When life is manipulated as a "thing" which individuals claim as their exclusive possession, it passes completely under human control. Death, like birth, is then programmed. Neither the design of creation nor the plan of God for human life is respected. The stage is set for the tragedy of euthanasia.

After his teaching on abortion, the Holy Father turns his attention to life in its final stages. He defines euthanasia as "an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering" (#65). Euthanasia is, of course, different from a sick person’s decision to forego extraordinary medical treatment. When death is clearly imminent and inevitable, there is no moral obligation to resort to aggressive medical treatment. The pope cites with approval the Vatican’s Declaration on Euthanasia (I 980). In such situations, it says, one can "refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted" (#2).

John Paul is clear. "To forego extraordinary or disproportionate means is not," he writes, "the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death" (#65). When individuals will and cause their own death, however, this choice entails the malice of suicide. Like abortion, euthanasia can have accomplices. Anyone who shares the intention of a person wishing to end his life and aids him in bringing it about is guilty of euthanasia. Even if this help is requested, as in the case of assisted suicide, such an act is never morally justified.

Although it may be motivated by a concern to alleviate a sick person’s suffering, John Paul refers to this complicity as a "false mercy and indeed a disturbing ‘perversion’ of mercy" (#66).True compassion leads to sharing pain, not killing a person whose suffering appears to be unbearable.

Euthanasia is even more perverse when it takes the form of murder. This occurs when family members, medical personnel, or state authorities cause the death of a person who has neither requested nor consented to it.

In this case, the pope sees the temptation of Eden re-enacted in modern dress: the desire to become like God. Individuals or institutions claim the right to decide who should live and who should die. This arrogance, says John Paul, is "the height of arbitrariness and injustice" (#66). Sadly, today’s culture increasingly favors euthanasia. Insofar as people believe that suffering is meaningless and value life only to the extent that it can bring pleasure, the door is open for the culture of death.

Social pressures are brainwashing individuals about the desirability of choosing this "easy death." To the degree that society is organized around efficient production and consumption, then "a hopelessly impaired life no longer has any value" (#64). Especially in prosperous societies, the elderly, the incurably ill, and the mentally and physically challenged are all too often viewed - and are made to feel - as if they were burdens on themselves or others.

The result? Many "choose" to take control of their lives, bringing about death before its time. Under the guise of self-affirmation or being humane, individuals claim the right to cause their own deaths or the deaths of others.

Euthanasia, like abortion, not only kills innocent life but also weakens society’s moral fiber. The pope observes that whenever euthanasia is practiced, "the sense of justice is lost, and mutual trust, the basis of every authentic interpersonal relationship, is undermined at its root" (#66).

Obedient to the church’s tradition and repeating her constant teaching, John Paul makes his third authoritative statement: "I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the church’s tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium" (#65).

The church’s rejection of euthanasia is unequivocal. Catholics must accept this teaching as a truth taught infallibly by the bishops in union with the pope. Others ought to accept it as conforming to the natural law written in creation and accessible to all people of goodwill.

To combat the inroads of the culture of death, the pope reminds us of the victory of the risen Christ. By his redemptive death, he has set us free from eternal death. "The certainty of future immortality and hope in the promised resurrection cast new light on the mystery of suffering and death" (#67).

The purpose of Evangelium Vitae is to proclaim the beauty of the good news about life. As the primary custodian of the deposit of faith, the pope is entrusted by Christ with preaching the Gospel of life which the church has received from the Apostles. This full proclamation includes the truths about innocent life, abortion, and euthanasia.

This is the eighth in a series on Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, by Father J. Michael Miller. 1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by permission.