Death: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

From 'Dystopia' on the site of the Guild of Blessed Titus Brandsma

Our time on Earth is brief. Every day, week, month, year just seems to elapse quicker than did the last.  None of us knows the hour of our death, which is one reason why Catholics pray to Our Lady, that at the end of our sojourn in this life we may be granted a merciful judgement, having died in God's friendship, fortified by the Sacraments.

Catholics used to describe such an end as a 'good and happy death'.  In that sense, Catholics are keen on euthanasia - which means 'good death', because while we may require purification after death, our long term vision is nothing more or less than the Beatific Vision of God Himself. That's a good death.

A bad death is the one in which a person dies in a state of mortal sin, unrepentant. Those who die in such a state, according to the Church's teaching, have their state fixed in rejection of God and spend eternity eternally separated from Him in a place we know as Hell.

So, what would constitute an ugly death? Well, actually the ugly death is every death, since death is the worst possible thing anyone can imagine. It is the separation of the soul from the body. It is the end of man's time in this World - the only World to which we are accustomed. A man may, possibly, go through a life knowing few people, he can cut himself off from all social contact if he wills, but he knows the World, for it is all he has known. The other side of the veil, to man, is unknown, and it is the unknown that strikes terror and dread into the soul of man. The end of temporal existence is a horror.

And even God, Himself, not only knows this by virtue of his omniscience, but because the second Person of the Trinity experienced it when He became Man and 'suffered death and was buried'. God, in Jesus Christ, knows the terrible reality of facing death in all its reality. Few, if anyone, would maintain that death is a good thing. Objectively, death is a bad thing - even an evil - despite the fact that it is the just penalty incurred by man in the aftermath of the Fall.

So, if death, it is universally agreed, is a 'bad thing', then why would anyone advocate either suicide or encourage or abett the death of themselves or another?  If death, terrible as it is, is an accepted part of human experience, then surely we human beings would desire that death be postponed or that life be honoured or cherished as long as it is possible. Why should anyone desire to hasten death, if it is the least attractive of all human experiences?

Euthanasia enthusiasts, or 'assisted dying' advocates argue that because human suffering, illness, and pain are so horrendous, that a person should be able to choose death over life with an incurable or debilitating disease or illness, or a condition that leads a person to a point at which their life is 'no longer worth living' or a life which is no longer worthy of being called a human life, pointing at the perceived loss of dignity that many conditions bring about.

Yet, hitherto the 21st century, human societies, largely, have held that while sickness, illness, pain, dementia, disability and the range of sufferings which afflict the human race are evils, the worst of all evils is death itself.  The idea that the best possible solution to weakness, sickness, illness, disease, suffering and the loss of perceived dignity or purpose, or the ability to be 'productive', or some human imperfection is death has historically been anaethama to the West. The only way in which death has been prescribed as a solution to humanity's ills has been as punishment for a terrible crime. This is true - that is - until Germany became the first country to legalise voluntary euthanasia under the rule of one Adolf Hitler. Aside from this, no other culture or community that has embraced suicide as integral to its philosophy has been widely condemned as the result of an either religiously motivated or pathologically-motivated cult.

So, why should it be considered that the movement in the United Kingdom advocating 'assisted suicide' as the answer to human suffering is any different to the suicide cults which have preceded it, or the voluntary euthanasia programme of Nazi Germany, that paved the way for a less voluntary euthanasia programme of which the World recoils in horror?

The argument proposed in favour of assisted suicide, by such public figures as Baroness Warnock, Lord Falconer and a growing range of celebrities including Terry Pratchett, isthat human beings have the 'right to die'. And who in their 'right mind' could disagree with that? If there is most peole agree with it is the notion that human beings are endowed with certain 'rights'. Some would suggest that these rights come from a Creator, while others would suggest some other source - for example - a benevolent and wise State.  And who, indeed, could possibly argue against the 'right to die'? The very phrase the 'right to die' has become a cry for freedom and emancipation from a State that refuses its citizens autonomy over its own personal property - our lives.

Yet, no Churchman, no serious Churchman could argue against the 'right to die', since it is a right that comes to us merely be being born into this World. What someone could question, however, is whether anyone has the right to choose when they die.

Despite the fact that death is the most feared of human experiences, precisely because it represents an unknown state as the end of existence as we know it, perversely is the very reason why advertising it as a 'choice' can be made so appealing.  Since because the hour and manner of our death, with the suffering that precedes it, is so frightening, and because it is something over which we humans have no control, if we can at least control one aspect of death - the timing - then it provides us with an illusion of safety, security and controlthat we do not have if we allow it to occur naturally.

And, futher, if we can convince ourselves that the manner and hour of our death are matters of our own choosing - that it can be controlled - then such a 'service' as 'assisted suicide' can even be sold to us, as it has been, most notably in Switzerland at its notorious Dignitas clinics. And being 'sold' it is, under the advertisement 'dignity in dying', a phrase to which we shall return later. But let us first consider where we are.

In order for us to be convinced that we can procure an 'assisted suicide' in good conscience, because such a service we consider our 'right', then we first have to believe that the timing of our own death is our choice. We have, too, to be convinced that our life is our possession. 'It's my life' to do with 'what I choose' is the oft heard phrase.

Catholic theology does not prescribe that as human beings we have no autonomy over our actions or lives. Society is still impressed, for example, by those who risk their lives to safe others. To do such a thing is considered still to be heroic - to show selfless love in risking or laying down your life for another. If a man pushes another man out of the way of a bus and himself is killed then he has sacrificed his life for that of another in order to defend a human life. Similarly, Christ said 'nobody takes my life away from me,' but that 'I lay it down of my own free will'. Human beings have autonomy over their affairs by virtue of our free will. So, we see, then, that the Church has no objection to the idea that we are in possession of our own lives.

But if we are to say that ownership of human life belongs to us as individuals, then we must ask the question: to whom does this life belong after death? It may be 'my life' now, but is it 'my life' after the moment of 'my death', since I no longer exist in the body? Like all human possessions, life, whether you believe in God, or not, is surely only on loan. The Catholic Church posits that, like all human possessions, whether it be an antique, a family heirloom, a favourite picture or a book, life too belongs to a person until death. Like any other possession, ownership of life must pass from the current owner onto another who is in receipt of it.

Whatever way you look at it, we can say 'It's my life' while we are living, but the claim loses all sense and meaning when we are dead since we can no longer claim ownership of even the clothes we are wearing, or the clock on the wall that tells of the time of our death. The clock will remain perhaps far long after we have been there. Perhaps the clock will tell the right time for many of its owners until the End of Time itself, but we? We shall have long gone. Even by objective standards, anyone would think that the clock is more important than a human life since it may well last and be treasured on earth for longer - far longer - than not just the person who owned it, but the memory of a person himself in the hearts of men.

The clock may be passed onto a relative or a third party in this World, but a human life can be passed onto nobody in this World. So, after death, if we can no longer say, 'It's my life to do with as I will', then to whom does ownership of this human life pass? The Catholic Church would say: to the God who made it - to the God who redeemed it - to the God who gave that individual the free will to either cherish it and honour it, or, conversely to dishonour it and to destroy it.

Further, the claim that 'it is my life to do with as I will' is given greater force and gravity by a sober assessment of the statement, since the possibility exists that the one who makes the claim does so knowing that something within himself is immortal. For if I say, 'It is my body, it is my life to do with as I will' and do not believe that something within me is immortal then I appear as a fool, since those around me know full well that while my life is my possession, the lease expires upon my death. It only makes logical sense if I say it in the knowledge that something within me belongs to me, is indeed mine, forever and that wherever it is that I go after death, I will take that 'I', that 'my' with me to that place. In order that 'its my life' make sense I have to believe I am immortal in some sense or that something within me is infinite, despite the fact that my bodily existence is finite. Therefore, the statement that it is 'my life, my body' only makes logical sense if I believe that it is also 'my immortal soul'. Now, you see the distinction, because while a life belongs to a man in this World and all life goes out of a man upon death and returns to his Creator, the Author of Life, the soul too belongs to a man, a soul which either lives forever happily with God in eternity after a period of purgation, or does not.

So, we see now that the claim to assisted suicide upon the grounds that 'its my life' is not so simple as it first appears, when we assume that we can claim it, in some instrinsic sense, forever, and that it is only when we do so that our bold claim makes sound sense. Yet, it is precisely at this point that our argument that we can procure this service of 'assisted suicide' falls down, since if I have a soul, a soul that lives forever, then I would be wise to do what I can to preserve my soul and place my death trustfully in the hands of my Creator, for He has entrusted this gift of life to me for His service and glory. For me to destroy that which He has made, even my own self, who I may either love or loathe, is to destroy that great gift of life which He gave me. Even were we not to have the Ten Commandments which help us very much in this matter - this decision of life and death - then it would be wise for me to pray fervently for guidance in this very important matter, before I either kill myself, or freely allow another party to do it for me, since if I live forever in the state in which I have died, then that decision will have serious consequences for me when I approach the Seat of Judgment which is nothing other than my Conscience in the light of God Himself.

Now, we live in a society which is vastly more atheistic and secular in belief than were previous generations and, as a Catholic, all I can say is that, given what the Church teaches about both suicide and murder as grave dangers to the immortal souls of those who commit them, the best that we can say of those Governments, parts of Governments, celebrities and children's books authors currently considering or promoting the idea of  'assisted suicide' as a potential answer to a host of modern day problems, economic problems, as well as social and societal ills, is that they have not thought them through very well. And, all I have discussed, so far, is the awful reality of death that we must all undergo, for 'after death, comes judgment'. From what I hear of the Church's mystics, even purgatory is a fate worse than physical pain and incurable terminal disease in this life.

We have not yet even considered the huge social ramifications involved in the 'assisted suicide' debate. That will have to be dealt with in the next post. Suffice to say, however, that the trends emerging in the United Kingdom, as well as other countries signalling an interest in assisted suicide, is that both the State and the Media consider that while our right to life is arbitrary and at the mercy of doctors, nurses, mothers and fathers, our 'right to die' could be deemed, in the future, absolutely guaranteed. It was guarateed already, of course, its just the timing that is so crucial.



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