Dec 18, 2019
Two years ago, I joined a Catholic women’s symposium that discusses the weighty matters affecting our Church and our culture. One member of our group recently told us that her elderly father was in his last days. She asked for prayers and any resources we might have to guide her and her siblings and mother in navigating weighty end-of-life issues she expected they would face. There was a flurry of supportive responses and commitments to pray, but it took a while before anyone could forward along any helpful material. For my part, I knew of nothing to suggest off-hand.
I won’t face this problem again, thanks to Father Jeffrey Kirby’s We are the Lord’s: A Catholic Guide to Difficult End-of-Life Questions. A copy of this excellent, straight-forward end-of-life book arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, though, alas, a few days after my colleague’s father passed away (a “happy death” with family around, she relayed) and the email thread ended. Kirby sets forth basic principles of discernment for answering some of the hardest – and most common – questions surrounding end-of-life medical care and treatment. He also addresses the challenging practical issues that face the dying and their family members at this time.
Father Kirby begins by confronting the great modern misunderstanding of the human condition and dying. “No person is a burden,” he writes. Yes, this may seem obvious to so many us, but it’s no less important a truth, because we live in a culture that is “intoxicated with utilitarianism” – the notion that “any inconvenience for another person, or any service that makes us uncomfortable, is unmerited.” Christian teaching, however, has “always asserted that the only response to a person is love.” Loving the dying – seeking their good, delighting in them – exposes, Kirby argues, the “selfishness that disguises as compassion.” For children of God, Kirby reminds us, “quality of life” is “matured by love and an openness to live with inconvenience, discomfort, imperfection and suffering.”
Kirby outlines three important principles of discernment to guide bioethical and end-of-life decisions. One, we must recognize God as our Creator and accept the existence of an objective order of moral truth that is beyond us. “Our personal will, or desire for autonomy, are not sovereign,” he writes. “These must be placed within our human dignity and the objective order of moral goodness.” Two, we must understand our particular vocation. That is, we have to consider our duties and responsibilities toward others, our talents and capabilities, as well as the state of our souls. Three, we must appreciate the difference between what is morally obligatory (ordinary care, in the medical context) and what is morally optional (extraordinary care).
My own parents recently told me that they have “all of their affairs in order.” One such affair is the advanced directive, a summary of a person’s wishes in various medical situations. Father Kirby notes, however, that while such planning is prudent, it does not completely resolve end-of-life questions. As bioethicists often say, “When you have one situation, you have one situation.” Advanced directives, therefore, must always should be understood as guidelines and, most importantly, never can betray moral truths in light of the unique set of circumstances a person faces.