Prolonging Life At Any Expense?

June 14, 2013

Does the Catholic Church believe that human life must be prolonged as long as possible regardless of the circumstances? 

Many people believe so, but this is not, in fact, the case. 

“The Catholic Church has a very clear position that death doesn’t have to be prolonged. It’s a myth that the Catholic Church wants people to be in pain,” states Fr. Richard Benson, chair of moral theology and academic dean at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. 

Back in November, Holy Cross Parish hosted a presentation on “The Catholic Perspective on End-of-Life Issues” by Dr. Mary Pat Tranter, Ph.D., who received her doctorate in medical science from Harvard Medical School. President of Coyle and Cassidy High School in Taunton, she currently serves as co-chair of the ethics committee and on the board of directors at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton. 

Tranter explained that there are three tenets to the Catholic response to end-of-life issues. First, as created in the image and likeness of God, all life is sacred from conception to natural death. Second, one can never do evil so that good can come of it. The act, intention, and circumstances must all be good. Third, any act or omission with the intent of causing death constitutes euthanasia. 

Today, unlike in past years, 90 percent of us will not die a sudden death but rather a protracted one. For many of us, Tranter explained, treatment will move from curative to palliative, aimed at keeping the person comfortable.

The question will then often arise, “When is it OK to say enough is enough?” 

The Catholic answer is that we can withhold treatment when a natural death is inevitable. The Catholic Church does not believe in prolonging life as long as possible. Natural death is OK. It is the ultimate reality of life. 

The fear that many of us have in a prolonged state of dying is the suffering caused by severe pain. Modern medicine, however, allows pain to be effectively managed. Death should not be uncomfortable if the person is receiving proper care.

 It is also a sacred event in which we move from this life to the next life. Palliative care is designed to make the person as comfortable as possible in order to make the transition from this life to the next life as easy as possible.

The question of what constitutes ordinary and extraordinary measures can often be confusing. I read in my research for this column that the term “extraordinary measures” was developed by Catholic theologians in the 16th century in an attempt to grapple with the bioethical implications of prolonging human life. Every treatment must be understood and evaluated within this context. 

For example, a simple treatment of antibiotics that would ordinarily cure an illness could be considered extraordinary and morally optional if death is imminent. On the other hand, a costly and difficult treatment would be morally obligatory if the benefits outweigh the burdens. But if the burdens of the treatment are disproportionate to the benefits, or the treatment has no reasonable chance of reversing the illness or keeping the person alive, it would be considered extraordinary. 

The issue of nutrition and hydration often arises in cases of severe illness.

Catholic moral teaching presumes that nutrition and hydration will be offered, whether orally or by a feeding tube, to a person whose body can absorb and process these basic necessities of life.

At the same time, it would not be necessary to artificially introduce them into a body that will not benefit from them, nor would it be appropriate to do so for a body that cannot absorb them. 

Likewise, if death is imminent and a person has stopped eating or drinking, it is not necessary to insert a feeding tube. A distinction can be made between what is morally obligatory and what is morally optional.  

While the Christian faith values the sanctity of human life as created in the image and likeness of God, it also professes that this temporary earthly life leads to a new and eternal life. 

We value, respect, and protect human life, but also acknowledge that it is not the ultimate purpose or end of human existence. A greater life awaits us on the other side of this life. 

The Rev. Jim Fenstermaker, C.S.C. '77, is pastor of Holy Cross Church in South Easton. He can be reached at For more information on Holy Cross Parish, visit