Nearly 15 years ago, the Catholic bishops serving Maryland became the first in the country to issue a state-wide pastoral letter on the topic of care for the sick and terminally ill.
With the June 6 release of “Comfort and Consolation: Care of the Sick and Dying,” the bishops have returned to the issue with an even more detailed pastoral letter meant to provide compassionate support and practical guidelines for Catholics dealing with end-of-life concerns.
Cardinal William H. Keeler said there was a need to revisit and update the earlier work in light of the teachings on the dignity of all human life promoted by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” – “Gospel of Life.”
In recent years there has been a great focus on cases of people in persistent vegetative states and national coverage of Terry Schiavo and patients with Alzheimer’s Disease, Cardinal Keeler explained. Many states, including Maryland, have also examined quality care at the end of life, he said.
“The teachings of our late Holy Father John Paul II and the example of his own struggle with debilitating disease has helped the church see with greater and greater clarity how Jesus’ own passionate concern for the sick and dying is carried on in the church through its health care ministry and teaching office,” said Cardinal Keeler.
While the cardinal noted that there are many circumstances where “a particular way of acting is always morally wrong,” there are many decisions in health care which “require a prudential decision, discernment, that a particular choice is excessively burdensome or unduly burdensome.”
“The church offers to stand with those who make those decisions and to help them consider their options in the light of faith,” he said.
Father J. Daniel Mindling, O.F.M. Cap., academic dean and a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, was very involved in helping the bishops prepare the new pastoral letter. He views the document as a vehicle for helping people understand how to be faithful to the Gospel of Life.
“It can be used as an educational tool in classrooms, hospitals, hospices and nursing homes,” he said. It can also help people write advance directives in accord with Catholic teaching and “accept the responsibility to make faith-inspired decisions for others,” he said.
One of the “beautiful teachings” of the Gospel of Life is that because Christ died for every human being, “there is no life that is outside of his redeeming act” and no life which is not entrusted to the church’s care, Father Mindling said.
“The most vulnerable, the most at risk, the most in need were especially the focus of Christ and so too for us,” he explained. “Those who are most impaired and most vulnerable include the sick and the dying and it is there that the church rises to her mission.”
Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, was involved in the preparation of the 1993 pastoral letter and the newly released one. He believes the bishops’ earlier work didn’t reach enough people.
“I never felt that we did everything we should have done in 1993 to get this valuable information in the hands of Catholics,” he said.
Calling “Comfort and Consolation” an “extraordinary document,” Mr. Dowling said he really wants people to read it.
Mr. Dowling said he hopes the document will “cause individuals to think about how they want to be treated in the last days of their lives and how they want to be treated should they be rendered incapable of making healthcare decisions themselves.”
“We’re hopeful it will prompt families to discuss these questions among themselves, with their healthcare providers and with their spiritual advisors,” he said.
Mr. Dowling credited Father Mindling for his “critical role” in shaping the new pastoral letter.
“He helped make clear issues that can be difficult for some of us to fathom,” he said. “This document was written with great clarity and it is infused with a sense of compassion.”
25,000 copies of the document have been printed, Mr. Dowling said.