A Catholic’s Guide to Advance Health Care Directives And End-of-life Decisions

Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City

Creating an advance health care directive allows you to provide guidance on your health care preferences and control who can make health care decisions on your behalf.

If you are Catholic and preparing to make your own advance health care directive, you may wish to know the Church’s position on some of the decisions available to you.

According to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Catholic teaching concerning end-of-life decisions emphasizes the following points:

  1. Death is a normal part of the human condition
  2. Euthanasia is wrong
  3. Life should be preserved and prolonged to the extent possible and in accordance with “proportionality.” That means and implies:
    1. Life-sustaining medical treatment should be administered so long as the risks or burdens of continuing care are not disproportionate to (i.e., greatly outweigh) the expected benefits
    2. Failing to provide a patient with nutrition and hydration for purposes of ending the patient’s life and accelerating death constitutes euthanasia and is always wrong, even if nourishment must be provided by artificial means. However, in some cases artificial nutrition and hydration no longer provide substantial benefits to the patient and are in fact burdensome to a dying patient. In such cases, artificial nutrition and hydration may be withheld or withdrawn, even if the dying process is incidentally hastened
    3. Severe pain should be alleviated to the extent possible, even if it hastens death. Pain control is not the same as euthanasia because its primary objective is not to result in death.

Weighing the expected burdens, risks, and benefits of a particular treatment decision is often very difficult. In making health care decisions while they have capacity, Catholics should consult with their medical and spiritual advisors to arrive at objective and honest decisions.

To help ensure that decisions are made in accordance with their faith in circumstances in which they do not retain capacity, Catholics should create advance health care directives with instructions that all health care decisions should be consistent with Catholic teaching. A simple sentence like the below may be sufficient:

Sample clause: Any decision concerning my health care should be consistent with relevant teachings of the Roman Catholic Church

In addition to this statement of belief, many archdiocese publications encourage Catholics to naming a practicing Catholic as their agent under a medical power of attorney, when possible. Choosing a fellow Catholic to serve helps ensure that your agent will respect and make decisions in accordance with your Catholic values.

Sources:

"Advanced Healthcare Directive", Archdiocese of Los Angeles.