Euthanasia and Christianity: Christian Views of Euthanasia and Suicide




What does Christianity teach about euthanasia?

Christians are generally opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, on the grounds that it invades God's territory of life and death and has other ethical problems. This position is not universal, however.

Suicide in the Christian Bible

There are only two mentions of suicide in the Old Testament. In the first (I Samuel 31:4), King Saul begs his servant to kill him, but the servant refuses, so Saul falls on his own sword. The servant then kills himself as well. In the second (II Samuel 17:23), David's counselor Ahitophel hangs himself.

In the New Testament, there is one instance of suicide: that of Judas Iscariot, who feels remorse after betraying Jesus and hangs himself (Matthew 27:3-5).

The Bible does not comment on either of these instances, though it has been noted that none of the persons who commit suicide in the Bible are heroic or sympathetic figures.





Suicide in Christian History

St. Augustine is generally credited with the earliest formal Christian prohibition of suicide. In his lengthy work The City of God, Augustine argued that the fifth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," applied to suicide as well as homicide. He pointed out that the commandment does not specify "your neighbor" as the commandment against bearing false witness does. {1}

In the Middle Ages, the influential monk St. Thomas Aquinas reinforced this view. He wrote:

It is altogether unlawful to kill oneself, for three reasons. First, because everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being, and resists corruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature, and to charity whereby every man should love himself. Hence suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law and to charity. Secondly, because every part, as such, belongs to the whole. Now every man is part of the community, and so, as such, he belongs to the community. Hence by killing himself he injures the community, as the Philosopher declares (Ethic. v, 11). Thirdly, because life is God's gift to man, and is subject to His power, Who kills and makes to live. Hence whoever takes his own life, sins against God, even as he who kills another's slave, sins against that slave's master, and as he who usurps to himself judgment of a matter not entrusted to him. For it belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence of death and life, according to Dt. 32:39, "I will kill and I will make to live." {2}

In the Middle Ages and through the Reformation, both law and popular practice forbade Christian burial of suicides and allowed the confiscation of property and desecration of the body. {3}

During the Enlightenment, philosophers began to base ethical decisions on reason and utilitarian concerns more than on Christian concerns. They came to varying conclusions. In 1783, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote an unpublished essay called "On Suicide," in which he challenged each of Thomas Aquinas' arguments and concluded that suicide "may be free of imputation of guilt and blame."

On the other hand, Immanuel Kant wrote in 1785, "To annihilate the subject of morality in one's person is to root out the existence of morality itself from the world as far as one can, even though morality is an end in itself. Consequently, disposing of oneself as a mere means to some discretionary end is debasing humanity in one's person." {4}

Modern Christian Views on Suicide

A BBC Religion and Ethics feature on euthanasia summarizes the Christian view as follows:

Christians are mostly against euthanasia. The arguments are usually based on the beliefs that life is given by God, and that human beings are made in God's image. Some churches also emphasise the importance of not interfering with the natural process of death. {5}

Following are specific statements from some Christian denominations on the subjects of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Anglican Views on Suicide and Euthanasia

The Times Online summarizes a 2005 declaration by the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, on euthanasia:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, insists today that human and ethical reasons mean that the Church of England can never soften its line on euthanasia.

Writing in The Times, Dr Williams says that assisted dying involves other people in an act of suicide and suggests that the recognition of a legal right to assisted dying could entail a responsibility on others to kill.

While conceding that the right to be spared avoidable pain is beyond debate, he says that once that has become a right to expect assistance in dying, the responsibility of others is involved. {6}

Catholic Views on Suicide and Euthanasia

The Roman Catholic Church remains firmly opposed to both suicide and euthanasia as moral options. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "suicide," published in 1912, describes suicide as a grave sin against God. It gives several reasons for this conclusion: Suicide implies the person is master of his body instead of God, shows a lack of charity for oneself, often leads to failures in parental or social duties or charity towards others, and is contrary to the natural instinct of all creatures for self-preservation. "That suicide is unlawful is the teaching of Holy Scripture and of the Church, which condemns the act as a most atrocious crime and, in hatred of the sin and to arouse the horror of its children, denies the suicide Christian burial." {7}

On May 5, 1980, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an official "Declaration on Euthanasia," which reaffirmed the Church's prohibition of all forms of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Performing euthanasia on another or allowing it for oneself is called a "violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity." {8}

In the most recent version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2003), all forms of suicide and euthanasia remain strictly prohibited, but questions of moral culpability and eternal salvation are left open. {9} Paragraphs 2280-83 of Article 5 (On the Fifth Commandment) address suicide:

2280: Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281: Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282: If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law. Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283: We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Paragraphs 2276-79 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church address euthanasia and related issues.

2276: Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277: Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

2278: Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

2279: Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

Lutheran Views on Suicide and Euthanasia

On November 9, 1992, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran body in the United States, adopted a statement on "End of Life Decisions." This statement includes the following decisions:

When medical judgment determines that artificially-administered nutrition and hydration will not contribute to an improvement in the patient's underlying condition or prevent death from that condition, patients or their legal spokespersons may consider them unduly burdensome treatment. In these circumstances it may be morally responsible to withhold or withdraw them and allow death to occur….

Because competent patients are the prime decision-makers, they may refuse treatment recommended by health care professionals when they do not believe the benefits outweigh the risks and burdens. This is also the case for patients who are incompetent, but who have identified their wishes through advance directives, living wills, and/or conversation with family or designated surrogates….

The integrity of the physician-patient relationship is rooted in trust that physicians will act to preserve the life and health of the patient. Physicians and other health care professionals also have responsibility to relieve suffering. This responsibility includes the aggressive management of pain, even when it may result in an earlier death.

However, the deliberate action of a physician to take the life of a patient, even when this is the patient's wish, is a different matter. As a church we affirm that deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience. While this affirmation is clear, we also recognize that responsible health care professionals struggle to choose the lesser evil in ambiguous borderline situations -- for example, when pain becomes so unmanageable that life is indistinguishable from torture.

We oppose the legalization of physician-assisted death, which would allow the private killing of one person by another. Public control and regulation of such actions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The potential for abuse, especially of people who are most vulnerable, would be substantially increased. {10}

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) also opposes suicide and euthanasia. In 1995, the Synod adopted a resolution that affirmed its objection "to medical personnel having any part in actively inducing death, even at the patient's request or at the request of the family." {11}

Greek Orthodox Views on Suicide and Euthanasia

The Greek Orthodox Church is opposed to suicide in any form and regards it as a grievous sin. According to an article on the official Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website, "the current consensus, sincerely and widely held, and representing the mind of the Orthodox Church" on suicide is the following:

Suicide is the taking of one's own life. The Orthodox Church has, over the centuries, taught that we do not have the right to take our own lives, since life is a gift from God which we are called upon to preserve and enhance. Hence, the Church considers direct suicide, when a person destroys his or her life with his or her own hand, to be the most serious kind of murder, because there is no opportunity for repentance. The canons and practice of the Church thus prohibit a Church burial to a person who has committed suicide. However, if it can be shown that the person who has committed suicide was not mentally sound, then, upon proper medical and ecclesiastical certification, the burial can be conducted by the Church. In cases, however, where the deceased held a philosophical view affirming the right to suicide, or allowed despair to overcome good judgment, no such allowance can be made.

Morally speaking, there is also the case of indirect suicide, in which people harm their health through abusive practices such as excessive smoking, excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages, and unnecessary risk-taking. The Orthodox Church teaches that we are obligated to care for our health, so these kinds of practices in fact are looked upon as immoral. However, they do not carry the same negative implications which the direct taking of one's own life has. {12}

The same article states that the Orthodox Church firmly opposes euthanasia and regards it as "a form of suicide on the part of the individual, and a form of murder on a part of others who assist in this practice, both of which are seen as sins." The article continues:

Salvation and redemption are normally understood in Eastern Christianity in terms of sharing in Jesus Christ's victory over death, sin and evil through His crucifixion and His resurrection. The Orthodox Church has a very strong pro-life stand which in part expresses itself in opposition to doctrinaire advocacy of euthanasia. …

The Church does not expect that excessive and heroic means must be used at all costs to prolong dying, as has now become possible through technical medical advances.…The Church may even pray that terminally ill persons die, without insisting that they be subjected to unnecessary and extraordinary medical efforts. At the same time, the Church rejects as morally wrong any willed action on the part of an individual to cause his or her own death or the death of another, when it otherwise would not occur. {13}


References

  1. De Civitate Dei, Book I, chapter 20
  2. Summa Theologica 1271, part II, Q64, A5.
  3. Cholbi, Michael, "Suicide". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  4. Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, M. Gregor trans., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 423, as quoted in Stanford Encyclopedia.
  5. BBC Religion & Ethics: Euthanasia – The Christian View
  6. "Archbishop says Church cannot back euthanasia." Times Online, January 20, 2005.
  7. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14326b.htm
  8. http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_df80eu.htm
  9. Online at http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt3sect2chpt2art5.htm
  10. "ELCA Message on End of Life Decisions."
  11. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod FAQs: "Euthanasia"
  12. Rev. Stanley Harakas, "The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues." Official Site of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
  13. Ibid.

Further Reading on Christian Views of Euthanasia

  • Religion and Euthanasia - list of links by denomination from Euthanasia.com
  • Amundsen, Darrel W. (1989), "Suicide and Early Christian Values," in Suicide and Euthanasia, ed. Baruch A. Brody, Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 77-153.
  • Droge, A.J. and J. Tabor, A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991.