Hope and Assisted Suicide

Yesterday was the Solemnity of the Ascension. That naturally should lead Christians to contemplate the virtue of Hope. The Catechism summarizes the basic principles: “Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him forever.” (CCC 666) And again, “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1817)

I am particularly struck by the importance of this virtue because of recent experience. Last week, I gave testimony on behalf of the Archdiocese and the Catholic Conference at a hearing held by the Assembly Health Committee in Manhattan. The legislation at issue was the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

It was a very long hearing. I sat in the hearing room for over eight hours before I testified, and the hearing went on for at least another hour and a half. By the end, almost 50 people testified – the majority in favor of the bill. I had also attended a previous hearing in Albany on the legislation, which lasted about three hours. So I’ve heard a lot of arguments in favor of legalizing assisted suicide.

Most of the witnesses who favored the legislation spoke of their desire to avoid suffering at the end of life, particularly the loss of autonomy, the effects of diminished capacity to perform basic tasks and enjoy favored pleasures, the fear of unbearable pain, and the desire to “end life on my own terms”. The tales of sadness and suffering were very heart-felt, and I deeply respect them for their sincerity.

But what made the stories most sad was that they lacked any sense of hope.

The subtext of their testimony was the bleak meaningless of suffering and even of life itself, the sense of loneliness and abandonment  of so many people with grave illnesses, the illusion that one can control one’s life though an exercise of will, and a utilitarian view of life that equated value with usefulness or function. I remarked to a colleague afterwards that the view of life of so many of the witnesses was flat and  almost two-dimensional – as if this visible life is all that there is. If that’s the case, then it makes a certain kind of sense to favor suicide as an answer to suffering.

In contrast, the testimony by many of those who opposed the bill showed a richer, deeper sense of the inherent dignity of life. The best exemplars of this were the persons with disabilities who gave inspiring accounts of the meaning and value of their lives, despite their daily difficulties. Particularly impressive was the poignant testimony of Kristen Hanson, the widow of J.J. Hanson, who was such a warrior against his own deadly cancer and against the legalization of assisted suicide.

What made these opposition testimonies so powerful, I think, was the virtue of hope. That makes perfect sense. If you believe that there is a higher dimension to life, and particularly if you trust that Jesus is good to his word and that we have a chance for eternal life with God, you will look at sickness, pain and suffering in a different light. You will see it as a transitional stage in our lives, unpleasant to be sure, but part of a long continuum that we all have to travel and that can actually have a happy ending.

Hope rejects the idea that our loved ones are annihilated by death, but instead believes that they have entered into a new and glorious life – and that we hope to join them there. It helps us to see that suffering can have a kind of power, as St. Paul pointed out – “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10). It can also lead us to understand that a death infused with hope can be a beautiful experience for those left behind.

The depressing testimonies by the proponents of assisted suicide stand in such bold contrast to the confidence that the virtue of hope offers us. I couldn’t help but think of the strong exhortations by St. Paul in Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 15 to reject the view that death is the end, and understand the significance of the victory of Christ over death and the joyful hope that it gives us.

The fight against assisted suicide, as with all the other incursions of the Culture of Death, is long and difficult. It can be tiring to battle for so long against so many opponents and with so few allies. But we have one great advantage on our side – the virtue of hope that comes from our faith in the power and glory of God. With that, we can take to heart St. Paul’s advice: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)

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