Bishop's Column

Euthanasia Supporters must Learn True Meaning of ‘Dignity’ and ‘Compassion’

When the nation of Belgium formally abolished the death penalty in 1996, it hadn’t executed anyone in peacetime for more than one hundred years. The Belgian government passed the abolition law because, it said, the "death penalty is a serious assault on human dignity."

The Belgian government was right—unnecessary execution is an assault on human dignity, and an erosion of our humanity. All unjust killing is. This is why, when a pair of twin brothers died by lethal injection in Belgium last month, it was a tragedy from which we should learn.

The twin brothers weren’t put to death for crimes. They died in a state-supported hospital, by choice. Born deaf, when the brothers discovered that they would also soon go blind, they chose to be put to death at age 45.

Media reports did not disclose their names, but newspapers did describe the moments before the injections. The doctor who directed the killing told a news program that the brothers were "very happy." He described that they said goodbye to their parents and another brother, with "a little wave of their hands and then they were gone."

The doctor’s comments have been used by supporters of euthanasia to promote the idea that all people should be free to "die with dignity." In media reports across Europe and the United States, the doctors who assisted the Belgian twins are regarded as agents of compassion. But compassion does not seek just to alleviate all suffering. Compassion seeks to understand suffering, and to join it in solidarity.

Suicide is never a dignified way to die. Assisting in suicide is never an act of compassion. But we cannot put an end to tragic acts of euthanasia or assisted suicide if we do not learn and proclaim the meaning of human dignity, and the meaning of human suffering.

Many have praised the decision of the Belgian brothers because they were deaf, and would soon be blind. In disability, they would be unable to work—to produce something useful. For many, lives which are not useful are not valuable. But in the eyes of God, the value of a life is not determined by the ability to produce wealth or consumer products.

In the eyes of God, the value of a life is determined by the ability to love. And suffering, like the suffering which comes with disability, helps us to love as God himself loves.

The suffering of the elderly, or the ill—the suffering of any of us—is a gift from God. Suffering allows us to share in the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion. By joining our sufferings to Christ, we join ourselves to his redemptive work. The power of suffering which the elderly or the disabled experience is the power of deep spiritual union with Jesus Christ. "The redemption of the world," said John Paul II, "is rooted in suffering."

In a culture of life, the Belgian brothers would have learned that the suffering of their disability was a chance to grow in love – for one another, for their other family members, and for God.

Widespread support for euthanasia and assisted suicide speaks to a worldview that fails to understand suffering. Support for the dignity of the elderly or disabled is a casualty of the culture of death. The witness of Christians bearing suffering joyfully is my hope for rebuilding a culture of life. When we embrace our suffering with the love of Jesus Christ, we proclaim to a lost world what authentic dignity we have.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find the true meaning of life and suffering, and the fullness of God’s compassion for us.

I pray that all people may reject suicide and euthanasia, and come to know Jesus Christ, our Suffering Servant.

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