MANASSAS, VA, July 31, 2008 (CNSweb) - Articles about end-of-life ethics by two college professors, including a bioethics professor at Loyola University of Chicago, have prompted a rare public correction by the leading American bishops responsible for pro-life activities and Catholic doctrine.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia and chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, raise their concerns in the August 4 issue of the Jesuits’ America magazine.
The bishops write that two previous America articles by John Hardt, assistant professor of bioethics at Loyola University of Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, and Thomas Shannon, emeritus professor of religion and social ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, "appear to misunderstand and subsequently misrepresent the substance of Church teaching on these difficult but important ethical questions" about "our moral obligations to patients who exist in what has come to be called a ‘persistent vegetative state.’"
Both professors argue for exceptions to Church teaching, thereby allowing the removal of a feeding tube and hydration from such patients.
In his January article, Hardt cites a 2007 statement by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which teaches that artificial nutrition and hydration may be withheld from a patient when "in some rare cases" the treatment "may become excessively burdensome." Using the example of his father, who has asked not to receive artificial hydration and nutrition should he enter a vegetative state, Hardt writes, "[M]y father has judged that the burden of persisting in a vegetative state far outweighs the benefit of being sustained that way. This, in my view, is a very Catholic way of thinking…."
Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Lori respond that Hardt wrongly defines excessive burden as "a simple dislike for survival in a helpless state." In fact, the bishops write, "that claim has no foundation in the text [and] is actually contradicted" by the CDF.
Furthermore, the bishops write, Hardt ignores the Church’s teaching on euthanasia by "omission": "The Church insists on the important distinction between validly withdrawing a life-sustaining means because the means itself is burdensome, and wrongly withdrawing it because (in someone’s view) life itself has become burdensome." The latter action is "always morally wrong," and providing food and water is almost never a significant burden to the patient.
"By omitting food and fluids, what are we trying to achieve?" ask the bishops. "Whose ‘burden’ are we trying to ease? Assisted feeding is often not difficult or costly to provide in itself, but the housing, nursing care and other basic needs of a helpless patient can be significant. To discontinue assisted feeding in order to be freed from such burdens puts the caregiver’s interests ahead of the patient’s, even if we prefer not to recognize the reality of our choice."
The articles by Hardt and Shannon echo the public advocacy by many college professors - several of them at Catholic universities - in support of the withdrawal of food and water from the Florida patient Terri Schiavo in 2005, despite clear Vatican opposition. The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) identified several professors at Boston College, Georgetown University, Marquette University, Seattle University and elsewhere who publicly contradicted Vatican officials on the Schiavo case or otherwise aided the "right to die" movement in the United States.
"The danger is obvious: If the Church is going to face up to a growing movement for euthanasia and assisted suicide in the United States, Catholic universities must help in that important battle," wrote CNS President Patrick J. Reilly in the June 2005 issue of Crisis magazine.