Taking care of the sick, learning what it means to love

The Church’s teaching on the end of life is re-proposed in “Samaritanus bonus” (Good Samaritan) in pastoral tones: the person is to be taken care of and surrounded with affection until the end.

By Andrea Tornielli

To say someone is incurable is not synonymous with “un-care-able”. This is the key to understand the Letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Samaritanus Bonus whose topic is “the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life”.

Before the common loss of conscience regarding the value of life and amidst public debates often conditioned by individual cases that make the news, the document clearly underlines that “the uninfringeable value of life is a fundamental principle of the natural moral law and an essential foundation of the legal order”. Therefore, “we cannot directly choose to take the life of another, even if they request it.”

From this point of view, nothing new is presented in Samaritanus Bonus. The Church’s teaching has, in fact, repeatedly said no to any form of euthanasia or assisted suicide, and has explained that food and hydration are vital necessities to be guaranteed to the sick person. The magisterium has also expressed its opposition to so-called “aggressive medical treatment” because, in the case when imminent death is unavoidable, “it is lawful according to science and conscience to renounce treatments that provide only a precarious or painful extension of life”.

The Letter, therefore, re-proposes now what the most recent Pontificates have taught. This is necessary due to ever more permissive legislation in this area. The novelty is the pastoral tones that can be heard on the pages that cover the accompaniment and care for patients in the final phase of their lives. Taking care of these persons cannot, in fact, ever be reduced to the medical perspective only. It recommends a “choral” presence so the patient can be accompanied with affection, the presence of loved ones, appropriate and proportionate treatments, and spiritual assistance. References to the family are significant, for the family “needs help and adequate resources”. State governments need to recognize the “family’s primary, fundamental and irreplaceable social function…providing resources and structures to support it”, the Letter states. Pope Francis recalls that the family “has always been the closest ‘hospital’ ”. Today, too, in many parts of the world, hospitals are the privilege of the few, and they are often far away.

In addition to reminding us of the many cases discussed in the media, Samaritanus bonus helps us look at the witness of those who suffer and those who care for them, to the many testimonies of love, sacrifice, dedication toward the terminally ill or people in comas or other states of unconsciousness, assisted by their mothers, fathers, children, grandchildren – experiences lived daily in silence, often amidst a thousand other difficulties.

In his autobiography, Cardinal Angelo Scola recounts an episode that happened years ago: “In the course of a pastoral visit in Venice, one day, while I was leaving a sick person’s house, the local pastor pointed out a gentleman with a discreet air, more or less my age. Three weeks prior, his seriously disabled son, who could not speak or walk, had died. It was this father who had lovingly taken care of him for over thirty years, assisting him day and night, comforting him with his constant presence. The only time he would leave was Sunday morning when he would go to Mass. Facing that person, I felt a certain embarrassment, but, as often happens with us priests, I felt it my duty to say something. ‘God will reward you’, I babbled, a bit out of it. Smiling broadly, that father responded, ‘Your Eminence, in reality I have already received so much from the Lord because He made me understand what it means to love’ ”.