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Originally Published Thursday, June 7, 2001

Catholic bishop: 'Life is good, ... not absolute'

My Voice
Stephen Blaire

The case of Lodi's Robert Wendland is a sad one. The moral dilemma and the complicated legal intricacies surrounding the matter of life support for Robert Wendland are profoundly perplexing. While the facts of the case remain controverted, depending upon which member of the family is speaking, Robert exists in a state of impaired consciousness apparently with no chance of recovery. He requires artificial means to survive. The hearing granted by the California Supreme Court raises the profile of this heart-rending situation to a level engaging public moral reflection. As the Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese in which the Wendlands reside, I wish to offer a pastoral perspective to assist in the formation of decisions which rest in the human conscience, protect the sanctity of life and honor the common good. Great prudence is needed in the Wendland case to discern the true good and to choose the right means for achieving it. St. Thomas Aquinas calls the virtue of prudence "right reason in action." The moral good enunciated in the following principles requires prudence in application to achieve what is good and to avoid what is evil. The Catholic Church teaches that the presumption must be in favor of life. Included in that is a presumption in favor of nutrition and hydration. Life is good, a precious gift from God, but not an absolute or ultimate good. Life is sacred and must be respected but does not have to be preserved or prolonged at all costs. The ultimate good is eternal happiness in heaven. The 1980 Declaration of Euthanasia from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith teaches that medical treatment can be withheld or withdrawn (after all proper consultations) if this treatment is of no benefit to the patient, carries a risk or is burdensome. Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of 'overzealous' treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable and legitimate interests must always be respected." Two extremes must be avoided: on one hand, an insistence on useless or burdensome technology even when a patient may legitimately wish to forgo it and, on the other hand, the withdrawal technology with the intention of causing death. Prayerful discernment exercising the virtue of prudence can guide all parties engaged in the life-and-death situation of Robert Wendland. Our prayers are for him, his wife, Rose; his children; his mother, Florence; and his extended family. I pray for those who counsel them and care for Robert. I also ask everyone to pray for the judges and the litigants in this case, that God grant them the wisdom to make the decision that best serves the interest of Robert, his family and the people of California.

The Most Rev. Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockton.