End-of-life resources help Catholics ‘finish life faithfully’

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As euthanasia and assisted suicide are legalized in more jurisdictions throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, one organization is promoting end-of-life resources that the group’s founder says will help Catholics finish their earthly journeys while remaining faithful.

Aging with Dignity, a nonprofit that for years has been promoting end-of-life support, announced this month the release of “Finishing Life Faithfully,” a booklet that “makes complex end-of-life decisions easier” for Catholics. The materials address “basic questions” on how to approach end-of-life topics such as pain management, feeding tubes, and other matters surrounding death.

The document “summarizes the Catholic Church’s guidance on end-of-life decision-making and the ethical considerations involved and helps patients and families better understand these teachings and follow them,” the group said this month.

Jim Towey, the founder and CEO of Aging with Dignity who previously served as legal counsel to Mother Teresa, told CNA this week that he launched the nonprofit in 1996 “to give people a hopeful vision for end of life that helps them practice their faith and that doesn’t treat dying like it’s just a medical moment.”

For years Aging With Dignity has distributed its “Five Wishes” legal document, which helps Catholics and others “express [their] wishes ahead of a serious illness.” A form of what’s known as an “advance directive,” Towey said it lets the faithful “address their personal, emotional, and spiritual needs” before the final weeks and days of their lives.

The Five Wishes program has been immensely popular; the group has distributed over 40 million copies of the guide in 33 languages. But, Towey said, “it needed a companion guide to help Catholics understand what the Church teaches on feeding tubes, anointing of the sick, hospice, and pain management.”

Towey said he spent all of last year working with various collaborators, including priests, to develop the guide. The group says the document offers “a positive vision of care at the end of life that contrasts with the euthanasia/assisted suicide movements.”

The guide provides information on the ethical questions that often surround end-of-life concerns. It notes, for instance, that Catholics “can take or increase pain medication to lessen suffering” even if such medication might hasten the onset of death, so long as “death is not willed as either an end or a means.”

Elsewhere it notes that Catholics are not “obliged to accept or continue every medical intervention available” and that waiving “disproportionate medical treatments” that promise “only a precarious or painful extension of life” is “not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia.”

The organization distributes the materials through more than 5,000 distributing organizations, including health care providers, churches, and employers. Individuals often request the documents to distribute to family or friends.

Both euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legalized in more and more jurisdictions throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. Assisted suicide is legal in nine U.S. states and under consideration in several more. Numerous countries, meanwhile, allow euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, including Canada, Belgium, Spain, and several others. 

Towey said when he founded the organization nearly 30 years ago, there were already warning signs on the horizon regarding those deadly procedures.

“What I saw back in 1996 were the clouds gathering in favor of assisted suicide,” he said. “Now the storms have begun.” 

“We’re seeing more and more people, including Catholics, deceived by the arguments in favor of assisted suicide,” he said.

Both the advance directive and the end-of-life guide have been touted by U.S. Church leaders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdioceses of New York and Boston. O’Malley described the documents as “grounded in the primacy of protecting God’s gift of life.”

Of the group’s end-of-life advocacy, meanwhile, Towey told CNA: “We’re just getting started.”

“Assisted suicide isn’t the solution,” he said. “Good end-of-life care and healthy family discussions are.”

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“The Church needs to make this easier for families. We don’t make it easy for them to access some of this information,” he said.

“The Church needs to help people in this critical transition in their life to eternity, to remain faithful and to be assured by the accompaniment of the Church.”

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