The Catholic Church is very clear about life-death matters. We do not have to take extraordinary means to preserve life, but we don’t have the right to end it because we judge it more compassionate to do so*. To put that in the most personal terms, when I reach the final stage of my illness, which will be painful and nasty, I suspect, there will be no need for the doctors to propose aggressive treatments to ensure poor Brother Ass, my body, goes on for a few days more. I hope there will be some pain relief medication to blunt the edge of the pain I feel; but, from the Catholic perspective, the important point is that God will decide when my life should end, just as he decided when it should begin. All very well for me, you may say, but what about those who don’t share my belief in God or the Catholic Church’s understanding of life-death questions? Isn’t Lord Carey proposing something infinitely kinder, more in keeping with the Christian message of love and hope? He has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in assisted suicide or euthanasia, so in backing Lord Falconer’s bill he is merely making it possible for people to take control of their lives in peculiarly difficult and painful circumstances.
My argument would be that Lord Falconer’s bill is deeply flawed. When one is ill oneself, one is very conscious of the burden one places on others. Any decent person would want to ease that burden, but opting for assisted dying is, I think, very questionable. One can be mentally capable of making decisions yet emotionally too vulnerable to make a rational decision. Again, it is striking that Lord Carey talks about the pain of watching someone one loves suffering — the onlooker’s pain, not the pain of the one actually sick or dying. In the West we don’t like seeing pain. We try to shut it out, eliminate it; but that is not what compassion is. Compassion is sharing the pain, accompanying the other through the valley of darkness and the shadow of death. That takes guts and faith in equal measure. We can protest that we don’t have such faith; that such courage is beyond us; but we won’t know until we try.
I would agree that not all suffering is necessarily redemptive. It certainly isn’t always noble or dignified. I have watched people die in terrible circumstances, but I still hold to the belief that as human beings we are more than the sum of our parts. Dying a good death means more than dying ‘easily’ or ‘comfortably’. For a Christian, or at any rate for this particular Christian, it means dying in union with Jesus Christ our Saviour, as and when he wills. Just as his death on the Cross was his last great act of surrender to the Father, so our own death will be the most important act of our life. I don’t want to fudge mine, do you?
•See, for example, the Declaration on Euthanasia here: http://www.euthanasia.com/vatican.html