'95 Encyclical Foresaw Cases Like Terri Schiavo's

Theologian Points Up a Key Problem in Florida Battle

Share this Entry

ROME, MARCH 22, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Unless U.S. justice steps in to save her, Terri Schiavo’s agony will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” which warned of an encroaching “culture of death.”

In that 1995 document John Paul II wrote “on the value and inviolability of human life,” particularly in the last phases of existence.

“The Schiavo case demonstrates that that document was prophetic,” said Legionary of Christ Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.

“The Holy Father coined the expression ‘culture of death’ to refer to the tendency of modern society to depreciate the inviolable dignity of human life,” he told ZENIT. “The Schiavo case illustrates Pope John Paul’s concerns that human persons would be valued more for their utility and ‘quality of life’ than for their inherent worth.”

In fact, the Holy Father wrote in No. 64 of the encyclical: “Here we are faced with one of the more alarming symptoms of the ‘culture of death,’ which is advancing above all in prosperous societies, marked by an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency and which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome.”

Father Williams added that the problem in the Schiavo case is being posed incorrectly.

“It’s not a question of Terri’s parents being right and Terri’s husband wrong,” he said. “The problem lies in giving anyone the power over another’s life.

“Society must not permit that a person’s life or death hang in the balance because of the way others feel about them. All human life must be defended and protected in law, not for what it means to others, but for what it is in itself.”

John Paul II signed the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” on March 25, 1995, the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.

In his document, the Pope explains that euthanasia “in the strict sense is understood to be an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering.”

It must be distinguished, he writes, “from the decision to forgo so-called ‘aggressive medical treatment,’ in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family.”

Father Williams observed: “That distinction is subtle but extremely important from a moral perspective.”

“The case of Terri Schiavo has nothing to do with disproportionate means to keep a person alive at all costs, regardless of the suffering such measures provoke,” the dean of theology said. “Here we are talking about the most basic care consisting of hydration and nutrition. Terri is not terminally ill, but the removal of her feeding tube will effectively kill her by starvation.”

In “Evangelium Vitae” the Holy Father condemns euthanasia in the strongest terms.

“Taking into account these distinctions, in harmony with the Magisterium of my Predecessors,” the Pope writes, “and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, 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.”

“Pope John Paul II encourages us to call things by their names,” said Father Williams. “And euthanasia, regardless of the motives behind it, always means homicide: the deliberate elimination of an innocent human life.”

Moreover, the priest continued, “if killing another person with his consent is always morally wrong, doing so without his consent adds a further evil to the act. In 1995, the Holy Father warned against those who would arrogate to themselves the authority to decide who would live and who would die. He reminded us that this authority belongs to God alone.”

The Pope writes in No. 66: “The choice of euthanasia becomes more serious when it takes the form of a murder committed by others on a person who has in no way requested it and who has never consented to it.”

Father Williams commented: “The Holy Father not only pointed out the evils of the culture of death. He also indicated the way to an authentic culture of life.

“He encourages us to reaffirm our commitment to life and to stand in solidarity with those who suffer. When people realize that they are appreciated by society as someone precious and unrepeatable, rather than a burden to be carried, they often find the strength to bear their cross with joy.”

The priest added: “Our Christian faith teaches us that suffering and death do not have the final word. Through his cross and resurrection Christ triumphed over death and won eternal life for us all.”

Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation