Program #0234 for Friday, February 10, 2012: Cardinal Seán’s Homily on Doctor-Prescribed Suicide

February 10, 2012

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Mark O’Connell

Today’s guest(s): Janet Benestad, Secretary for Faith Formation and Evangelization

Links from today’s show:

Today’s topics: Discussion of Cardinal Seán’s Homily on Doctor-Prescribed Suicide

Summary of today’s show: Scot Landry and Fr. Mark O’Connell welcome Janet Benestad, Secretary for Faith Formation and Evangelization, to discuss Cardinal Seán’s homily for this Sunday, the World Day of the Sick, which will be heard in every parish in the archdiocese for the launch of an education campaign on efforts to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide in Massachusetts. Cardinal Seán warns us not to be mislead by euphemisms and the slow erosion of the respect for life. Christ’s Church responds to illness with love and true compassion, not by encouraging the ill to throw their lives away.

1st segment: Scot and Fr. Mark talked about recovering the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss. They also discussed the work week, including the Presbyteral Council meeting this week. Fr. Mark said Msgr. Bill Fay, who co-leads the Pastoral Planning Commission, said people may be afraid of change, but we’re going to get there anyway. There are already more than 50 parishes that share a pastor with other parishes. If we do absolutely nothing, we will get the same place, but it won’t be planned. Scot said anyone who would like to see the resources that have been shared regarding the pastoral planning consultation can go to PastoralPlanning2012.org

Scot mentioned news stories today that printed a private letter from Msgr. Bill Helmick to Cardinal Sean in which he gave his feedback on the pastoral planning suggestions. Fr. Mark said violating that confidentiality is tragic. Scot said the purpose of this consultation process is to receive such feedback.

Scot said this Sunday is the World Day of the Sick and so Cardinal Sean has asked that a homily from him be read in all parishes this weekend to kick off an education campaign about a ballot initiative to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide.

2nd segment: Scot and Fr. Mark welcomed Janet to the show. She said it’s been several weeks of preparation for this weekend, and parishioners will not only hear or see the homily but will receive printed materials to help educate them on the proposed bill and its problems. They began by listening to the first part of Cardinal Seán’s homily:

I am grateful to your pastor and the parish staff for this opportunity to talk to you today on the occasion of the twentieth World Day of the Sick. We celebrate World Day of the Sick each year on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in order to pray for the sick and the dying and for those in the healing professions. Saint Paul exhorts us today to be imitators of Christ, who stretches out his hand in compassion toward the sick. This is the model that we as Christians have emulated for centuries in our hospitals, nursing homes, and treatment centers.

Unfortunately, this model of compassion is now being threatened. In November, citizens in Massachusetts likely will be asked to vote whether doctor-assisted suicide should be a legal and normal way to care for the terminally ill. That is why it is so important for me to talk to you now about the so-called “Death with Dignity Act.” If passed, the referendum would allow an adult resident of Massachusetts— diagnosed with fewer than six months to live— to request and receive a prescription for a lethal drug. Proponents of this bill want us to believe that this is a compassionate response to the plight of people who have a terminal illness. It is not. We are called to comfort the sick, not to help them take their own lives. As the Catholic Bishops of the United States said in their recent statement on assisted suicide: “True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead.”

Scot noted how the Cardinal said our outreach to the ill is imitation of Christ’s compassion for the sick. Fr. Mark said it’s surprising to him to hear it is being contemplated that we can give a pill to someone to kill themselves and that is called compassion. Janet said the initiative is called the Death with Dignity Act, which co-opts the language we use about the dignity of life. The proponents will not use the word suicide, but instead call it aid in dying.

Scot said we have to ask what kind of society we want to have in the state of Massachusetts and whether we will be fooled by the proponents of a false compassion.

People fear the dying process and the possibility of being kept alive by burdensome medical technology. They fear intolerable pain and suffering, losing control, or lingering with severe dementia. They worry about being abandoned or becoming a burden on others. For all these reasons, the ability to exercise control over the time and circumstances of death can appear attractive.

Proponents of assisted suicide say that the Church wants people to suffer and that Catholics are obliged to accept every treatment available. This is simply not true. Burdensome and futile treatments may be refused as in the case of older patients who need not have risky surgery or painful chemotherapy in order to gain a few more months of life.

Scot said there are two central points here. One is that it’s natural to fear the dying process, but it’s how we respond to those fears that is critical. Fr. Mark said it depends on what we mean by compassion. Compassion is to give palliative care, to help them not worry about what will happen after they die, to help them accept God’s timing. Compassion is not to leave them thinking they are a burden.

Scot said the Cardinal then says that proponents falsely accuse the Church of wanting people to suffer. Janet said Catholics sometimes don’t understand the teachings of the church either. People are not obligated to take every possible treatment. They can refuse risky surgery or sometimes chemotherapy or other burdensome treatments. They can also receive pain killers, even if those pain killers could hasten death, when death is imminent and inevitable. Scot said the key is that the prescription from the doctor is intended to alleviate suffering not to eliminate the sufferer. You can never intend the person’s death.

The 5th Commandment states “Thou shall not kill.” This certainly includes killing to alleviate suffering. Doctor-assisted suicide occurs when a doctor assists the patient to end his own life, even though does not directly administer the lethal drug. It is doctor-prescribed death. Blessed Pope John Paul II said: “To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called “assisted suicide” means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested.”

Scot said the Cardinal is very clear on this. This is not just the Church’s teaching, but it comes from God in the Old Testament. Fr. Mark said the doctor has a moral decision to make. Do we want to leave it in the hands of the doctor? Do we want him to put a pill in someone’s hand and then wash his hand of it? What are the standards for this decision? It is about expense? Is it about convenience? Why is the doctor playing God? Scot said the bill’s proponents claim there are safeguards, but they don’t go far enough.

Scot said people who get a terminal diagnosis, they go through mental anguish and even depression. Janet said the bill creates a class of citizens who are different from the rest of us: People whose suicides we don’t prevent. People who we say are better off dead. She said there are many people who receive a terminal diagnosis who receive treatment and go on to live for years and years. For some people who have a terminal illness, they become tenacious and live life with fervor and strength.

There is a slippery slope leading from ending lives in the name of compassion to ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions. Doctors in the Netherlands once limited euthanasia to terminally ill patients; now they provide lethal drugs to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, mental illness, and even melancholy.

There is also evidence that the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide contributes to suicide in the general population. This is true in the state of Oregon which passed doctor-assisted suicide in 1994. Now, suicide is the leading cause of “injury death” and the second leading cause of death among 15 to 34 year olds. The suicide rate in Oregon, which had been in decline before 1994, is now 35% higher than the national average.

Scot said the slippery slope is real. When we devalue human life in one case, it leads to devaluation in other cases. Fr. Mark said God’s gives us a gift of our life and we need to take care of it. To think of the body as something expendable is a tragedy.

Janet gave an example of a story from Oregon of a woman who wanted to get chemotherapy treatment for cancer, but got a letter from the insurer who said they won’t pay for the cancer treatment but would pay for the lethal drug. She wasn’t looking to kill herself. one case of this is too much and there are at least two documented cases of this in Oregon.

She said surveys show people don’t completely trust doctors, because of fears of overtreatment. So why would we trust doctors to prescribe lethal pills? Scot said people certainly trust their insurers even less and the lethal drugs are far more economical than any long-term treatments. They have an economic incentive.

Scot said we’ve also seen suicide rates among young people go up because assisted suicide makes it seem acceptable. Why do we say suicide is unacceptable for a healthy young person, but it’s acceptable for the terminally ill? Fr. Mark said we also have to protect our good Catholic doctors from pressure to administer these pills.

Doctor-assisted suicide is being presented as a way for the terminally ill to have greater freedom at the end of life. However, it would create pressures to limit our freedom, because it could establish an expectation that certain people will be better served by being dead, a dubious premise indeed! It creates a class of people— those whom doctors predict will live six months or less— for whom suicide should be facilitated, even made to seem attractive. It also opens the door for financially-motivated organizations like insurance companies and managed-care plans to someday encourage and pressure those at the end of their life to think that doctor-assisted suicide is an attractive option. Legalization of doctor-assisted suicide would compromise the practice of medicine. The Hippocratic Oath that has guided doctors for more than two thousand years says, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan.” Doctors and nurses are known for this devotion to heal and the refusal to assist in killing. Assisted suicide would compromise this ancient ethical code and the practice of medicine itself. It is important for you to know that the Massachusetts Medical Society voted recently by an overwhelming majority not to support this referendum.

Scot said this sort of bill could change the relationship our doctors have with us and this is probably why the Mass. Medical Society voted overwhelmingly not to support this initiative.

There are large flaws in the bill itself. For one thing, it requires that a doctor determine that the patient is capable of asking for lethal drugs, but there are no explicit criteria for assessing the mental capacity at the time of the request, nor is there a mandate to assess mental capacity at the time of the suicide. The bill also requires two witnesses to attest to the patient’s competence, but one of the witnesses can be a total stranger, and another can be the sick person’s heir. Alfred Hitchcock would make movies about this stuff. Also the law does not require that anyone witness the suicide, so there is no way to know for certain that the act was voluntary. Finally, the death certificate lists the underlying disease as the cause of death, not assisted suicide. This creates underreporting and a legalized deception.

Indeed this initiative is on the ballot in part because of the deceptive way in which the required signatures were obtained. Last Fall, proponents of this bill solicited signatures from Massachusetts citizens as part of the process for getting it on the ballot. You may have been approached and asked to sign the petition. People who were asked to sign reported that the petition was presented as a bill to “aid the terminally ill.” In fact, the bill does not use the word “suicide” because, as the lawyer for the organization promoting the bill has said, the word “suicide” is inflammatory. Instead, it talks about “aid in dying” or “A-I-D.” The major organization behind this effort also changed its name from the “Hemlock Society” to the deceptive “Compassion and Choices.”

Janet said it is a deception to have the cause of death not be listed as suicide. Insurance companies don’t want to be seen as paying for suicide. It’s also the case that no one has to be present at the time of death so you don’t know how it was administered. Did they even take it voluntarily? The bill has very few safeguards.

Scot wondered which is a bigger euphemism: Death with Dignity or Compassion and Choices. Fr. Mark said this could absolutely lead to murder. There will one day be a trial in which it is asked whether an heir caused the death of a person. Scot said there is no requirement for these deaths even to be videotaped.

Scot said the euphemisms are deceptive because during the ballot signature process people said they signed petitions thinking they were supporting help fort he terminally ill. Janet said there was a real intent to deceive people.

Janet said the Secretary of State will determine what will go into the referendum on election day, but we do know that we will encourage people to vote No.

Suicide is always a tragedy. A vote for assisted suicide would be a vote for suicide. For that reason, I ask you now to do three things to help stop doctor-assisted suicide from becoming law in Massachusetts.

First, pray for people who are seriously ill and dying, and for their caregivers. Visit the sick which is one of the corporal works of mercy.

Second, avoid believing the misleading and seductive language of “dignity,” “mercy,” “compassion” or “aid in dying” that proponents of the legislation will use to describe assisted suicide.

Third, educate yourselves as much as possible on assisted suicide and share that knowledge with others. Brochures, prayer cards, bulletin inserts and other materials have been prepared for you and are available in your parish. Please visit the website www.SuicideisAlwaysaTragedy.org which has been created to educate people on this issue.

Scot said the Cardinal couldn’t be clearer on what he wants people to do and what this bill is about. He asked people to educate themselves and their friends and neighbors. Janet said the task of caring for the terminally ill can be a great burden. As a society we should undertake as an act of charity to assist families caring for someone who is terminally ill. She said the cardinal wanted this education campaign to be underway before the election season really got underway and distracted people away from this important issue. We as Catholics should be at the forefront of good palliative care.

Our society will be judged by how we treat those who are ill and the infirm. They need our care and protection, not lethal drugs. As the Bishops wrote last year:

We as Catholics should be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives. Let us join with other concerned citizens, including disability rights advocates and members of the healing professions, to stand for the dignity of people with serious illnesses and disabilities and promote life-affirming solutions for their hardships. We should ensure that the families of people with terminal illnesses will never feel they have been left alone in caring for their needs. The claim that the “quick fix” of an overdose of drugs can substitute for these efforts is an affront to patients, caregivers and the ideals of medicine.

When we grow old or sick and we are tempted to lose heart, we should be surrounded by people who ask “How can I help you?” We deserve to grow old in a society that views our cares and needs with a compassion grounded in respect, offering genuine support in our final days. The choices we make together now will decide whether this is the kind of caring society we will leave to future generations.

Let us work together to build a civilization of love – a love which is stronger than death! God bless you.

Fr. Mark said we need to reach out to the sick. We have a duty as Christians to bring Christ’s love. Yes, it’s difficult and expensive. Who cares? These are our loved ones, those loved by God that we are obligated to care for? Scot asked if our society will be viewed as having money or love as most important to us. The Cardinal hopes that we are building a civilization of love.

3rd segment: It’s time to announce this week’s winner of the WQOM Benefactor Raffle.

Our prize this week is the CD: “The Apostle of the Rosary: Servant of God Father Patrick Peyton” by St. Joseph Communications.

This week’s benefactor card raffle winner is Jim Fadule, from Wellesley Hills, MA. Congratulations, Jim!

If you would like to be eligible to win in an upcoming week, please visit WQOM.org. For a one-time $30 donation, you’ll receive the Station of the Cross benefactor card and key tag, making you eligible for WQOM’s weekly raffle of books, DVDs, CDs and religious items. We’ll be announcing the winner each Wednesday during “The Good Catholic Life” program.

4th segment: Now as we do every week at this time, we will consider the Mass readings for this Sunday, specifically the Gospel reading.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
“If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.

“The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”

  • Second Reading for February 12, 2012, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)

Brothers and sisters,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

  • Gospel for February 12, 2012, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,

touched him, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once.

He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

Scot said at the end of the second reading, Paul tells us to imitate Christ. One of the way is to do as Jesus did. The lepers were outcast and Jesus reached out to them with compassion with love, when no one else would ever think of even touching them. The leper wanted to be cleaned physically and spiritually. Fr. Mark said Jesus touched someone who was an outsider from society because that wasn’t a barrier for Jesus.

Scot said the lepers were hurt by their illness, but they were also hurt by their ostracization from the community. Janet said those with terminal illness will also be ostracized into a second-class category. Scot said when he thinks of St. Paul’s reading, we see how JEsus responded to the lepers in his day. We’re not going to see actual lepers today, but there are many figurative lepers in society today: people who were considered ugly or unattractive or bodily afflictions; people with metal illness or disabilities; spiritual or moral lepers, public sinners; economic lepers, the homeless and the very poor; emotional lepers, those who feel alone. It doesn’t take us long to find people who are outcasts in society that we can reach out to with the love of Christ.

Fr. Mark points out in this reading the role of the Church. The man was healed and rejoiced in it, but Jesus told him to go present himself to the priest who would declare him clean. Jesus respected the Church’s role in society. There is a role of the Church to protect the outcasts of society.

Janet said Christ’s love is so powerful that it can even heal the spirit in addition to the body. The Psalm doesn’t say accidentally, “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.” Scot suggested that someone who wants to reconcile with Christ and the Church to receive spiritual healing through the Sacrament of Confession.

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