Death with Dignity: An Orthodox Christian Perspective 

Brittany Maynard

Few stories have afflicted me with so much sadness as Brittany Maynard’s, the young woman and newly-wed suffering from terminal brain cancer, who, in the State of Oregon, was allowed to possess a pill that would end her life at a time of her own choosing, and who just took that pill today.

I first learned about her when I read an opinion piece she wrote on CNN.com (article link). She started it by writing, “On New Year’s Day, after months of suffering from debilitating headaches, I learned that I had brain cancer. I was 29 years old. I’d been married for just over a year. My husband and I were trying for a family.” How harrowing were those words when I read them. I could not but help of think of my wife, and myself, and suddenly I was immersed in this story with fear of what could have just as easily been my story; and as quickly as that thought pervaded my mind and heart, it likewise dissipated in immediate prayers of gratitude to God thanking Him that I am not suffering through such a tragedy, while expanding my prayer to encompass everyone.

When today I read that she finally made her decision, and ended her life (article link), all my hopes I previously had that she would not make this choice, that she would be able to die naturally, that she would be able to resist the urge to take her life, to live another day with her loved ones, were obviated.

And I could not help but think, as an Orthodox Christian, how am I to view all of this? Can I blame her for wanting to end her suffering early? If I were suffering excruciating pain with a terminal illness, would I want the same choice available to me? That’s what Brittany wished for me, and all of us:

“I hope for the sake of my fellow American citizens that I’ll never meet that this option is available to you. If you ever find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, I hope that you would at least be given the same choice and that no one tries to take it from you.”

I was watching a guy on television who brought up an interesting point: we do this for animals, why not for our own kind?

As I was contemplating on this matter to answer these questions for myself, a young man who I had been serving in church and continue to serve sent me a question by text: “What is the Coptic Church’s view on death with dignity due to a terminal illness.” I’ll answer that question, and expand it to incorporate Orthodoxy as a whole (as applicable).

First, you must ask yourself, who is the authority that speaks for each of the Orthodox churches? For the Coptic Church, as with most other Orthodox churches, there is no single person that is formally given full and final authority to speak on matters that bind their entire Church. You might be finding that statement problematic, because you may think of the patriarch of each Church—doesn’t he pronounce viewpoints that declare the church’s stance on a subject?  Well, he does, but what gives him authority to bind the entire church to that view? He is definitely authoritative, but there is an authority higher than the Patriarch, and that is the synod of bishops—the “Holy Synod” in the Coptic Church—that has the power to make decisions that bind the entire church. The patriarch is simply a father bishop among equals—he is just one of many bishops, to whom the rest have chosen to follow as a lead shepherd. In the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, our patriarch has one vote, just like each of the other bishops.

This may seem strange—isn’t what the patriarch says enough? If he says something, don’t we just follow it? Well, yes, and no. While formal change or pronouncements requires a synodal decision, patriarchs often are reasonably understood to declare views that most, if not all, bishops in their church are likely to also agree with. Therefore, their opinions are given great weight, but they are not formal declarations enforceable upon all as if by authority of the entire synod of bishops; rather, out of either obedience or trust (or both), most abide by the patriarch’s remarks as being authoritative, although not infallible.

This may all seem unfamiliar or strange especially when considering that the Catholic Church seems to have a view on everything. Remember that their pope (or patriarch, as he used to be more commonly called) is regarded as infallible in making theological pronouncements in his official capacity, and thus any formal view on a matter can easily be pronounced at a moment’s notice if the Pope wishes. The Catholic Catechism teaches the following:

“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered….  The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head.” As such, this college has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.”  Hence, with the Catholic Church, their “synod” is subject to the Pope who essentially has veto power over their views, and can pronounce views that the majority of bishops may not agree with, and the Catholic Church as a whole is nonetheless bound by those pronouncements.

However, as has already been stated, unlike the Catholic Church, the patriarchs of Orthodox churches often make pronouncements that are regarded usually as the likely, shared view of all of its bishops, but it is understood that it is the synods of bishops of Orthodox churches which are vested with authority to formally declare official viewpoints on matters. With that in mind, we get a sense of where we should turn for an “official view” of an Orthodox church.

In the Coptic Church, I am not aware of a synodal decision regarding this subject, but I am aware of the late Pope Shenouda III’s view on the matter. He discusses it in His Holiness’s book, “Contemplations on the Ten Commandments, Volume 3, The Sixth Commandment [Thou Shall Not Kill]” (link to book here). In Chapter 6 of that book, His Holiness talks about suicide, which is what this is all about; the new name given to it—Death with Dignity—is an attempt to justify what amounts to suicide. There he makes clear that

“Killing oneself, or committing suicide, is the same as killing others…. Suicide is a form of murder. Man does not own his own life nor does he have liberty to do anything he likes with it. It is owned by Christ, for when He redeemed our lives by His own Blood, He bought man’s life which then became His…. It is a gift that cannot be thrown away…. That is why the Church does not conduct a funerary mass for an individual who commits suicide [unless they were mentally incompetent and cannot be blamed for their action], simply because death takes place after the commission of a crime of murder. Such a person dies after committing a sin which he does not give himself a chance to repent for.”

I am not aware of the current Patriarch of the Coptic Church having spoken on this matter, but I am all but certain that His Holiness would agree.

You may wonder about the biblical and/or Church Father support for this view. I’ll just summarize it this way: the Church Fathers either directly or indirectly touch on the point of killing oneself, and they all oppose it, citing several biblical verses as support; and their view of Samson’s suicide (the single most common biblical reference waged in defense of suicide) is seen as distinct from actually killing oneself out of a loss of hope or desire to relieve oneself of this life, but rather as a sign of obedience to God’s wishes. For more detailed Orthodox Christian treatment on the subject, I found a great link here:  http://pemptousia.com/2011/11/original-christian-voices-against-euthanasia/ 

COMMIT SUICIDE—DIRECTLY TO HADES?

Does everyone who commits suicide go directly to Hades? Most say yes, others say maybe, few to none say no. I’ll tell you this, my answer for anyone who cherishes eternal life: err on the side of caution and do not risk eternal life by taking one’s own life to relieve the pain of this present time—the eternal gamble is not worth disposing of any amount of suffering in the present life, even if it seems that way now.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE NON-ORTHODOX WHO WANT TO HAVE THE ABILITY TO KILL THEMSELVES?

A question that has presented itself quite often with so many controversial political decisions these days is: “How far should we apply our own moral beliefs on others who do not ascribe to our religious affiliation?” Ask an Egyptian Christian in Egypt that question, where the majority viewpoint is Muslim, and think of the answer you’ll get. Ask that to someone in America, it may be a very different answer. When you are the one who has contrary beliefs imposed on you, it is easy to cry out for freedom and relief from oppression. When that is not the case, should we Orthodox force our religious parameters on others? There is a point where the answer, in my view, should be “no.” God doesn’t force us to be righteous, or to follow His every commandment. Knowing that there is an eternal consequence, and often a consequence in this life, for deviating from God’s wishes is supposed to be sufficient to deter many from choices that are inconsistent with God’s will. But as a society we do select a set of morally depraved actions that we decide should be outlawed, and no matter how secular political decisions appear, so much of what we believe about morality and therefore express politically is informed by our religious inclinations. So, on a host of moral issues, as a society we do impose morality on others. The question remains: where do we draw the line?

____________________

For a great perspective opposite of Brittany Maynard’s, see the following: (My Mom Has the Same Brain Cancer Diagnosis Brittany Maynard Had. She’s Fighting to Live as Long as She Can)

2 thoughts on “Death with Dignity: An Orthodox Christian Perspective 

  1. Hi John, I’m a big fan of your work. I was curious though, how is this situation different than terminating a brain-dead patient on life support, which the Coptic Church supports?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Matthew. I thank God for any gifts bestowed. As for your question, it’s a very good one that I didn’t touch upon… You are right that there seems to be support for the scenario you have mentioned within the Coptic Church, as it appears H.G. Bishop Youssef indicates as much (http://www.suscopts.org/q&a/index.php?qid=1571&catid=695). To answer your question as to the distinction, who is committing the act? Not the patient themselves, but someone else. Even if the patient made the decision, I really like what I read from the Greek Orthodox Church on the matter of Euthanasia, where they distinguish between ceasing the use of extraordinary means made available by modern science to prolong life (as in life support) and a patient choosing to relieve themselves of pain by cutting their life short (taken from http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/controversialissues):

    “The Church does not expect that excessive and heroic means must be used at all costs to prolong dying, as has now become possible through technical medical advances. As current Orthodox theology expresses it: ‘The Church distinguishes between euthanasia and the withholding of extraordinary means to prolong life. It affirms the sanctity of human life and man’s God-given responsibility to preserve life. But it rejects an attitude which disregards the inevitability of physical death.’ This means that the Church may even pray that terminally ill persons die, without insisting that they be subjected to unnecessary and extraordinary medical efforts. At the same time, the Church rejects as morally wrong any willed action on the part of an individual to cause his or her own death or the death of another, when it otherwise would not occur.”

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