Respecting life to the end

State Pro-life Activities Director to speak in diocese about Church’s principles for end-of-life care

The 2014 Respect Life Program kicked off at the beginning of this month, drawing special focus to several areas of the Church’s pro-life teaching. Advance medical directives, which can help ensure one’s end-of-life care will adhere to Catholic values, are one of the highlighted topics.

   “Modern technology has advanced so greatly, in terms of treating illness and curing disease and being able to sustain life, [that] we’re all more likely to face difficult decisions down the road,” Kathleen Gallagher, director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, told the Sun in a recent phone interview.

   Understanding the Church’s teachings on end-of-life care is important for all Catholics, not just the old or sick, but also the young and healthy, Gallagher said. She will discuss those principles and how to apply them in the context of New York State’s laws during two presentations in the diocese next month.

   “The first main principle, of course, is ‘Life is sacred,’” Gallagher said. “Also, we don’t own our own lives — our lives belong to God and they are entrusted to us. We don’t have absolute freedom to do whatever it is we wish with our lives.”

  It is because of that sacredness that the Church teaches that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are immoral, “because they are the intentional taking of human life,” Gallagher said.

   Another tenet of the Church’s teaching is the value of suffering. “Suffering is not meaningless in Catholic teaching, because our suffering binds us to Christ and his redemption,” Gallagher said. “And, maybe most importantly, is that our destiny is not some hospital bed or some cemetery plot. Our destiny is eternal life with our Lord Jesus Christ.”

   Gallagher said that possibly the most misunderstood aspect of the Church’s end-of-life teaching is “the crucial distinction between euthanasia — the intentional taking of human life — and foregoing overly aggressive treatments.”

   Public perception, she noted, is that the Church requires people to “sustain life at all costs. But that’s not what the Church teaches.” The Church says that ordinary treatments — measures that provide benefits that outweigh the burdens — are morally required, but extraordinary treatments are not, because the burdens outweigh the benefits, Gallagher explained.

   “It’s important to understand that we don’t have a simple list [of these treatments],” Gallagher added. “It’s not that black and white. Also, this isn’t a medical judgment, this is a moral judgment and each decision is unique. What’s ordinary in one case may be extraordinary in another case.” These decisions depend on a huge number of individual factors, including the condition of the patient, his or her prognosis, medical treatments that are available and the cost of the treatment, she noted.

   While speaking to one’s family members and medical providers about end-of-life wishes are critical first steps, it may also be helpful for Catholics to have an advance medical directive in place. There are several legally recognized options in New York State, Gallagher said, including a healthcare proxy, a living will or a medical order for life-sustaining treatment (MOLST). Of those, however, the state’s bishops recommend the healthcare proxy.

   “The proxy can be a morally appropriate tool for advance care planning. You can name someone you trust to make decisions for you at the time when you may become incapacitated and cannot make them yourself,” she said. A proxy should be someone trusted, someone who understands one’s religious beliefs and values, someone who operates well under stress and someone with whom end-of-life wishes have been discussed numerous times.

   Gallagher points Catholics looking for end-of-life resources and support to the National Catholic Bioethics Center, their parish priests and diocesan respect life office, publications from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the New York State bishops’ document “Now and at the Hour of Our Death.” Thanks to a grant from the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, Gallagher is also currently developing a website based on the bishops’ document that will provide end-of-life care advice and resources from the Catholic perspective. She expects the nationwide resource to launch sometime in 2015.

   In addition to educating themselves on the Church’s principles, Gallagher also encourages people to speak to their medical professionals to ensure they have all the appropriate medical information and to talk to their family members to make their wishes known. She also recommends praying — “for guidance, for graces, for prudence, for patience” in the face of tough decisions.

   Gallagher will discuss the Church’s teachings and advance medical directives options in New York State at two presentations in the diocese on Nov. 22. The first will be held at Holy Family Church, 127 Chapel Dr., Syracuse, at 2:30 p.m.; the second will be held at St. Mary of the Assumption Church, 47 Syracuse St., Baldwinsville, at 5 p.m. There is no cost to attend either presentation, but registration is recommended. To register, contact the diocesan Respect Life Office at (315) 470-1418 or Director Lisa Hall at

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