The Terri Schiavo case has led some observers to conclude that people of faith have a morbid interest in prolonging life at any cost. If true, this position would be highly ironic--given the beliefs that most pious individuals hold about an afterlife. The passing of Pope John Paul II provides, by contrast, a classic example of death in the Christian tradition.
Overwhelmingly, what is crucial to believers isn’t "life at any price" but rather the much-reviled notion that life isn’t ours to do with as we please. Instead, it is seen as a gift whose proper uses are divinely circumscribed. John Locke articulated this view as follows: "Since all men are the creation of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker... they are his property, made to live for his, not one another’s, pleasure."
This grant of life doesn’t require a person to employ any means necessary to prolong it. Indeed, in one’s final days decisions are often made not to engage in heroic measures to postpone what seems inevitable. Comfort is offered, last rites may be administered, but no surgery or resuscitation efforts are contemplated. In the language of ethics this scenario is called "allowing to die"--and it is perfectly compatible with all the religious traditions with which I am familiar. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord," is the passage from the book of Job often cited on such occasions.
A more complex end-of-life scenario involves the removal of life-sustaining mechanisms from individuals already utilizing these devices. When patients themeselves request that "extraordinary" care be withdrawn, there is, by and large, no religious problem. These persons are simply choosing to suspend treatment that, within the "allowing to die" paradigm, is never begun. When, however, others take this decision upon themselves, questions about substitutive judgment and "playing God" arise--especially if doubt exists about the patient’s medical condition or the trustworthiness of a surrogate’s judgment.
Significantly, when life-support systems are discontinued, patients don’t inevitably die. Karen Ann Quinlan, for example, surprised doctors by continuing to live almost ten years after her breathing machine was removed. Such exceptions never occur, of course, when persons are denied not extraordinary care, but basic nutrition. Withholding food and water amounts to a death sentence whether one is sick or not. And when this act of deprivation is done without a patient’s consent, the result, morally speaking, becomes indistinguishable from homicide.
A final scenario occurs when someone actively brings about another’s demise by means such as lethal injection. In "mercy killing" the "angel of charity" becomes the immediate and active purveyor of death. Clint Eastwood’s character in "Million Dollar Baby" engaged in this illegal act for which, in real life, Jack Kevorkian now sits in a Michigan prison.
The religious objection to this option (as also to withholding nutrition) is that it clearly places ultimate responsibility for life in the hands of someone other than the One who created it. Both suicide and killing in the name of kindness are seen as acts of hubris by which individuals cross a bright line--a trespass that is even more flagrant when the coup de grace is unsolicited.
In a culture enamored with the notion of autonomy, religious concepts that highlight human boundaries seem outmoded. NBC’s Bryan Williams, commenting on the Pope’s passing, observed that the pontiff faced death "on his own terms." It was a singularly inept description--a self-inflating compliment employed to describe the final act of a supremely selfless life.
"My body is my own. I’ll do with it as I please," was a slogan common in the 60’s and 70’s. As those same baby boomers reach the age when bodies and intentions increasingly march to different drummers, the shortsightedness of that boast becomes more apparent. John Paul’s last years were an object lesson in bearing with grace the cross of physical infirmity.
For persons of faith, the crucial issue isn’t "quality of life" but rather one’s willingness to acknowledge, up to the point of death, that we are in God’s hands. Practically speaking, this acknowledgment means maintaining an attitude of humility vis a vis the ultimate outcome. "Thy will be done."
As it was when we entered life, so it is when we leave. The life we "control" is vanishingly small. Our spirit springs from a source beyond ourselves and flourishes in a matrix of interdependence. For those whose beliefs continue to derive from the religious wellsprings of Western culture, death confronts us with truths that modern culture yearns to deny: Life is a gift, not just a right--and the measure of that life is not mere self-assertion, but gratitude and service.