by Tom Grenchik
October 5, 2007
On March 20, 2004, Pope John Paul II addressed a conference in Rome on the topic of patients in a "vegetative state." He reaffirmed Church teaching with two simple points: patients in a "vegetative state" are still persons with inherent dignity; and there is a moral obligation to provide human beings with normal care, including nutrition and hydration. Some medical ethicists praised the Holy Father's message, while others were outraged. His critics claimed that the Pope had abandoned Church teaching, that he was getting old and did not really mean what he said, or that the teaching was so confusing that it would have to be "studied" for some time to come.
Realizing the danger of indefinitely prolonged study, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with great foresight, asked the Vatican for official clarification. The definitive response, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, came back from Rome on September 14, 2007, along with a commentary. The reply was once again consistent with previous Church teaching: such patients are human beings and there is a moral obligation to provide them with hydration and nourishment, even if there is no expectation that they will recover consciousness. The "study hall" is now closed on this matter.
For those of us who appreciate the consistency of the Church's teaching, there is no surprise here. We know that human beings exist at conception, even if they are (as some critics like to say) "smaller than the period at the end of this sentence." We know that the individual with the severest of disabilities is still a person, as is the patient fighting a terminal illness at the very end of his or her life. No one ceases to be human because of his or her age, location, condition of dependency, or health. All frail human beings in need have a claim on our compassionate response. In his 2004 address on patients in the "vegetative state," Pope John Paul II states, "The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters." That beautiful image applies not only to those in a vegetative state, but to each of us and all those in our care.
This clarification will assist those who have struggled to understand the Church's end-of-life teachings. When inevitable death is imminent, it still stands that no patient is obligated to do anything too extraordinary or too burdensome to prolong his or her life. But as pointed out in the recent clarification, "water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act." There are rare cases when even efforts to provide nutrition and hydration could be physically impossible or too painful, ineffective or dangerous for the patient. Yet even in these exceptional cases, such patients still have a claim on our compassion and our care, and the loving gaze of God the Father still falls upon them. May we also respond with that same loving gaze.
Tom Grenchik is the Executive Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.