggests that this should be a cause for worry among Catholics who “do not want their end-of-life wishes contradicted.”
But that concern has nothing to do with what the Congregation actually said; the CDF is responding to a particular situation that doesn’t touch on “end of life” issues for the majority of Catholics. A persistent vegetative state (PVS) is a rare diagnosis that is not part of a normal progression to death, despite what McClory’s article might suggest. In fact, PVS patients themselves are not usually in imminent danger of dying; rather, the very term “persistent” suggests that they could remain in that state for an indefinite period of time.
To further confuse the matter, McClory goes on to suggest that the Church itself has waffled on the issue in the past:
Pope John Paul II gave mixed signals on the issue. In his 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae,” he seemed to endorse the position that a feeding tube was extraordinary, saying, “Certainly the life of the body in its earthly state is not an absolute good for the believer.” Yet in 2004 he indicated otherwise.
Surely he’s not implying that John Paul II came out in 2004 and said, “Actually, the life of the body is
the absolute good”? Anyone who gives these two documents a careful read can see how silly it is to set them against one another. Evangelium Vitae is nothing if not a defense of the dignity of life (the title, after all, translates as “The Gospel of Life”), and the pope’s comments in 2004 only serve to illustrate how that dignity should be preserved in the case of a PVS patient. Clearly the two documents go together, and with the rest of the Church’s longstanding teaching on end-of-life issues — including these most recent comments from the CDF.
But what should really be the clincher here is the fact that John Paul II himself discontinued use of a feeding tube at the end of his life. That alone should be proof enough that the Church doesn’t require a feeding tube for the dying when it would be an undue burden or merely prolong the inevitable. The situation is different in the case of a patient in a PVS, when the person is in no imminent danger; there, not having a feeding tube would be tantamount to euthanasia by starvation/dehydration.
Of course, it’s not exactly a surprise to find the mainstream media confusing matters of Church doctrine. But in this case, McClory’s by-line tells a slightly different story: He is an ex-priest who has spoken against Church teaching
on contraception, homosexuality, and women priests, to name a few. It would seem, then, that the question for McClory is more generally one of the Church’s authority in these matters: He speaks of the person’s
“right” and “wishes” in end-of-life issues, but what of Church teaching?
The corollary to the passage he quotes above from Evangelium Vitae approaches the question differently:
No one . . . can arbitrarily choose whether to live or die; the absolute master of such a decision is the Creator alone, in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).
Our life, in other words, is a gift that is not ours to dispose of as we wish. It is a shame that McClory’s disagreement over doctrine keeps him from fully representing that truth to his readers.