© Copyright 2002 Grace D. MacKinnon

This article taken from the book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith, coming in March 2003 from Our Sunday Visitor. Order online at or call 1-800-348-2440. You may visit Grace online at and submit questions about the Catholic faith to:

I have prayed for three years for God to call her home or to grant her some type of mental peace and have asked her doctor (a devout Catholic) to stop the medications for her heart, but he says that would most likely be fatal for her. I am asking you if withholding medication and allowing a natural death to occur is the same as euthanasia? I don't know how to help my mother be freed from the awful mental state that now tortures her. Must we keep medicating and feeding her? Is it acceptable by Church law to stop her heart medications and let God maintain her body on earth or call her home? I do not want to offend God in any way and want to understand the Church’s teaching.

Grace: I know you love your mother very much and can imagine what a painful and difficult situation this must be for your whole family. Your willingness to follow God’s law is to be commended. Please keep in mind that in such grave moral matters every case must be considered individually. Readers are cautioned that this discussion may not apply to every circumstance and that they should speak to their pastor when they are in need of clarification and understanding of Church teaching. Having said that, let us speak of your particular situation. We will look first to the teaching of the Church, as found in the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Declaration on Euthanasia and quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here is what it says (with the paragraph number):

CCC 2277: Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded. (emphasis added)

From what you tell me, your mother is still very much alive. Even though her mind has deteriorated, she is not what would be referred to as “brain dead.” If that were the case, the answer might be different. Regarding what you describe, however, it would be morally wrong to withhold medical treatment if this would certainly kill her. Taking her off of her heart medicine would appear to constitute what Catholic moral theologian Dr. William E. May describes as “’passive euthanasia’ – in which someone brings about the death of a person for merciful reasons by an act of omission, i.e., by withholding or withdrawing medical treatments that could preserve that person’s life, precisely to bring about death” (May, William E., Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, p. 239).

The Church makes it clear that gravely ill persons are to be assisted and cared for with Christian charity at the end of their life. Our Holy Father John Paul II reminds us that our culture today sometimes fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering. Instead, it considers suffering as the epitome of evil, something to be eliminated at all costs. He states that this leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands (Evangelium vitae, no. 15). “According to Christian teaching, however, suffering, especially suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God's saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ's passion and a union with the redeeming sacrifice which He offered in obedience to the Father's will” (Declaration on Euthanasia, III).

Usually, what a person who is suffering needs more than anything is love and care. How wonderful and peaceful we feel when we know that someone loves us. The Declaration on Euthanasia concludes by pointing out that such service to people is also service to Christ the Lord, who said: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage