As Christians, each of us is called to respect the dignity of all persons and the sacredness of human life. In a spirit of love, we are called to be present to those who suffer, to care with them and for them, and to comfort them, especially at the end of life’s journey. We are always called to provide care for and relieve suffering whenever possible in ways that are faithful to Catholic teaching.

Answers to Your Questions

Q. Can a Catholic request euthanasia or assisted suicide as a treatment option?+

The purpose of treatment in health care is to maintain, restore, or promote health and well- being. Euthanasia and assisted suicide do none of these things. Rather, the sole purpose is to intentionally cause death. The Catholic Health Alliance of Canada says that “intentionally causing one’s own death (suicide), or directly assisting another in such an action (assisted suicide), is morally wrong” (Health Ethics Guide, 2012).

Q. Can I be present when my loved one receives euthanasia or assisted suicide?+

Even when the state legally permits euthanasia and assisted suicide, as it does Canada, Catholics are not to take part in it. They may not request it as a treatment option, nor may they participate in it with or for another person. As hard as it may be, a Catholic must not be present when another person is killed or takes their own life by euthanasia or assisted suicide. The most current magisterial teaching on end of life issues is “Samaritanus bonus”, a letter promulgated in 2020 by the then Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life. It states: “Those who spiritually assist these persons should avoid any gesture, such as remaining until the euthanasia is performed, that could be interpreted as approval of this action. Such a presence could imply complicity in this act. This principle applies in a particular way, but is not limited to, chaplains in the healthcare systems where euthanasia is practiced, for they must not give scandal by behaving in a manner that makes them complicit in the termination of human life.” This teaching is a guideline, rather than an absolute, but it is firmly grounded in 2000 years of Church teaching. Thus, it should be understood as coming from a place of deep theological, moral and pastoral reflection. If you have already been present when a loved one died by euthanasia or assisted suicide, seek the Sacrament of Penance with a contrite heart. The priest may encourage you to make public your own conversion and rejection of euthanasia and assisted suicide, to pray fervently for the forgiveness and eternal salvation of the deceased, and/or to refuse to participate in any conversation that promotes this moral injustice.

Q. Is withdrawing treatment the same as euthanasia or assisted suicide? +

No. When a person reaches a point where continued intervention is deemed futile or disproportionate (the expected burdens of the treatment are greater than the expected benefits), withdrawing treatment simply allows nature to take its course. However, medically assisted nutrition and hydration must be given until the person can no longer benefit from this care. Withholding or withdrawing nutrition and hydration must never be done to hasten death (Catholic Health Alliance of Canada, Health Ethics Guide, 2012).

Q. Can a person who requests euthanasia or assisted suicide receive the Sacrament of Anointing (Last Rites)?+

As long as there is potential for a change of heart, that person may receive the Sacrament of Anointing. However, if they refuse to turn away from the intention to die by euthanasia or assisted suicide, then the priest must deny the sacrament. As minister of the sacraments, the priest is at once both judge and healer. He is ultimately concerned with the salvation of souls.

Q. Can a person who requests euthanasia or assisted suicide receive a Catholic funeral?+

The first thing to keep in mind is that all Catholic funerals are offered for sinners. However, the Church does require that the funeral be a sign of faith, and respectful of the conscience and decisions made by the person who has died. When a person chooses to die by euthanasia or assisted suicide, the Church must ask: Did the person willingly choose euthanasia or assisted suicide, knowing it was contrary to the faith? Was the person high-profile – or notorious – and his or her choice well known? Did the family support or even celebrate the choice? Would the celebration of a Catholic funeral cause scandal, encouraging others to engage in this evil? The priest will explore these questions and more with your family before a funeral mass can be offered. If the official funeral rites are denied, the priest may offer alternatives such as a Liturgy of the Word at the funeral home, simple prayers at the graveside, or a memorial mass at a later date.

Q. What is palliative (terminal) sedation?+

Terminal sedation is the medical term used for intentionally giving sedatives during a terminal illness to cause unconsciousness, even permanent unconsciousness. When opioid medication became available in the 1940s, Pope Pius XII used the principle of double effect to explain that Roman Catholics may use this type of medication in serious cases to reduce pain, even if it does have the side effect of shortening life. His teaching reassures us that, since we are not intending death, and are intending relief of pain and suffering, then it is morally permissive to make use of sedatives in this way. Some health care providers have started to use terminal sedation to mean giving patients at the end of life higher levels of sedation than would simply relieve pain, with the intention of bringing about death. We would call that, more straightforwardly, euthanasia. There is clearly a world of difference between causing death and relieving pain. Some have suggested palliative sedation as a better term for the latter, but in fact it is the intention of the person administering the drugs that determines what is really happening. From Bioethics Matters (2023) by Dr. Moira McQueen, pp. 91-91.

How to respond when a loved one requests “MAiD”

Invite them to talk about it

When someone you love requests euthanasia or assisted suicide, be aware that this request may be a cry for help.

Take the time to think about what you will say and be prepared to listen both to what they say and do not say. This conversation should be a dialogue, not a lecture. You are not affirming their desire for euthanasia or assisted suicide, but are trying to understand the reason for their request.

Suggested conversation starters:

What I am hearing you say is that you cannot continue living like this in the way you are living now. Would you like to talk more about this? It must be a heavy burden to carry alone.

Most people who ask for MAID do so because of fear or anxiety about their situation. Is that true for how you are feeling?

What things did you do before you were sick that were most important to you?

What about yourself or your life are you most proud of?

What is still possible?

How in control do you feel?

How do you want to be remembered?

How at peace are you with what is happening to you?

Is there anything in the way you are treated that is undermining your sense of dignity?

Do you worry about being a burden to others?

If so, to whom and in what ways?

What are your biggest concerns for the people you will leave behind?

…and then listen to what they say

When exploring these sensitive issues with your loved one, you might hear them say:

I am so afraid of being a burden on my family. I looked after them all of their lives and I don’t want them to have to look after me now. They can’t afford to take time off work—they have their own family to look after now.

My pain is controlled right now, but I don’t want to die in agony or become even more incapacitated than I am now.

I have no dignity left—I can’t walk, eat, stand, go to the toilet without help, etc. I am tired of living.

It’s my life and I have the right to make decisions about how I live and when I will die.

No one has the right to deny me my legal right to MAiD.

If I don’t make this decision now when I am capable, I may miss the opportunity to make the decision if I become incapable. I will be living “like a vegetable.” I don’t want this.

It’s time to go. I have had a good life. I am looking forward to seeing God and reuniting with my friends and family who have gone before me.

I have nothing left to look forward to. My friends are dead. I haven’t seen my family in years. I am alone in the world. What’s the point in carrying on?

There is no hope—not even in God.

Affirm and accompany them with Christian love and truth

  • Remind them of how much you love them and also how much God loves them. Even a person who is experiencing great suffering should know that their life is of inestimable value because it has been given to them as a gift from God.
  • In affirming that they are loved by God and by others, reassure them that you and others will accompany them during this difficult and trying time, and that they are not alone on this journey. Let them know specifically that they are not a burden and that their life matters to you and to others.
  • If the person is experiencing physical pain, let them know that you will support them. Seek the advice and help of their health care providers to find the best way to alleviate their physical pain, be it through medication or other treatments. Be sure to involve them in decisions about treatment and care.
  • Encourage and enable them to participate in meaningful or purposeful activities, and things that enhance the sense of well-being (e.g. prayer, meditation, light exercise, listening to music).
  • Encourage and support them in creating a life project, such as making audio or video recordings, writing letters, and/or journaling their experience.