June, 1995 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
This diagnosis was quickly followed by surgery, and then a regimen of
chemotherapy and radiation. He
remained free of cancer for fifteen months.
Then, in late August of 1996, it was discovered that the cancer had
spread to his liver and was inoperable. At
this point, a different kind of chemotherapy was begun.
However, in mid-October the Cardinal made the decision to stop receiving
chemotherapy. He did this because
the chemotherapy was not stopping the growth or diminishing the size of his
tumors as it was supposed to do, and because of the serious side effects he was
experiencing from the chemotherapy treatment.
The cancerous tumors continued to grow until they brought about his death
on November 14, 1996. (Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The
Gift of Life)
the way in which he handled his cancer treatment, Cardinal Bernardin provided a
living model of the teaching of the Catholic Church on decisions to use or forgo
Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services from
the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1994) has given us the following
principles for making these decisions:
person has a moral obligation to use ordinary or proportionate means of
preserving his or her life. Proportionate
means are those that in the judgment of the patient offer a reasonable hope of
benefit and do not entail an excessive burden or impose excessive expense on the
family or the community. (no. 56)
person may forgo extraordinary or disproportionate means of preserving life.
Disproportionate means are those that in the patient’s judgment do not
offer a reasonable hope of benefit or entail an excessive burden, or impose
excessive expense on the family or the community. (no. 57)
Cardinal Bernardin was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the treatments of
surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation offered a real possibility of benefit for
his health. These treatments could at least prolong his life, and possibly bring
about a total cure. From a moral
point of view, he should have undertaken these treatments, as he did.
In fact, the treatments gave the Cardinal fifteen months of life
when the cancer recurred and had spread to his liver, the Cardinal still
undertook a new type of chemotherapy which was potentially beneficial to him;
the tumors of some patients who had received it stopped growing or diminished in
size. It was only after an
unsucessful trial of the chemotherapy that Cardinal Berdardin decided to forgo
it entirely. This decision was
likewise in accord with the moral principles of the Catholic Church.
The chemotherapy did not offer
“a reasonable hope of benefit” since the cancer continued to spread even
with this treatment. Moreover, the
serious side effects of the chemotherapy were a truly “burdensome” aspect of
this treatment for the Cardinal.
November of 1996, very shortly before his death, Cardinal Bernardin wrote a
letter to the United States Supreme Court in opposition to euthanasia and
assisted suicide. He began the
letter in this way:
am at the end of my earthly life. There
is much that I have contemplated these last months of my illness, but as one who
is dying I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life. I know from my own experience that patients often face
difficult and deeply personal decisions about their care. However, I also know that even a person who decides to forgo
treatment does not necessarily choose death.
Rather, he chooses life without the burden of disproportionate medical
Catholic Church maintains that there is a real and morally significant
difference between euthanasia or assisted suicide and forgoing (that is,
withholding or withdrawing) life-sustaining treatments.
And while the Church is pro-life, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services
also makes clear that “an insistance on useless or burdensome technology even
when a patient may legitimately wish to forgo it” is an extreme to be avoided
(Part Five, Introduction).
Prepared by Janine Marie Idziak, Ph.D. Health Care Consultant, Archdiocese of Dubuque, IA July 2000
The document may be reproduced.