VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 14, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified that the administration of nutrition and hydration to people in the so-called vegetative state is, with rare exceptions, morally obligatory.
The document and accompanying note, released today and approved by Benedict XVI, came as an answer to questions presented to the Vatican by the U.S. bishops in 2005.
The questions were sent just months after Florida woman Terri Schiavo, who was living in a vegetative state after having sustained brain-damage, died 13 days after having her feeding tube removed.
Schiavo’s estranged husband requested that her feeding tube be removed, but her Catholic parents said this would constitute murder. After years of legal battles, a judge decreed that the tube should be removed.
Edward Furton, ethicist and director of publications for the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, told ZENIT that the Vatican statement “speaks directly to the Terri Schiavo case, stating flat out that the removal of food and water from her was not the right thing to do.”
He added that the statements “are a reaffirmation of John Paul II’s 2004 statement which calls Catholics to provide food and water to patients in PVS [persistent vegetative state]. It affirms that food and water are ordinary care and not considered medical treatment.”
Furton explained that there has been “considerable debate about this issue among theologians in this country, with two different schools. Many thought that after John Paul II’s statement, the case was closed, but doubts persisted.”
He continued: “Some said John Paul II was breaking with Pius XII’s teaching, which is mentioned in the Vatican clarification. Pius XII had a lot to say about these issues and was well ahead of his time.
“But the [Vatican] commentary makes pains to say that there is no contradiction between what John Paul II said and what Pius XII taught. Pius XII was speaking about patients who were near death or even already dead. John Paul II was talking about patients who are not dying.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference published a question-and-answer commentary on the Vatican statements that explains the exceptional cases when the administration of nutrition and hydration can be halted.
The bishops point out that artificial nutrition can be halted in “in very remote places or in situations of extreme poverty,” or when it is impossible for the patient’s body to assimilate food and liquids.
The U.S. bishops gave as an example patients dying of stomach cancer. They said a patient could refuse nutrition “because it causes pain and gives little benefit.”
Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Vatican Radio today that the clarification affirms the value and dignity of life.
“What we’re seeing here is that the quality of life is not a judgment that is in our hands to make,” he said. “Life is a gift from God, and the Church has consistently taught that it is a gift that is not subject to the determination and decision of anyone, including the person himself or herself who is ill.”
Father Di Noia affirmed that the human person has a “dignity which perdures through all of the various physical states which each person experiences in life from the existence in the womb to the final moments before death. At no point can life be terminated for any reason.”
A statement from the Terri Schiavo foundation, founded by her parents and siblings, said: “It is our fervent hope that the clergy, religious and those who administer Catholic health care, as well as the laity who persistently ignored the basic right to life of our daughter and sister Terri, and who persist to this day to dissent from this basic moral teaching of the Church by claiming that Pope John Paul II’s March 20th allocution is ‘up for discussion,’ will begin to open their eyes and hearts to the immutable and incontrovertible truth reaffirmed by the Holy See today.”
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Doctrine, echoed the foundation’s wishes. He said: “We hope the Church’s documents on this issue will provide help and guidance to pastors, ethicists, doctors, nurses and families involved in the care of those diagnosed as being in a persistent ‘vegetative state.'”
Yet as Schiavo’s case shows, even if Catholic moral teaching is well understood, carrying it out can be a challenge.
Furton explained: “To call oneself a Catholic hospital is a privilege. There is always someone in authority — a bishop or a religious order — and those are the people who have the responsibility to ensure that Catholic teaching is carried out.”
However, the ethicist recognized that Catholic teaching is often at odds with prevailing public or legal opinion.
“But with the legal situation, it’s getting more and more difficult and there is no end in sight,” he said. “For any Catholic organization that has a social role — and of course as Catholics, our social role is central to the mandate that Christ has given us — that is coming into question because of laws that say pretty much, ‘Catholics cannot follow their own moral teaching, but must follow the social principles given in the wider society.'”