Mercy: The Dying and the Dead
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
If there is one theme that runs through all manifestations of mercy it is the call to never abandon. Mercy calls us not to abandon those in prison, the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the women who have had abortions, the unborn, refugees, or those with disabilities.
True mercy also means not abandoning the dying or the dead.
Under the guise of “mercy” and “compassion” assisted suicide and euthanasia are becoming increasingly acceptable. Five states - Washington, California, Oregon, Vermont, and Montana - allow assisted suicide and at least five states are considering legislation to legalize it.
Proponents portray assisted suicide as a merciful act necessary to relieve a terminally-ill person’s pain and suffering, despite the fact that most of the laws do not require a person to actually be in pain or truly be terminally ill. They go to great lengths to avoid the fact that assisted suicide is assisted killing.
Like abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia are not examples of society rising up to meet the needs of the suffering, but are instead examples of society giving up and abandoning those in need.
As one of the official documents for the Year of Mercy reminds us:
The word for mercy in Latin is misericordia. The etymology of the word derives from the Latin misere (misery, necessity) and cor/ cordis (heart) and is identified with having a heart full of solidarity with those in need. So in everyday language mercy is identified with compassion and forgiveness.
Mercy, therefore, is linked to compassion. Compassion means to “suffer with.” As Jason Adkins, my counterpart in Minnesota, puts it: “Sending someone home with a vial of pills to die, and perhaps even die alone, is not compassion, it’s not humane.”
Even in jurisdictions that stop short of legalizing assisted suicide, we can be tempted to abandon the frail and the dying. North Dakotans needing long-term care, for example, are among those hardest hit by the recent state budget cuts.
The Basic Care Assistance Program funds services that provide care, service, and supervision to those unable to live alone. According to the North Dakota Long Term Care Association the recent cuts will result in a loss of 40% of service providers in the program. Meanwhile, nursing facilities are taking a $25.1 million hit.
The lack of services can contribute to subtle pressures to relieve perceived — but not actual — burdens. Without realizing it, we can be tempted to make health care decisions, especially for those at the end of life, for reasons of convenience disguised as compassion.
God never abandons and nor should we. True mercy, true compassion, does not mean aiding in killing or taking actions that intentionally and directly cause death by act or omission. We must provide ordinary care, including artificial food and water, so long as it provides a benefit. We can provide pain relief and comfort care, even if the method or treatment indirectly and unintentionally shortens life. The overarching principle is to “be with,” not abandon.
To help guide decisions, whether they are made by you or by someone speaking on your behalf, get the Catholic Healthcare Directive from the North Dakota Catholic Conference at: http://ndcatholic.org/chd/ or call 701-223-2519.
Earthly death inevitably comes.
The traditional seven corporeal works of mercy are: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.
Bury the dead stands out in this list for a few reasons. To begin with, it is the only work not mentioned in Matthew 25. Its scriptural basis come from the Book of Tobit, specifically verses 1:17 and 12:12. It was not until the 12th century that bury the dead was included with the six from Matthew 25. Thomas Aquinas in the next century firmly established it as one of the seven corporeal works of mercy.
It also stands out because it does not address an immediate need of a living person. One way of understanding its inclusion is to remember the call to not abandon. Treating deceased bodies with disrespect and disposing them like trash is a form of abandonment, not only of the body, but also of person who was living. Aquinas saw a connection between how we treat the dead body and how we treat the memory of the dead and Christ himself, who was also a body and was also buried precursor to the resurrection.
As with caring for the dying, there are sometimes public policy issues that affect our call to bury the dead with dignity. Many laws affect cemeteries, cremation, and related services. In addition, Catholic cemeteries are increasingly seeing threats to their ability to operate in accordance with Catholic beliefs.
Thus, with death, as with dying, we need to be vigilant and never abandon.