Bishop Timothy Harris’s homily from ‘No Euthanasia Sunday’

29 November 2019
Bishop Timothy Harris, Bishop of Townsville. Image: Giovanni Portelli/ACBC.

 

The Catholic Diocese of Townsville marked Sunday 17 November 2019 as ‘No Euthanasia Sunday’. Below is the homily that Bishop Timothy Harris gave during Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Townsville.

 

“DYING PEACEFULLY – NO EUTHANASIA SUNDAY”

This weekend, as I noted in my opening words a few moments ago, is devoted to “Dying Peacefully – No Euthanasia Sunday”. I have requested the Diocese to reflect together on Voluntary Assisted Dying proposals and on the issue of Euthanasia in general.

My friends, I have not done this lightly in terms of the subject at hand but I feel that Euthanasia, if practiced across Australia, will change the very fabric of our society. There is something very repugnant about this kind of dying – something very selfish.

The Catholic Church could never accept the practice of euthanasia on human beings. People often say: “We treat animals better than we treat humans. We just put them down.” Well, we are not animals and we can never “put human beings down as we put animals down.” They euthanise horses when they break a leg, but this is not the way for individuals created in the image and likeness of God.

Having said this, my brief contribution on this subject for I have been very vocal in the past, is not to impute bad faith or evil intent to those who see things differently. We all want to be compassionate in difficult circumstances. The difference is in the way we define the value of human life. So let us not be ideological about the subject but rather deeply spiritual.

A Catholic – a Christian for that matter – values human life from the moment of conception to the moment of death. It is not our way to cut our natural death short, for God works in the circumstances of our lives and finds the right time to take us to Himself. What has encouraged me to speak at this time is the fact that a Queensland Parliamentary Inquiry into aged care, end of life and palliative care and voluntary assisted dying has been recently active as it has listened to the views of Queenslanders.

I have a deep concern that the Queensland Government has already made up its mind on this subject – the same Government that literally danced when abortion was made legal in this State. A Government minister celebrated on the first anniversary. I am fearful that Queensland will follow other so called “reformist” States and take us down a path of no return. It is as serious as that. We need to be careful that we do not cause more suffering under the illusion we are ending suffering.

Further, I should be clear that the Church is not demanding that life be prolonged at all costs. Insisting that there is an obligation to preserve life at all costs is not consistent with a Catholic ethic. Life is good but dying is part of life. Let me explain. Catholic tradition affirms that:

  • a person can voluntarily stop treatment for a terminal illness;
  • pain and suffering can be relieved, even if the medication intentionally administered to ease suffering could have the foreseeable effect of hastening death;
  • neither of these constitute so called ‘voluntary assisted dying’.

Voluntary assisted dying is the intentional killing of oneself. Palliative care is different to intentional killing. One may die as a result of palliative care but palliative care has a different purpose – to relieve pain.

No one wants to suffer unbearably and I acknowledge that not all suffering can be stopped BUT euthanasia puts an end not only to a person’s life but also to the profound meaning and intimacy that can arise from it, even at the very end. Sometimes the words “I love you” can come at the end – sometimes it takes time to speak these beautiful words, and sometimes this cannot be rushed or not given the opportunity because somehow death has occurred prematurely in an act of voluntary assisted suicide.

Of course, the rich experience that I personally have had as both my parents were dying was something I will forever treasure. Yes, both were given palliative care and during these days I believe a deeper bond developed between us. There were many “I love you”s before both slipped away. The thought of somehow participating in an act of intentional killing never entered my mind. God help us all.

Love is a power stronger than death and even suffering. It cannot remove all pain but the person suffering can still love and be loved. Being with the dying is one of the most profound experiences you will ever have. It is this love that inspires the sufferer to be with us a while longer. Surely the principle “you do not take life” has been a social, legal and moral cornerstone of civilised society for thousands of years. If the Queensland Government wants to propose legislation that would make the taking of a human life in the form of voluntary assisted suicide, then it must provide a cogent rationale for such a fundamental change. This agenda has nothing at all to do with “reform”. It’s a complete misread of the dignity of every human being. I repeat “human beings must never be put down”, as we put down the family pet.

I further fear that the elderly and frail and people with disabilities and other chronic conditions may feel pressured to prematurely end their lives. Who would have thought such a possibility has been raised, but I am afraid when society provides a “way out” – a quick death – then anything is possible. Good palliative care can ease pain and suffering. Governments, instead of consulting about voluntary assisting suicide and euthanasia, should be spending many more millions of dollars on improving palliative care and ensuring that nursing homes and other places are fully equipped and trained to offer the very best palliative care possible.

Instead of providing an option to end life, we need to focus on the merits of end of life care and planning.  That is the dignified path. Planning one’s suicide with the help of others sends a shiver down my spine, and it should be resisted. Ironically, our gospel this weekend foretells the destruction of the Jewish temple. Some were speaking about the temple and how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. So Jesus says to these people and us: “As for these things, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” The people are terrified at such a thought and worse when other so called saviours will appear and say: “I am he”.

When Jesus describes the things that will happen in the future, he is also implying that we must be faithful to the present. Some will find this too hard and they will despair. In other words, the temple will change, our lives will change, old ways will give way to new. At the heart of Jesus’ message this weekend is “Do Not Fear”. “Be still, be quiet, do not be led astray. You are individually precious to me and I will not let you down.”

If we cannot find God in our present circumstances, even in the midst of our “temple ruins”, even in the midst of human suffering, we will find God nowhere. The Christian way is to stay connected to the Lord and he will rebuild our lives stone by stone.

What does this say to us on a Sunday we have termed “Dying Peacefully: No Euthanasia Sunday?”

For me it says – our bodies are a temple – the temple of the Holy Spirit. We might experience or witness a decaying of our bodies through old age or terminal illness and if we do, we entrust them to God and to the doctors and nurses in our hospitals. “Entrust” is the word for we expect these professionals to not assist us to commit suicide but to give us all we need to die peacefully and without pain.

I prefer a society that respects God’s temple that we are, by allowing God to have the last word in our life and not the consequences of a deliberate, intentional assisted killing. Love is always stronger than death.

Most Rev Timothy J Harris DD

Bishop of Townsville

 

Reproduced with permission from Bishop Timothy Harris and the the Diocese of Townsville.

 

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