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Does God Really Want Us to Suffer Unrelenting Pain?

By Gwen Fitzgerald

Specifically, does God want us to suffer unrelenting pain even when death is certain and imminent? It’s a provocative question. And one that features prominently as lawmakers consider medical aid-in-dying bills in states across the nation.

The pro-suffering viewpoint? Well, here’s one take from Father Thomas Petri, academic dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. In a PBS Newshour story that aired in January 2016 he said:

The church’s viewpoint on assisted suicide and euthanasia is that it’s never permissible to take a life, an innocent life, for the sake of alleviating suffering; that essentially you are killing a person to remove suffering from their lives …. when as a man of faith I have to say, on the contrary, it’s the sick who show us what it means to suffer well, to suffer beautifully, and who give us the opportunity to care for them as we would care for a suffering Jesus Christ.

But this viewpoint is a misinterpretation of theology, argues United Church of Christ (UCC) Rev. Alex Vishio in a recent nationally syndicated opinion piece by ReligionNews.com. While representing UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference, Vishio advocated for Maryland’s Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life-Option Act in 2016. During multiple hearings on the bill, opponents rejected the requests of terminally ill witnesses who desire an option to end their suffering when death is looming. He summarizes the opponents’ arguments:

…. suffering can be a divinely sanctioned means of dignifying the sufferer and edifying the observer.

And he counters:

But it should not be taken to mean that suffering for suffering’s sake is somehow a divine gift of ennoblement or test of character. To be sure, there are forms of struggle or travail that contribute to more worthy ends; thus, we rightly esteem doctors who labor under severe conditions to save lives in war-torn areas or admire parents who make extraordinary sacrifices to provide for their children.

Still, it is the common impulse of people of goodwill everywhere to prevent or at least mitigate all forms of gratuitous suffering – i.e., suffering that cannot reasonably be held to serve a higher purpose.

Many who oppose medical aid in dying argue that only God can decide when someone departs this Earth. Aid-in-dying supporters counter that as an individual approaches death they don’t have to cede decision-making capabilities: to a higher power, to their medical team or to their family. Ideally, however, the dying person will make paramount end-of-life decisions with and in synch with their higher power, their medical team and their family.

As Rev. Vishio beautifully expresses it:

Yet we also believe that quality of life is important to God. When that quality declines irreversibly, people who have a medical prognosis of six or fewer months left to live may morally choose to end that life by means that are, in their own way, an affirmation of divinely endowed human intelligence and dignity. 

This is the essence of free will and autonomy.

To read Rev. Vishio’s entire commentary, please click on this link.