The Catholic View on Euthanasia

By Virginia G. Guzman-Manzo, MD 

Man is composed of an immortal soul and a mortal body. Once the body dies, the immortal soul separates from the corpse because the human soul cannot operate on a deceased body.

To many, death and dying are unpalatable subjects not too easy to talk about. But death is a reality no one can escape. For some, life is short; for others, it may be long. But we all end up in the same road. We all die.

The Final Moment

We cannot be blind to our final moment. Although the subject of death may cast fear and gloom on many people, the certainty of death gives light to how we should conduct our life. The Church teaches us to consider frequently the inevitability of death so that we will not be taken by surprise when the time comes. St. Augustine says that the Lord keeps hidden the circumstances of our death so that we may always be vigilant and on the alert.

Many who consider themselves good Christians are led astray because they fail to come to terms with the real meaning of death. Rather than considering it as finally reaching the destination which is the very reason of their existence, they find it a catastrophe that will end all their worldly pleasures and put to naught all their high hopes and earthly accomplishments.

We live in a materialistic world where pleasure and comfort reign supreme but where death and even life itself is devoid of lasting value. Suffering, failure and death are curses to be avoided at any cost. This is the mentality of those who do not believe in the Resurrection of Christ. Death teaches us one thing in life and that is to make good use of each and every day with fidelity to God. In the end, we will be rewarded with a joy beyond imagination – the reason we were created, which is to be finally with God in everlasting joy in heaven.

A Change of Lodging

Many people lose sight of the fact that each one has an immortal soul and that death is only a change of lodging, according to St. Josemaria Escrivá. The same saint also said to consider what it will be like when all the infinite beauty, greatness, happiness and love of God will be poured into the poor clay vessel that the human being is, to satisfy it eternally with the freshness of an ever new joy (Furrow, 891).

The Christian who behaves accordingly will not be alarmed at death’s arrival. St. Cyprian says that death is a stepping up into eternity after we have ran in this earthly race.

Dignity of Life

The Church teaches about each person’s great dignity, one that is distinct and superior to that of any other being in Creation. "Man is the divine masterpiece, created in the image and likeness of his Creator, gifted with an immortal soul by divine gift" (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis IV, 18).

Man is superior to all creatures and possesses a high level of dignity because he can be a temple of the Holy Spirit as long as he is in the state of grace.

The Meaning of Human Sickness and Suffering

Since Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, people have always had to bear heavy and paradoxical burdens of illness, pain and problems. No one is exempted from the burden of suffering and trials but a Christian’s faith helps him to achieve a better understanding of the mystery of suffering and to bear pain with greater fortitude. Christ has taught that suffering and illness have meaning and value for one’s own salvation and that of the world.

However some people, when beset with a lot of suffering, would rather end their life rather than go through great pain and suffering. To them, all hope is lost and the suffering becomes intolerable. Some of these people end their life or allow someone to help them end their life. Others assist the suffering end their life because they cannot bear to see someone suffer longer, or feel that one is too old or invalid to be of any use, and to ease the burden of the sufferer and those taking care of him.

What is Euthanasia?

In ancient times, euthanasia meant easy death without severe suffering. Today, the word euthanasia connotes some intervention of medicine or procedure whereby the suffering due to sickness or the final agony is reduced resulting in the premature end of life. In a more particular sense, euthanasia is referred to as “mercy killing” for the purpose of putting an end to extreme suffering, or saving abnormal babies, the mentally ill or the incurably sick from the prolongation of a miserable life which could impose a heavy burden on the families or on society.

Euthanasia is understood as an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated. Euthanasia’s terms of reference are to be found in the intention of the will and the methods used (Documentation Service, Theological Centrum, vol. III, no. 10)

The Value of Human Life

Only God can give life; only God can take it away. No one can usurp God of this exclusive power and prerogative. Human life is the basis of all goods and is the necessary source and condition of every human activity and of all society. Life is something sacred – a gift of God’s love which man is called upon to preserve and make fruitful.

What is the Catholic view on Euthanasia? According to the Declaration on Euthanasia by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

  1. No one can make an attempt on the life of an innocent person without opposing God’s love for that person, without violating a fundamental right and therefore without committing a crime of the utmost gravity. However, one must distinguish suicide from that sacrifice of one’s life for a higher cause, such as God’s glory, the salvation of souls or the service of one’s brethren, one offers his or her own life or puts it in danger.
  2. Every person has the duty to lead his or her life in accordance with God’s plan. That life is entrusted to the individual as a good that must bear fruit already here on earth, but that finds its full perfection only in eternal life.
  3. Intentionally causing one’s own death, or suicide, is therefore equally wrong as murder; such an action on the part of a person is to be considered a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan. It is a refusal of love for self, a flight from the duties of justice and charity owed to one’s neighbor, to various communities and to the whole world. However, it is generally recognized at times that there are psychological factors present that can diminish responsibility or even completely remove it.
  4. Nothing and no one can, in any way, permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. No one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for one’s self or for another person entrusted to his care, nor can one consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.

The Use of Pain Killers

Death often preceded by severe and prolonged illness and suffering naturally causes people a lot of anguish. A group of doctors have posed a question: Is the suppression of pain and consciousness by the use of narcotics… permitted by religion and morality to the doctor and the patient even at the approach of death and even if one foresees that the use of narcotics will shorten life? Pope Pius XII gave the following declaration: “If no other means exist, and if, in the given circumstances, this does not prevent the carrying out of the other religious and moral duties, YES.” In this case, death is in no way intended or sought – the intention is simply to relieve pain effectively.

However, pain killers that cause unconsciousness need special consideration. A dying person has to prepare himself for meeting Christ and may want to satisfy his family obligations and moral and religious duties. The dying person might want to make peace with God and so it is advisable that he or she is conscious to receive confession and the anointing of the sick by a priest. Pope Pius XII warns: “It is not right to deprive the dying person of consciousness without a serious reason.”

The "Right to Die"

The right to die should be taken not in the context of the right to procure death either by one’s hand or by means of someone else, as one pleases, but rather the right to die peacefully with human and Christian dignity. This is where the use of therapeutic means can cause some problems. Everyone has the duty to care for his or her health or to seek such care for others and for those tasked to care for the sick to do so conscientiously and to administer the remedies that seem necessary and useful. However, is it necessary to have recourse to all possible remedies?

Again the following guidelines are issued by the Declaration on Euthanasia:

  1. If there are no other sufficient remedies, it is permitted, with patient’s consent, to have recourse to the means provided by the most advanced medical techniques, even if these means are still in the experimental stage and are not without certain risk.
  2. It is also permitted, with the patient’s consent, to interrupt these means, where the results fall short of expectations. In this case, account will have to be taken of the reasonable wishes of the patient and the patient’s family, and also the advice of the doctors who are especially competent in the matter. The latter may in particular judge that the investment in the instruments and personnel is disproportionate to the results foreseen. They may also judge on the basis of the patient’s strain or suffering out of proportion with the benefits which may be gained from such techniques.
  3. It is also permissible to make do with the normal means that medicine can offer. No one can impose on anyone the obligation to have recourse to a technique which is already in use but which carries a risk or is burdensome. Such a refusal is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia but considered as an acceptance of the human condition, or a wish to avoid the application of a medical procedure disproportionate to the results that can be expected, or a desire not to impose excessive expense on the family.
  4. When inevitable death is imminent in spite of the means used, it is permitted in conscience to take the decision to refuse forms of treatment that would secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as normal care such as food and fluids due to the sick person is not interrupted.
  5. 5. The “extraordinary means” such as techniques or medications whether experimental or approved but already considered ineffective in the patient’s condition may be withdrawn from a dying person who has been declared by doctors as facing imminent death without any hope of recovery except by a divine miracle. However, no one should be deprived of “ordinary means” such as food, water and normal inflow and outflow of air up to the patient’s very last breath.


The norms contained in the present Declaration was inspired by a profound desire to serve people in accordance with the plan of the Creator. Life is a gift of God. On the other hand, death is unavoidable. It is necessary, therefore, that we, without in any way hastening the hour of death, should be able to accept it with full responsibility and dignity. It is true that death is the end of our earthly existence, but at the same time, it opens the door to immortal life. Therefore all must prepare for this event in the light of human values, and Christians even more with the light of faith (Documentation Service, Death and Euthanasia, Vol. III, no. 10). 

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