Questions Answered – June 2023

Church Teaching on Living Wills

Question: Many states are encouraging living wills to settle end of life decisions. Is this wise? What is the teaching of the Church on this subject?

Answer: The Church is enthusiastic to promote the right to life. This is very clear in the opposition to abortion. It is also no less enthusiastic to uphold this right in the fact of the reality of death. Many states have recommended the signing of a living will to those who do not want to use extraordinary means to save their lives. Normally this is to avoid suffering either physical, mental or financial. It is akin to mercy killing. As one would put an animal out of its misery to avoid useless suffering, one would do the same with a human being.

Coupled with this question would be the additional issue of ordinary and extraordinary means which would include withdrawal of nutrition and hydration. Many people are adamant that they do not want to be attached to machines just to stay alive, but does that justify dying of starvation and thirst? Guidance in these questions is needed.

The moral principles involved should be evident. Since man has an immortal spiritual soul, the right to human life is the primary right and comes from the natural law. As a result, any attack on human life, even a well-meaning one to alleviate suffering, is to be avoided and has no force in law. This includes mercy killing, also known as euthanasia. This derives from the description of the human person in Gaudium et Spes, which states that no person may be an object of use but only a subject of love and that a human person only realizes himself in a sincere gift of himself to another. Euthanasia is defined 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.”

Because the right to life is the foundation of all human rights, a person who participates in euthanasia is committing murder no matter what the intention. Furthermore, suffering is part of life and in Christianity becomes a means to salvation for self or others. For this reason every person has a duty to seek medical care to support their physical life. But people are not obliged to seek extraordinary or disproportionate means to save their lives. These would be means which offer no reasonable hope for a cure and are excessively burdensome. The determination of what constitutes these means can be difficult to determine and the patient should consult family, a physician, and hopefully a priest before making it.

If death is imminent and there is no way of preventing it, the patient is justified in declining “precarious and burdensome prolongation of life.” However, they are still obliged to make use of ordinary means to support life such as food and water. The dying patient would merely accept death without hastening it.

If one decides to allow oneself to die, this must be in the context of a near-approaching death and be based on justice, and not deciding on the basis of age or dependency on others. No matter what the physical or mental condition of the patient, such a person is still a reasoning subject whose right to life must be respected.

Special considerations attach here to food and water. In this issue two extremes must be avoided. The one is any thought of hastening death just because this is omission of a necessary treatment. The other is that all forms in whatever context as supplying food and water must be morally applied. The former hastens death; the latter merely accepts it.

“Quality of life” can only be a consideration which should enter the decision in three ways: first, to avoid needless suffering by morally acceptable ways; second, the avoidance of a treatment which adds needless suffering beyond that caused by the previous illness: third, the times when further conditions complicate the original one. This would be the case when a demented patient tries to pull out the feeding tube.

These conditions differ from a quality of life ethic which merely judges that suffering patients have no respect for their own right to life. Sadly, living wills often encourage this judgement. Also, they limit future treatment and leave it in the hands of a stranger, doctor or hospital to decide.

These goods are so important that the Church does not want anyone but the patient or someone who knows his mind and respects it making decisions to terminate them. This is the purpose of the durable power of attorney in which if a patient is rendered incapable of making a decision, for example he is unconscious, then the responsibility would fall to one who knows his mind on the subject. This avoids needless attacks on the right to life in death. What is clear is that such decisions should not be left to the hospital, doctors, lawyers or civil servants who do not know the mind of the dying patient. For this reason the Church requires durable powers of attorney and condemns living wills.

Practice of Magic vs. Virtue of Religion

Question: There are many books available today about magic and Satanism. What is the morality of this and what implications does it have to our society?

Answer: This is too large a question to answer in one column but certain general principles can aid in morals.

First, all magic except prestidigitation, which is the hand being quicker than the eye and is a trick, is due to a denial of the virtue of religion. This virtue, enumerated even by pagan philosophers, is man’s attempt in justice to repay God for all he has given to us, beginning with our own creation. It is thus in the will and includes the recognition of the recipient that he depends on the ultimate cause for everything. This virtue was practiced in a special practical sense by Adam and Eve with the preternatural gifts before the sin. As they walked with God symbolically in the Garden, they experienced the height of divine intimacy. In addition to charity and the other virtues of gifts, they had integrity, which was expressed in infused knowledge, loving obedience, spontaneity of the passions, and freedom from suffering and death. This grand interior union depended on obedience and service to God. It was an obedience and service born of love. Obedience and love are like each other because each entails a union of wills affirming a common perceived good. Man made no attempt to manipulate nature or others for his own ends or to know the future from anyone but God. There was no magic or superstition. Nor did people seek a special knowledge about the future from beings other than God.

Satan and the good angels were created in this condition also, although since angels do not have a common nature, this was unique to each angelic person. Both men and angels realized their destiny through choice. In the angels their destiny was revealed in their first choice: service and obedience or rebellion: God or self. The wicked angels chose self and this is what they are left with for all eternity. Yet misery loves company, and since the wicked angels think love is impossible, their whole existence entails absorbing the will and freedom from other souls through man whose destiny is realized at death. As C.S. Lewis put it, their existence expresses the principle: “To be means to be in competition.” The demons wish nothing better than to share their misery with others and magic is one of their principal means of doing so. This is because they are angels, so they have a more acute sense of cause and effect in both the possible future and human relationships. But they are not God and so, though by knowing human nature they may make usually accurate predictions about the future, these are only based their greater knowledge of what is in the human heart.

The virtue of religion demands a mean between two extremes. Excess in religion would be to worship as gods beings not worthy of the name. This is called superstition. The Greek Pantheon would be an example. Even Socrates knew that these imaginary beings would not stand the scrutiny of goodness when put to the test of reason. The defect would be to truly believe, but to practice rituals or actions not in conformity with the honor owed to God. For example, seeking knowledge about the future through some being which cannot give it. An example would be how long I will live from tarot cards or a Ouija board. In both excess and defect the wicked angels are involved and man tries to manipulate the possible outcome using magic arts.

The contemporary world is full of attempts to manipulate God by not serving God but attempting to have God serve man. The demons encourage this through magical practices like shamanism, New Age, mediums, tarot cards, Ouija boards and the like. All are attempts to receive knowledge or power from some other being besides God about matters which no created being could know. One author has even gone so far as to see AI (artificial intelligence) as an attempt to do this. Suffice it to say that anyone who seeks certain knowledge outside God and natural sources in order to control the world has become controlled instead. This must be resisted and preached against. The priest must encourage someone who does these things to confession and frequent attendance at Mass. Sometimes exorcism is indicated and sometimes prayers of deliverance are also helpful.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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