For Christians suffering is a central theme of faith. For those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, they must accept Him, as the Bible describes, as “the Suffering Servant” and “the Lamb of Sacrifice.” The road to Calvary and the public crucifixion has grounded Christians in the value and meaning of suffering.
But at the same time it must be noted that Jesus does not advocate for suffering. Suffering is an unintended consequence, not one imposed on us by Jesus. The Gospel miracles and the abundant examples of His healing ministry clearly testify to the desire of Jesus to alleviate all suffering. Christian theology teaches that the suffering of Jesus is sufficient for our salvation and that we, who may suffer for whatever reason, add nothing to what the redemptive suffering of Jesus has already accomplished for us.
Be it a toothache or a backache, we all legitimately seek the elimination of suffering and pain, be it simple or complex. We all strive to live in comfort without physical or emotional suffering, although few if any of us pass through life without experiencing pain.
Catholic theology speaks of individual suffering as having Christian value. Precisely because of the suffering and death of Jesus, the Catholic Church holds that suffering is not a useless state of being, especially for a believer.
When personal suffering is united with the Suffering Servant, endurance and acceptance of suffering becomes more possible. People of faith are often better able to cope with suffering. Indeed, suffering is a form of prayer, deep personal prayer.
Suffering can also be offered as a means of intercession on behalf of others. The specific way this works is a mystery, but no less real. Suffering must never be viewed as meaningless due to a person’s weakened state of a being.
As stated in Romans 5:1-5, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Euthanasia advocates, however, refuse to acknowledge the value of human suffering. They fail to recognize that the mystery of suffering can be life-affirming in a spiritual context, and that suffering should never be dismissed as a burden and useless state of being.
But as we acknowledge the spiritual grace of suffering, we must also be sympathetic towards those who suffer, particularly those whose suffering will lead to a certain death. Their condition deserves our highest regard and, when their will to live is worn out, we must redouble our efforts to be disciples of hope and promise in their presence. The Church recognizes that elimination of pain is everyone’s right and easing pain is our duty. Every measure of care and comfort must be brought to those who are suffering, particularly to those in their dying days.
We should also acknowledge the courage of those in palliative care who give witness to the sanctity of human life. We seldom hear their stories. As they face death and dying their faithful witness convincingly pronounces that all human life has inviolable value. They speak truth to the Gospel promise that in death life is not ended but merely changed.
The Church recognizes that when someone’s health has failed to the point of death and dying, caregivers are not required to impose extraordinary means to prolong life. Palliative care, however, does require that patients be hydrated, medicated and receive nutrition to the point of achieving a level of comfort. To deny these basic needs is morally objectionable. But when medical intervention becomes excessive or causes significant physical discomfort, there is no moral requirement to continue with treatment merely to delay an imminent death. Also, if drugs administered for the purpose of alleviating pain cause an unintended death, the Church views such acts as morally acceptable.
There is a clear difference between allowing a death and causing a death. Palliative care improves the quality of life by providing pain relief and comfort for those facing imminent death. Euthanasia is the intentional killing of someone, with or without consent, either by deliberate act or by omission.
Palliative care in a Christian setting acknowledges the prayerful and salvific aspects of suffering.
A suffering Christian understands their pain is a means to forge an intimate union with He who suffered unto death for us.
(Fr. Damian MacPherson, SA is Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)