In this month’s Catholic Thinking article, Fr Bernard Teo CSsR responds to David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill. Dr Bernard lectures in Christian Ethics at Good Shepherd Theological College, Auckland.
Becoming an Easter People Together
A Catholic Response to David Seymour’s ‘End of Life Choice’
In December 2017, New Zealand tabled in Parliament David Seymour’s Bill entitled ‘End of Life Choice’, which seeks to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide. It was voted through to the Justice Select Committee for further public consultation and submissions.
The Bill reflects a culture that places high premium on the exercise of personal autonomy. It is defended as a compassionate Bill as it enables competent terminal patients to end their lives by a deliberative choice, and not prolonging their suffering needlessly.
While autonomy is the major pillar of the Bill, the fact that the legislature, judiciary, doctors, patients, pharmacists, the coroners, and social workers among others, are involved before the patient’s wishes are carried out leaves without a shadow of a doubt that it is a communitarian activity.
“While autonomy is the major pillar of the Bill, the fact that the legislature, judiciary, doctors, patients, pharmacists, the coroners, and social workers among others, are involved before the patient’s wishes are carried out leaves without a shadow of a doubt that it is a communitarian activity.
Once such a practice is legitimised, communal attitudes and expectations on the meaning and experience of suffering and dying will inevitably be transformed. It will affect not just the terminal patients, but also their families, the medical and legal professions, and politicians who are responsible for allocating resources for societal interests and needs. What kind of persons, community, and society that we become will be shaped in part by our responses to the challenges of caring for those at the end stages of life. Confronting the difficult realities of human suffering and mortality is intrinsic to what it means to be human, and for a community to be fully human.
To raise serious and thoughtful questions about such legislations is for everyone who cares deeply about the kind of society that humanises and civilises us. It is about us, in our rich communal, cultural and religious diversities, becoming human together.
A Catholic Response: Suffering and Death as Gift and Blessing
I will offer some theological reflections for my Catholic community as a person of evolving faith. I have my own deep convictions about what it means to be, and to live, as a human through the experience and lens of the Crucified and Risen Jesus. I will suggest practical things we could do together in response to the difficult questions of suffering and dying. Hopefully, our responses would transform us into a people who are witnesses to the hope and new possibilities the Risen Jesus brings to us as a redeemed human community.
First, we need to face concretely the difficult human experience of suffering and death. All of us will inevitably experience our own mortality. As for suffering and pain, I will focus on those who experience them as terminal patients.
For light we turn to Jesus. How did he look at his own suffering and death? What did he teach his disciples? In the few short years Jesus was with them, their lives and identities were imbedded in him and his mission. As his life was coming to a close, one could feel the heaviness among the disciples as Jesus prepared them for his imminent suffering and violent death. In this solemn and charged atmosphere Jesus had a surprising upbeat message of hope and life for them: It is to your advantage that I go. If I do not go, the Spirit will not come. But if I do go, the Spirit will come and lead you to the truth. The Spirit will teach you all things.
It is clear from his Gethsemane experience, Jesus would have preferred to pass this bitter chalice. Yet his farewell message taught them that his suffering and death are both gift and blessing to his followers. The post-resurrection stories made it very clear that it was necessary for him to go through these before entering into his glory. In fact, his best work was done not at the height of success during his public ministry, but when terrible things were done to him, and he had practically nothing to show for at the end of his life.
What does this mean for us believers? I suggest boldly that like Jesus and as believers, we allow our own suffering and dying also as gift and blessing to those we leave behind. It is the handing over of our own passion, and let it be experienced together as a community of faith. This is a big ask as we need to make a radical shift in our minds and hearts on these matters. It is only natural that those suffering and needing care at the end stages of life feel embarrassment and guilt for being burdens and inconvenience to our loved ones. Whether we like it or not, our suffering and dying are experienced paradoxically as both intensely personal and communal. It affects not only us but also and those around us. For Jesus the handing over of his life – his passion and death – is an important and indispensable part of the redemption process. They pave the way for him to rise into his glory. I suggest we confront our suffering and dying squarely through the lens of Jesus’ own life, and not be afraid to experience it as a family and community. Let the suffering and dying give to others the privilege of looking after them, while at the same time teach the living on how to live and how to die as believers in the One Crucified and Raised. Let the suffering and dying give to others the privilege of looking after them, while at the same time teach the living on how to live and how to die as believers in the One Crucified and Raised.
“Let the suffering and dying give to others the privilege of looking after them, while at the same time teach the living on how to live and how to die as believers in the One Crucified and Raised.
Communal Care for the Caregivers
In caring for those at the end stages of life, the family experiences stresses and strains. Very often the responsibility for caring within a family rests primarily with the women, and particularly with those who are unattached. This is the cultural expectations of many diverse communities.
I believe that every parish community must encourage the formation and organisation of support groups for terminal patients and their caregivers. Besides giving the caregivers a regular welcome break, they could also bring the caregivers out for a recreation day or a little personal makeover.
My message in this whole reflection is that for those who suffer terminal illness, and their caregivers, we are in this together as a faith community. It can be an enriching and faith building experience for everyone. Through all these, we can become truly the Easter People and be witnesses of hope while letting others see the face Jesus in and through the community.
Dr Bernard Teo CSsR is from Singapore and belongs to the Redemptorist congregation. Ordained in 1979, Fr Bernard served in Singapore and Malaysia. He undertook graduate studies in Moral Theology 1985‒1989 at The Catholic University of America. From the early 1990s he taught at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne (University of Divinity). He also taught in Singapore and the Phillipines at the St Alphonsus Theology and Mission Institute in Davao. Fr Bernard’s research interests include Ethics in Medicine, Fundamental Morals and Social Morals. Now based in Auckland, Fr Bernard is stationed in the Mangere parishes (St Anthony and St Therese) as assistant parish priest.