Debate at All
Thomas A. Droleskey
debates have raged in some Catholic circles in the five weeks since
Mrs. Theresa Marie Schindler-Schiavo was murdered as a result of a cruel
death by starvation and dehydration that had been imposed upon her by
a Florida probate judge, George Greer. It was scandalous enough that
Mrs. Schiavo's own diocesan ordinary, the Most Reverend Robert N. Lynch
of Saint Petersburg, Florida, issued statements in 2003 and as late
as February 28, 2005, that indicated that Michael Schiavo had the right
to determine the fate of his brain-damaged wife absent some mediated
settlement between himself and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Schindler.
It is even more scandalous that some people representing themselves
as traditional Catholics have campaigned actively to distort Catholic
moral teaching on this matter and to place into doubt the facts of Mrs.
Schiavo's own condition.
at this point just three of the points that I have made over the course
of the last few years about this case (and repeated in a particular
way in a series of articles on this site from February 21, 2005, to
March 31, 2005, the date of Mrs. Schiavo's death by starvation and dehydration):
The moral principles here are quite clear: the Catholic Church has taught
consistently that it is never permissible to take any action that has
as its only end the death of an innocent human being. The removal of
food and water has only one end: the cruel, tortuous death of a human
being. Period. The Fifth Commandment states that "Thou shalt not
kill." Removing food and water kills a human being. It is forbidden.
The attempt to apply the moral principle of the double-fold effect (that
a just end may be pursued despite foreseen but unintended evil consequences)
to the removal of food and water from a living human being is thus fatally
The Catholic Church has taught that food and water, no matter how they
are delivered, do not constitute medical treatment. They are the absolute
right of a living human being. One who cannot feed himself must be fed
by others. This is not burdensome to an incapacitated person or financially
costly to his or her relatives, as several who are medical experts have
written quite extensively.
Pope John Paul II applied these basic principles to cases of brain-damaged
persons when addressing physicians on March 20, 2004. The late Holy
Father, who was firm in his unyielding opposition to the forces promoting
abortion and euthanasia in the world, said:
with patients in similar clinical conditions, there are some who cast
doubt on the persistence of the "human quality" itself, almost as if
the adjective "vegetative" (whose use is now solidly established), which
symbolically describes a clinical state, could or should be instead
applied to the sick as such, actually demeaning their value and personal
dignity. In this sense, it must be noted that this term, even when confined
to the clinical context, is certainly not the most felicitous when applied
to human beings.
opposition to such trends of thought, I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly
that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do
not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her
life. A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his
highest functions, is and always will be a man , and he will never become
a "vegetable" or an "animal".
our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition
of a "vegetative state" retain their human dignity in all its fullness.
The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging
them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help.
doctors and health-care personnel, society and the Church have moral
duties toward these persons from which they cannot exempt themselves
without lessening the demands both of professional ethics and human
and Christian solidarity.
sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end,
still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness,
warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his
confinement to bed. He also has the right to appropriate rehabilitative
care and to be monitored for clinical signs of eventual recovery.
should like particularly to underline how the administration of water
and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents
a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore,
should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate , and
as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have
attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in
providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.
obligation to provide the "normal care due to the sick in such cases"
(Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Iura et Bona , p. IV) includes,
in fact, the use of nutrition and hydration (cf. Pontifical Council
"Cor Unum", Dans le Cadre , 2, 4, 4; Pontifical Council for Pastoral
Assistance to Health Care Workers, Charter of Health Care Workers ,
n. 120). The evaluation of probabilities, founded on waning hopes
for recovery when the vegetative state is prolonged beyond a year, cannot
ethically justify the cessation or interruption of minimal care for
the patient, including nutrition and hydration. Death by starvation
or dehydration is, in fact, the only possible outcome as a result of
their withdrawal. In this sense it ends up becoming, if done knowingly
and willingly, true and proper euthanasia by omission.
this regard, I recall what I wrote in the Encyclical Evangelium
Vitae , making it clear that "by euthanasia in the true and proper
sense must be understood an action or omission which by its very nature
and intention brings about death, with the purpose of eliminating all
pain"; such an act is always "a serious violation of the law of God
, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human
person" (n. 65).
the moral principle is well known, according to which even the simple
doubt of being in the presence of a living person already imposes the
obligation of full respect and of abstaining from any act that aims
at anticipating the person's death.
Cardinal Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and
Peace, reiterated this clear application of Catholic moral principles
when he spoke out forcefully for Mrs. Schiavo at a time when the aforementioned
Bishop Robert N. Lynch and the Florida Catholic Conference were attempting
to justify the withdrawal of food and water in some cases on the basis
of "psychological" and "financial" burdens. Cardinal
Martino rightly termed the threat to Mrs. Schiavo's life in late February
of this year as an effort to legalize euthanasia in the United States.
The late Holy Father himself said this in a passage quoted above:
"The evaluation of probabilities, founded on waning hopes for recovery
when the vegetative state is prolonged beyond a year, cannot ethically
justify the cessation or interruption of minimal care for the patient,
including nutrition and hydration. Death by starvation or dehydration
is, in fact, the only possible outcome as a result of their withdrawal.
In this sense it ends up becoming, if done knowingly and willingly,
true and proper euthanasia by omission."
and proper euthanasia by omission." There is nothing to debate
at all. Whatever the late Holy Father's faults in a number of areas,
including but not limited to Church governance and ecumenism, which
I have discussed quite frankly on this site, his statement that death
is the only result from the withdrawal of food and water is simply a
matter of biological fact. His statement that this is proscribed by
the binding precepts of the Divine positive law and the natural law
did not "invent" a wrong when none existed. No, his statement
that the withdrawal of food and water is proscribed by God's immutable
laws was and remains a simple reiteration of the truth that exists in
the nature of things that does not depend upon human acceptance for
its binding force or validity.
As I noted
on March 31, 2005, Mrs. Schiavo was yet another victim in the overthrowing
of the Social Reign of Christ the King. This is what I wrote then and
wish to reproduce here to provide some context in which to understand
that what happened to Mrs. Schiavo, which is happening day in and day
out in American hospitals and hospices, is immoral of its nature and
must be opposed vigorously by all Catholics:
there would have been no controversy concerning the fate of Terri Schindler-Schiavo
if we lived in a Catholic world. The Florida State Legislature would
never have passed legislation permitting a husband or other “legal guardian”
to petition a court to remove hydration and feeding tubes from brain-damaged
and/or comatose patients unable to speak for themselves. Legislators
in a Catholic world would understand that no human institution has any
authority pass legislation or to permit any policy that contravenes
the binding precepts of the Divine positive law and the natural law.
A bill that proposed to permit the starvation and dehydration of a human
being would be viewed as an anathema that could not even be considered
for passage in a Catholic world. And Catholic bishops would denounce
with great firmness any legislator who even thought about introducing
such an immoral piece of legislation. Thus, the very piece of legislation
that caused the murder of Theresa Marie Schindler-Schiavo would have
been unthinkable in a Catholic world. It would be understood as a given
that no individual has the right to dispose of his or her life and that
no human institution has the authority to grant such an nonexistent
right to others over the welfare and very existence of relatives.
Second, spouses in a Catholic world would take seriously
the fact the Sacrament of Matrimony makes present all of the sufficient
graces necessary to deal with whatever crosses they are asked to bear
during the course of their married lives. They would willingly and readily
give love to the one to whom they are wedded in Christ when they are
unable to care for themselves. They would see the suffering face of
Christ Himself in their suffering spouses. They would see the love and
sacrifice they made in times of the suffering of their spouses as nothing
in comparison to the reward that awaits them in eternity for their faithful
and selfless devotion to their suffering spouse in Christ. Indeed, they
would see in their suffering spouses their own path to sanctity, their
own path to Heaven, offering all without a moment's hesitation as consecrated
slaves of Our Lady's Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart. There would be
few actual instances of abandonment or infidelity in the cases of incapacitated
spouses, worse yet of plots to use the civil law to effect the starvation
and dehydration of a spouse unto an unspeakably cruel death.
Third, if, however, a married person fell into infidelity
at a time of his spouse's incapacitation and/or did not do everything
he was obligated to do to effect his or her recovery, then the civil
state in a Catholic world would have the right to intervene to depose
the wayward husband or wife as the legal guardian of his or her spouse.
Judges serving on civil courts, whose courtrooms would be adorned with
Crucifixes, would see it as their duty to protect innocent life, not
to put such life to death under cover of unjust and immoral laws. Delinquent,
negligent, abusive spouses would be sent to jail, not given free rein
to misuse funds won in a malpractice suit to kill the ones to whom they
have pledged to serve whether in sickness or in health unto natural
death do them part. And attorneys who contended that the civil law and
the civil courts could be used to put innocent lives to death in the
name of “compassion” and “mercy” would be disbarred as menaces to the
common good and put in jail themselves.
Fourth, the Church herself would provide a consistent
and clear voice in defense of the innocent whose lives are imperiled
during times of incapacitation and/or chronic illnesses. The Church
would not give conflicting signals, as happened with the Most Reverend
Robert Lynch, the Bishop of Saint Petersburg, who said in August and
October of 2003 that there were circumstances in which feeding and hydration
tubes could be removed licitly and who never once acknowledged that
he had been contradicted by Pope John Paul II in March of 2004. The
Church herself would recognize that Mrs. Schiavo's right to life was
absolute and inviolable, that her right to nutrition and hydration did
not depend upon her ability to recover or to feed herself. The Church
would have reprimanded quite publicly Michael Schiavo and denounced
his adultery and his misuse of the funds awarded for Terri's medical
care and rehabilitation. The Church would have joined quite actively
in legal efforts to defend Terri's life, reminding judges of their duty
to enforce the binding precepts of the Divine positive law and the natural
law, going so far as to threaten Catholic jurists with excommunication
if they failed to enforce those precepts.
All we ever
had to do in this case was to apply the basic principles of Catholic
moral teaching found in the Deposit of Faith and in the very nature
of things to the concrete circumstances of Mrs. Schiavo's case, some
of which I noted at the beginning of this current article:
1) The provision of food and water is ordinary care
no matter how it is delivered to a human being.
The provision of food and water is not medical care; it is not medical
3) The Fifth Commandment prohibits any the undertaking
of any action that has as its only and immediate end the death of an
innocent human being. This case has never been about Mrs. Schiavo's
"wishes." This case has always been about the faithful fulfillment of
the Fifth Commandment and the loving administration of the Corporal
Works of Mercy. No one has any right to starve dehydrate himself to
death or to delegate to another to do so if he becomes incapacitated
at some point. Any civil law that confers such a "right" is null and
void as it attempts to contravene the immutable law of God.
The specific condition of Mrs. Schiavo (her consciousness or alleged
lack thereof, her ability to recover) was absolutely and totally irrelevant
to her unconditional right to the provision of food and water. While
it was certainly important to point out that Mrs. Schiavo was not in
the “persistent vegetative state,” that so many doctors had asserted
as being the case (and that Michael Schiavo had deprived her of the
therapy that might have improved her condition over time), she would
have been entitled to food and water if she had been in an irreversible
5) As I have noted on a number of other occasions in
the past six weeks, Mrs. Schiavo was no more “kept alive” by the tubes
that delivered food and water to her than any of us are when we eat
and drink. She was no more near death than any one of us prior to the
removal of her feeding and hydration tubes on March 18, 2005, the Feast
of the Seven Dolors of Our Lady in the calendar of Tradition, which
started the process of her long, drawn-out and cruel death. Her death
is one that would have been deemed unconstitutional to have imposed
on a person convicted of a capital crime and sentence to the death penalty.
If Mrs. Schiavo was so "near death" in such a "debilitated"
condition and was "burdened" by her nutrition and hydration,
why did it take thirteen days for her to die? Other than having sustained
damage to her brain, she was an otherwise healthy human being who was
being used by God as a source of grace to her relatives and friends.
6) The choice of specific, elective medical care, as
opposed to the provision of mandatory ordinary care, to sustain one's
life is a decision that is made by a patient and/or his relatives according
to a variety of variable factors. A thirty year old man may with a family
to support may have a positive obligation to undergo some kind of treatment
to combat an aggressive cancer whereas a single man of the same age
might, after spiritual direction from an authentic Catholic priest,
forego such treatment. Similarly, an eighty year old man might refuse
heart bypass surgery to let nature take its course, preparing assiduously
for the moment of his own Particular Judgment. These are decisions to
be made in consultation with an authentically Catholic priest and after
prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and to the Mother of God.
7) The removal of truly extraordinary medical means
to sustain the involuntary functions of one's body does not involve
a directly willed intent to kill oneself or another. The removal of
a respirator, for example, may or may not result in the death of a particular
person. The body might be able to start breathing on its own. The death
of such a patient, though, is the unintended but foreseen consequence
of removing artificial assistance to the continuation of an involuntary
bodily function. This is the Catholic moral principle known as the double
(or two-fold) effect. Said removal of an artificial life-sustaining
device can only take place, as Father Lawrence C. Smith noted on this
site a few days ago, after a Catholic who is conscious has made a good
confession of his sins and received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction
and Holy Communion (and after one who is not conscious has received
the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and, if possible, Holy Communion as
a Final Viaticum).
Some have asked
why physicians would have diagnosed Mrs. Schiavo to be in a "persistent
vegetative state" (which is a term that is rejected by the members
of the Catholic Medical Association as a complete fabrication designed
to dehumanize brain-damaged human beings) if this was not the case.
Anyone who asks such a question demonstrates himself to be woefully
ignorant of the state of medicine in this country and the world. Most
physicians support the killing of innocent human beings in their mothers'
wombs by means of contraception and abortion. There is a great deal
of support in the medical community worldwide for positive acts of euthanasia
to put people "out of their misery" as though they were sick
animals. The starvation and dehydration of the elderly and the disabled
has become commonplace in American hospitals and hospices, as noted
above. Professional medical personnel in this country and elsewhere
are in love with killing people who are "unwanted" before
birth and "useless burdens" at any point thereafter. Most
medical personnel in this country support embryonic stem cell research.
These are facts, plain and simple.
Miss Mary Therese
Helmueller wrote about this in Homiletic and Pastoral Review
eight years ago from her own first-hand experience as a nurse (the article
is on the Tradition in Action website at present). Anyone--and I mean
anyone--who puts any trust at all in the word of any physician who supports
things that cry out to Heaven for vengeance is a fool. No one who is
in an objective state of mortal sin (leaving aside the matter of subjective
culpability to God alone) is going to be able to be a completely
competent and trustworthy practitioner of any profession, certainly
not when the life of a person deemed "a burden" by society
is at stake. His intellect is clouded and his will mightily weakened
by a continued embrace of things that are repugnant to God's law and
thus are detrimental to the individual good of men and to the common
good of their societies. To take the word of the doctors who certified
that Mrs. Schiavo had no "chance for recovery," as though
her absolute right to the provision of food and water depended on such
a chance, which it did not, is to render oneself the prisoner of the
conclusions of men who have no regard for the immutable truths contained
in the nature of things and revealed positively by God and explicated
to us definitively by Holy Mother Church.
As I note all
of the time in my writing, Pope John Paul II's vigorous defense of the
right to physical life was vitiated in large measure by his support
for the novelties of the conciliarist era and by his appointment of
men such as Robert Lynch as diocesan ordinaries. His refusal to consecrate
Russia to Our Lady's Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart ranks as one of
the greatest tragedies in the history of the Church, permitting the
errors of Russia to continue to spread like wildfire throughout the
world, including here in the United States of America. Although he enunciated
the moral principles on abortion and euthanasia very clearly, he did
not want to admit that these evils were the direct outgrowth of the
triumph of Modernity in the world and Modernism in the Church. Thus,
the evils he sought to oppose actually spread throughout his pontificate.
It must thus
be our prayer that his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, will indeed consecrate
Russia to Our Lady's Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart with all of the
bishops of the world. Such a faithful fulfillment of Our Lady's Fatima
Message will help His Holiness to restore Tradition without compromise
by giving him the grace he needs to do what his predecessor
refused to do: admit that the Church's opening to the world in the pontificate
of Pope John XXIII has infected the Church with the viruses of the world,
making it less possible, humanly speaking, for the Church's ecclesiastical
officials to recapture the glories of Tradition and to work unashamedly
for the restoration of the Social Reign of Christ the King and of Mary
our Immaculate Queen. There will be no need to write about cases such
as Mrs. Schiavo's after that point. We will see in those who suffer
the face of Christ and give them the care that they deserve, counting
it as no burden to render unto them the love of the Divine Master, Who
redeemed us without counting the cost and without a single word of complaint.
Our Lady, Help
of Christians, pray for us.