The practice of physician assisted suicide assumes that we may use the power of medical technology to end suffering by ending a life. Of course we use medicine to end suffering, for that is its purpose, but the difficulty lies how we use the power of technology. Physician assisted suicide expresses an ethos about how we handle the power to end life, a difficulty with which humanity has surely struggled from the beginning, but one which modern medical technology appears to simplify through scientific precision (a sedative and a lethal drug) and professional practice (a legal medical procedure for assisting suicide). This combination appears to provide a peaceful “final exit.”
But the Christian understanding of suffering should temper the impulse for assisted suicide. In Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II recalls Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3:1-21 to illustrate that, in the Christian tradition, confronting suffering ultimately has the meaning of overcoming sin and expressing love. In the biblical story, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that Jesus’s suffering will bring eternal life like “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (Jn 3:14). Jesus overcomes human sinfulness by confronting death, as Moses risked death by lifting a serpent by the tail. Like the serpent, sin brings the risk of harm and death. Like Moses, Jesus’ willingness to place himself between the forces of good and evil demonstrates the kind of love capable of revealing the meaning of suffering.
In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II focuses on the verse illustrating this love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) With these words, Jesus seeks to temper Nicodemus’ enthusiasm for the divine power that Nicodemus recognizes in Jesus. Notice that Nicodemus is attracted by Jesus’ power: “these signs that you do.” (3:2) But Jesus teaches that there is “condemnation” (3:17-18) in this power when it is used for anything other than salvation, “deeds wrought in God” (3:21).
Divine power is ultimately directed to overcome sinfulness and unite each human being with God. Limited in his vision, Nicodemus imagines only worldly uses for every power. When Jesus teaches Nicodemus that “one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus does not comprehend the forgiveness of sin in baptism. Rather, he immediately, or perhaps facetiously, thinks of returning to the womb. The Pharisee’s response displays a vision limited to the actions that humans, rather than God, perform. Thus it seems more accurate to read Jesus’ condemnation here as a warning, perhaps exaggerated for effect, of Nicodemus’ attachment to powerful human works. It is the same kind of exaggerated warning that Jesus gives Peter–“get behind me, Satan!”–when the latter insists that Jesus employ his power to avoid suffering. Jesus tries to turn the minds and hearts of Peter and Nicodemus away from the power of earthly means to eliminate suffering and toward the salvific power of suffering to overcome sin.
The power of modern medicine has presented us with a new form of the ancient dilemma over how to direct human power to end life. The Christian understanding of suffering offers us a reason to limit that power.
Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.