Life and Death

1. What is the Catholic Church's position on euthanasia, both active and passive?

2. Regarding the death penalty, how can I show a fundamentalist friend that he/she is misinterpreting biblical references, and that the death penalty is not morally justified?

3. What does the Catholic Church teach about abortion and euthanasia? Do you think it is right for someone to have an abortion?

4. I would like to double-check with you about some information you had previously given me about the Roman Catholic position on conception / in vitro fertilization.

As I recall, you stated that the Roman Catholic opposition to IVF is based on the destruction of embryos in that procedure, which is regarded as tantamount to in vitro abortion. Is that correct? Also, do Roman Catholics claim that an embryo immediately post-fertilization is morally equivalent to a human being or to human life?

The crux of the matter seems to be that the statement "Human life begins at conception" is true retrospectively, i.e., it is true for all post-natal humans. But it is also usually assumed to be true prospectively, which does not logically follow. Any comments or clarifications that you can offer will be helpful.

Q 1: What is the Catholic Church's position on euthanasia, both active and passive?

A 1: The Catholic church has a firm position against euthanasia. Any direct act of killing, even from a so-called "mercy" perspective is wrong. It is not our place to choose who is to live and who is to die. Now, you make a distinction between what you call "active" and "passive" euthanasia. If I understand you correctly, what I just said addresses active euthanasia. I'm not sure what you mean by passive, but let me give it a shot.

I presume that by passive euthanasia you mean allowing someone to die who is in some kind of critical condition, for example, in a coma and being kept alive by machines. I think that applying the word passive is a contradiction in terms. I understand the dictionary definition includes an act of killing or permitting the death, but in our colloquial use of the term, euthanasia is usually restricted to the act of causing death. Nonetheless, to use your term and return to the example I mentioned, unplugging the machines and waiting for the person to die would be an example of passive euthanasia. This is permitted partly because the death is not directly caused, and also, because no extra ordinary means are required to preserve life. However, refusing to supply food, either solid or liquid, would not be permitted for the same reasons.

It should be noted, especially in the after math of the Teri Schiavo case in Florida, that these specifics are still being debated in the Church. In most cases it would depend on the particular circumstances as to whether a given action is or is not acceptable.

Q 2: Regarding the death penalty, how can I show a fundamentalist friend that he/she is misinterpreting biblical references, and that the death penalty is not morally justified?

A 2: Interpretation of the scriptures is a tricky thing. Most fundamentalists will not be able to hear an argument contrary to the one that they hold. Nonetheless, it is sometimes worth the effort. The first thing to emphasize is that the scriptures need to be understood in the context of the whole bible. Any passage can be taken out of context, and many can be twisted to justify almost any position. The validity of any individual text is determined by the whole of the Word of God. In that sense, no individual passage can justify capital punishment, since the context of the scriptures is God's overwhelming mercy and compassion. This is especially evident in the preaching and ministry of Jesus who not only never condemned any individual, but also stood in the way of “legal” execution, e.g. the woman caught in adultery. It is precisely because we find both of God’s attributes (mercy and compassion) difficult to express in our own lives, that we look for instances of condemnation from God.

Q 3: What does the Catholic Church teach about abortion and euthanasia? Do you think it is right for someone to have an abortion?

A 3: In its simplest expression, the Catholic Church teaches that abortion and euthanasia both are morally wrong. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin is credited with developing the evolving consistent life ethic of Church teaching, namely, that life is to be respected in all its forms from conception to natural death. The deliberate termination of life anywhere along the line is a direct violation of God's gift of life. If we truly believe that life is a gift of God, and that all people are created in God's image, then how can we decide that some people, for any reason whatsoever, should have that gift taken away? It is, after all, not ours to give and therefore not ours to take. I admit that when confronted with certain choices there are nuances to be considered. But this consistent ethic of life is a solid foundation from which to make personal choices that affect not only our own lives, but also the lives of others.

While this generally holds true for both abortion and euthanasia, both of these moral choices continue to be refined. There may be another, perhaps stronger foundation on which to ground the abortion debate than conception. On the other end of the spectrum, there are quality of life issues that need to be discussed in an open, honest and respectful forum.

Q 4: I would like to double-check with you about some information you had previously given me about the Roman Catholic position on conception / in vitro fertilization.

As I recall, you stated that the Roman Catholic opposition to IVF is based on the destruction of embryos in that procedure, which is regarded as tantamount to in vitro abortion. Is that correct? Also, do Roman Catholics claim that an embryo immediately post-fertilization is morally equivalent to a human being or to human life?

The crux of the matter seems to be that the statement "Human life begins at conception" is true retrospectively, i.e., it is true for all post-natal humans. But it is also usually assumed to be true prospectively, which does not logically follow. Any comments or clarifications that you can offer will be helpful.

A 4: You are correct regarding the Roman Catholic objection to in vitro-fertilization as far as the destroyed embryos being tantamount to abortion. There is another objection in the Roman Catholic position which is that conception should take place within the context of love, specifically the marital act of intercourse.

As for whether or not an embryo immediately post-fertilization is a human being, there is theological disagreement. From my theological perspective, the fact that individuation does not take place for three weeks, is not insignificant. In practical reality, most women do not know they are pregnant before that period. It would be a stretch to suggest that the post-fertilization embryo is morally equivalent to a human being, but it seems accurate to say that the embryo is human life, since the union of human beings cannot produce anything other than human beings.

I do not know why you say that it is does not follow logically that human life begins at conception is true prospectively, since as I just suggested, human sexual relations cannot result in anything but a human being. Therefore, all things being equal, the fertilized egg if left alone will result in the birth of a human being. I hope this is helpful.