The Archdiocese of San Francisco is set to begin training volunteers who will help parishes support Catholics in making end-of-life decisions for themselves and loved ones, informed by Catholic teaching about death.
Deacon Fred Totah, director of pastoral ministry for the archdiocese, told CNA that he fields a lot of questions about end-of-life problems in his parish— more so now than ever, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Catholic end-of-life ministry is a response to California’s 2015 legalization of assisted suicide under the End of Life Option Act, which took effect during June 2016. Under the law, patients may request and physicians may prescribe life-ending medications.
The Catholic Church teaches that assisted suicide and euthanasia— which both involve the intentional taking of life— are never permissible. Withholding “extraordinary means” of medical treatment and allowing death to occur naturally can be morally permissible under Catholic teaching.
The bishops of California, along with healthcare leaders, launched an initiative called Caring for the Whole Person in 2016 to help to educate people about Catholic teaching on dying.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles launched its Whole Person Care ministry during February 2020, and the Diocese of Stockton began doing training for its ministry in March.
Other California dioceses are in the process of building core teams for their ministries, Totah said, and he has reached out to them to offer help building their end-of-life ministries.
'The door is always open for anybody to partner with us," he said.
Totah told Catholic San Francisco that it is his hope that every parish eventually will have an end-of-life ministry. The ministry might also be combined with an existing parish ministry, he said, such as grief and consolation, Legion of Mary, or ministry to the sick and homebound.
A five-week Zoom training for the 25 volunteers will begin Sept. 16, and will run until Oct. 14.
The training will encompass five modules, he said, including an introduction to palliative and hospice care; Catholic teaching on end-of-life problems; planning for end-of-life; and grief and bereavement in the parish setting.
The Catholic Medical Association, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association, have long supported an expansion of palliative care— medical care and pain management for the symptoms of those suffering from a serious illness, rather than the premature ending of their life.
The CMA emphasized their position that “the goal of palliative care is to promote effective relief of pain and suffering, not to eliminate the sufferer.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services prohibit Catholic health care facilities from condoning or participating in euthanasia or assisted suicide.
A report from the California Department of Public Health said 374 persons ended their lives by assisted suicide in 2017 – the first full year that the law had been in effect.
The California Catholic Conference reiterated its opposition to assisted suicide in the beginning of 2018, criticizing the lack of data collected and a lack of transparency in the law’s implementation.
In January 2020, a county Superior Court dismissed a legal challenge against the End of Life Option Act, which a group of doctors had filed upon its passage. The US Supreme Court had the year before declined to review the case.
Oregon, Washington, Maine, New Jersey, Hawaii, Colorado, Vermont and the District of Columbia have all legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia along with California. In Montana the practice is legal by a court ruling.
Countries with legal euthanasia are the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, and Canada. Assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany.
The US House of Representatives in October 2019 sent a bill to the Senate that would expand funding and training for palliative care. The bill is currently in a Senate committee.