Catholic teaching on death and dying helped me understand and navigate a series of moral hazards.
At 12:50 pm on Friday, October 31, I held my mother hand as she breathed her last and left this world. Barbara Gordon was born into poverty, but overcame that. She was widowed young and overcame that, too. During the last 30 years of her life she experienced profound physical suffering as she battled a viral infection of her heart that eventually required a transplant, followed by renal problems that destroyed her kidneys, crippling diabetes, and a variety of other ailments. Through it all she radiated the joy, peace and fearlessness that comes from an abiding personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Through Him, she overcame it all, even in death.
As her son, it was a privilege to be there, comforting and loving her to the end. But it was also a privilege to be there as a Catholic, which my mother was not. She, like my late father, was an ordained Evangelical Protestant minister. Her three sons all reconciled with the Church as adults, and although she respected our choices my mother remained outside the Catholic faith until the end.
For me, though, her death gave me a new appreciation for the Church’s teaching on death and the dignity of the human person, especially at the end of life, as well as those rites that comfort both the dying person and her survivors.
One week before my mother passed away, I received a call from the medical director at the nursing home where she had lived for the past year. He explained that in his opinion and that of the nursing staff my mom was beginning the process of “transitioning,” which he described as the interior movement from fighting for life to accepting death. He recommended that we enroll her in hospice in order to access the palliative care that service can offer.
We met with the hospice intake staff a couple days later. We explained that while we were prepared to let nature take its course, we had no interest in hastening my mother’s death or artificially depriving her of life-sustaining treatment like food and water. In other words, we wanted her to be made comfortable but weren’t interested in a sort of backdoor euthanasia. The hospice staff was visibly relieved. They told us that they often have to fend off requests to “speed things up” or administer chemical coups de grâce and thereby bring a natural process to an unnatural end.
As a Catholic making the final decision, I was able to consult the Church’s extensive teaching on end-of-life issues. That teaching helped me understand and navigate the moral hazards involved in making distinctions between ordinary and extraordinary care, pain management and terminal sedation, usefulness and necessity. It provided me with a moral-philosophical template with which I could contrast and align the particulars of my mother’s situation. It also provided a finely nuanced moral language, essential for clarifying my own thinking and communicating my conclusions to medical professionals.
Moreover, the Church’s teaching challenged me at all times to check my motivations, including my emotional reaction to the spectacle of my mother dying before my eyes. Through the well-tested counsel of the Church I was able to develop an essential objectivity in my decision-making, while never abandoning empathic identification with my mom or the deep bonds of filial love and obligation. The Church helped me to see what was happening, but also what should happen if my mother’s death was to be holy, Christian, and if I was to emerge from this experience with a clear conscience.
During my mother’s final week we prayed and sang and read Scripture to her, especially her favorite psalms. Since she met the conditions of