Life-prolonging procedures may be rejected if they are burdensome
The dying need not resist death, Pope Francis says, the church doesn’t require that every means available be used to prolong their lives.
But, the dying must be accompanied with the love of family members and care of medical professionals, he told members of the European members of the World Medical Association meeting at the Vatican Nov. 16-17.
Father Thomas Welk, who has been involved in hospice in Kansas since the early 1980s, agrees with the pope. Fr. Welk says he sometimes shocks people when he reminds them that “our mortality rate will always be 100 percent.”
A Missionaries of the Precious Blood priest, Fr. Welk, is director of Professional Education and Pastoral Care for the Harry Hynes Memorial Hospice in Wichita.
There was a time when people believed one should do everything one could to prolong life – no matter what, he said earlier this month. “We’ll, that was easy enough to follow when we had, basically, no curative intervention.”
That’s no longer true, Father Welk said, adding that because medical technology is so advanced, the issue of what one can and what one should do can be confusing.
The U.S. bishops make it very clear in their 2009 document, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, he said, that this moral obligation to use ordinary means is only to be done when there is a reasonable hope of benefit.
“And then they mention excessive burden goes all the way to what kind of expenses are going to be involved,” Father Welk said.
He said the bishops’ statement can be more easily understood by tying it to the Baltimore Catechism.
The church has two pillars regarding life, he said: Life is sacred from beginning to end, it’s a precious gift of God, and that we are stewards, not owner, of our bodies; the second is related to the question, “What’s the purpose of life?”
“And we know from the Baltimore Catechism that the gift of life is given to us to know, love, and serve God and one another in this world,” he said.
And when our bodies are unable to continue in this world, what are we to do? “We let it go and love and serve God in the next world.”
Our duty to preserve our physical existence, our bodies, is not absolute, Fr. Welk said. “We may reject life-prolonging procedures that are insufficiently beneficial or excessively burdensome.”
Joseph Louis Bernardin, who died from pancreatic cancer in 1996, said death is initially seen as an enemy, Fr. Welk said, adding that the cardinal stated “sooner or later death is no longer the enemy, death becomes a friend.”
Death, Fr. Welk said, becomes “the healer,” the means of our entrance into a fuller, eternal life.

Want to read the bishops’ document about death, dying?
The USCCB document “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” is available for download at usccb.org. Use “ethical religious directives” in the search engine box.