In our day, those human lives that, for whatever reason, are most characterized by weakness run the risk of falling victim to the “throwaway culture” that is ever more prevalent. Unfortunately, marginalization and diminishment of so many human beings is all too frequent. All merit our attention, but we need to recognize that weakness caused by serious illness or old age deserves priority consideration because it is in these circumstances that the culture of exclusion and death which pervades so many aspects of society today finds fertile soil in which to grow. It is in these circumstances that the abandonment of our fellow human beings finds its theoretical justification—expressed in the phrase “right to die.”
The Pontifical Academy for Life views with deep admiration and gratitude the palliative care movement that has grown up in the medical profession today as an answer to the needs of a class of humanity—the “dying”—that is clearly fragile and that, without the vigorous spirit of solidarity that inspires the palliative care movement, would all too easily remain subject to the risk of marginalization and exclusion.
In the palliative care movement we see that society has a soul, alive and fruitful, that reminds us of the source of each human being’s dignity—the dignity of both the person who suffers from illness, and of the one who encounters that suffering person. Indeed, it is only in the solidarity of that encounter that the person who cares for a suffering fellow human can understand what his own dignity requires.
Pope Francis has pointed to palliative care as an “expression of our uniquely human need to take care of each another, particularly to care for persons who are suffering. Palliative care is a witness to the fact that the human person is always precious, even if old, even if sick. The human person, whatever his circumstances, is always a good, for himself and for others, and is loved by God.” (Discourse of Pope Francis to the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, March 5, 2015).
With these words the Holy Father recalls a fundamental truth: the human person is never an evil! He or she is always a “someone” who is to be cared for. “Taking care” of the other is not a social superstructure, a choice that can be made or not. It is a intrinsic demand that arises from our very humanity. “Taking care” rather than abandoning is a course of action that has no alternatives if humanity is to make real progress.
The activity of the palliative care movement is the only appropriate way to be close to those who suffer from advanced or terminal illness. Through their everyday work, those who offer palliative care not only provide a worthwhile service able to fulfill with true humanity the needs of persons who are ill and suffering, they also become witnesses to all of society of a cultural message that gives long life, even everlasting life, to the good that is contained in every single caring act.
The Catholic Church looks with great hope toward the charism that inspires palliative care, recognizing the good that all humanity can realize from such care. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged. (Article 2279). We know, however, that practically speaking, there are truly few who are able to receive from society the kind of recognition and accompaniment that palliative care offers to the dying.
On the other hand, from its beginning Christianity has been present in society through activities and institutions that are concrete manifestations of Gospel mercy. Hospitals are certainly one example of the Church’s commitment in this area. Even though they are today an important feature of secular society and get a large measure of their support from public resources, at their origin they were seen as manifestation of Christian mercy. Today, in the Christian-tradition West and in nations more recently evangelized, the Catholic Church, and the other Christian confessions, own and operate a significant percentage of the various healthcare facilities, from urgent and emergency care for the poor to great centers of excellence for care and medical research.
We are thus aware that in the Catholic Church, or inspired by it, enormous material and spiritual resources constitute a great potential for answering the need that exists, today as before, for the caring and humanity required when dealing with those suffering advanced or terminal illness.
This is the spirit that gave rise to the Pal-life Proposal. It is a project that has a clear goals but that is still just at its beginning. Much will depend on how able we are to take on the human and social challenge posed by the fragility of persons with advanced and terminal illness. It will also depend on how able we are to become partners, both welcoming and generous, of a community like that of palliative care professionals, which is fully committed, with all its intelligence and compassion, to finding appropriate answers to the calls of a profoundly needy humanity..
The Project will have its official opening on March 31 and April 1, and will initially consist of a consulting study group of fifteen experts in palliative care throughout the world. Each one of them has joined the Project with great enthusiasm. The purpose of this first step is to study both the current situation and the opportunities and obstacles to the introduction and development of palliative care in the various regions around the world.
In addition to the information that these experts will supply, the Pontifical Academy for Life has begun an “internal” study within the Church environment to determine how many Catholic-related care and assistance facilities deal with terminal illnesses. The study will cover both the professional and the cultural aspects of the situation. It is known that the challenge of welcome and inclusion for the terminally ill, just as with every other weak element in society, always has cultural aspects that imply a vision of the reality and dignity of every human life. The goals of this study is to establish a clear starting point from which concrete palliative care initiatives can be developed in the Catholic Church and outside it.
Our hope is that from this meeting and subsequent Project-related initiatives we can develop not only basic palliative care capabilities, but also a cultural understanding of illness and suffering that is able to accept death with tranquillity and to care for the dying with love.