The Good in Suffering and the Evil of Euthanasia

According to a recent poll, eighty-six percent of Catholics in Canada are in support of allowing Canadians with a grievous and irremediable illness to make advance requests for assisted suicide.[1]  At the moment Bill C-7 is attempting to make assisted suicide available to those suffering from mental illness. This should be shocking, yet in our modern world of moral relativism, it is becoming increasingly common for Catholics to turn away from Church doctrine in favor of a more “compassionate” approach, especially in the realm of life issues. As Canada and the rest of the world moves toward broader acceptance of euthanasia, we as Catholics and as human persons must resist this culture of death and seek to understand the truth in order to live and promote a culture of life. The Christian view of suffering is integral to this because it is the only view that recognizes the evil of suffering and yet points to the hidden power of redemption through it, and respects the dignity of the person.

We can look at the specific case of one Catholic who currently fights for euthanasia and, in his own words, see how the moral relativist views integral Catholic teaching simply as an opinion. In 2014, twenty-nine-year-old Brittany Maynard found out she had terminal brain cancer and chose to move from California to Oregon in order to make use of Oregon’s legalized euthanasia.[2] Her husband, Dan Diaz, who professes to be a Catholic, currently advocates for legalizing euthanasia throughout the United States. In 2019, when a Catholic hospital was speaking out against euthanasia, he stated in a post: “It is heartbreaking that as a Catholic, I (we) have to stand up to the church to say: Keep your religious doctrine out of the crucial health care decisions that only individuals can make for themselves. The Church has no authority, and certainly no moral standing these days, to impose their beliefs upon a terminally ill individual like Brittany which would only create immense suffering for her.”[3] Mr. Diaz, along with many others, fails to recognize the beautiful truths about the dignity of the human person and the meaning of suffering and death; truths which are found in Church teaching, but which also flow from natural law. As Catholics, we must examine the Church’s teachings about these truths and seek to understand why euthanasia is a grave evil. Knowing these teachings, we can then understand why they are essential for every human person, not just Catholics, or as Mr. Diaz implies, just the Magisterium.

In his 1984 Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II explains the Church’s rich teachings on human suffering and its significance. Human suffering is different from animal suffering because man is aware of his suffering and, in experiencing it, asks why it exists and for what purpose he suffers. This question is addressed not to the world, but to man’s Creator. Every man experiences suffering in this life, and because he is sentient and self-aware, the suffering is not only physical but psychological. Man’s suffering is an effect of the Fall and therefore it is right to consider it an evil. However, this does not mean that all suffering has the character of punishment. Salvifici Doloris reminds us of Job who suffered great pains, yet was an innocent man “suffering without guilt.”[4] Through this story, we see that suffering does not only possess the element of justice, but also that of testing. Through suffering, man realizes his own weakness, is called to conversion and repentance, and through this humbling experience becomes open to the Creator’s mercy. By taking away suffering, we take away the important end of life reflection that comes through that suffering and, by doing so, take away an opportunity for man to turn back to God. Suffering contains within itself a mystery, which can only be grasped in the light of love. Love, made manifest in the Cross of Christ, is how the Creator answers the cry of the suffering soul, who in his suffering asks “why?”.

On a purely natural level, suffering seems a pain to which the only answer is death, because death appears to be the only end to suffering. By this reasoning, euthanasia seems like a solution to end man’s suffering and give a peaceful death at a time of his own choosing. However, this view sees man as only living for this world and gives no answer to his questioning of why suffering exists. Salvifici Doloris explains how man can only truly understand the meaning of his own suffering by looking to the suffering of Christ on the Cross. Christ, though he was blameless and innocent, bore all the suffering and pain due to our sin. This immense suffering was the way through which He redeemed us from our own sin, and it was through His suffering and death that the Resurrection came about. By taking part in His suffering, we are able to join in the resurrection of the body with Him. Our human suffering takes on profound new meaning in light of the fact that God sent His only Son, who took on human flesh and shared in our human suffering, in order that we may have eternal life. Because Christ suffered as man, He redeemed all human suffering so that it becomes, in a way, part of our own redemption. Christ suffered on the Cross purely out of love, and this allows our own suffering to take on a meaning of love. His cry from the Cross “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”[5] carries within it the cry of the suffering person, separated from and asking his Creator, “why?”. At the same time, Christ on the Cross carries the answer to this question as he accomplishes the Redemption, which allows man to enter heaven.[6]

Suffering is a difficult trial which does indeed cause much pain; the Church does not deny this, but it is not simply an evil with no purpose. The evil of suffering, through the Cross of Christ, brings about a great glory. Through suffering, we become worthy to share in the immense glory of heaven. Suffering does not reduce man’s dignity, but rather reveals it in a profound way, which gives a new sense of the meaning of life.[7] Through the greatest evil, Christ brought about the greatest good, and allowed us to share in this through our own suffering.

Suffering is not only essential to man for the sake of the one suffering, but also for those around him. As Pope John Paul II writes in Salvifici Doloris, “suffering is present in the world in order to release love… in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a ‘civilization of love’.” Although it is indeed extremely difficult to watch a loved one suffer deeply, through this witness to their suffering, the one witnessing becomes available to the other. The one who witnesses feels a great sense of compassion for the one suffering and this compassion calls them to action in order to assist the one suffering.[8] Thus, they become vulnerable to each other and aid each other in their vocation to love. With a grasp of the meaning of suffering, we can apply these teachings more specifically to euthanasia.

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II applies the truths of suffering more specifically to current life issues as he affirms the value of human life, while pointing out that our culture has lost the sense of this. He affirms that every human life belongs to God his Creator, and thus only God can give and take away life. The Catechism states this clearly: “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”[9] Pope John Paul II points out how our modern culture is a “culture of death,”[10] which is overly concerned with efficiency and rejects the suffering person as an obstacle to this. This efficiency-driven culture fails to recognize the inherent personal dignity that every person has, not because of anything he has done, but simply because he is created from and for love in the image and likeness of God. In a culture that sees no value in suffering, euthanasia offers an escape from difficulty, both for the person suffering and the one witnessing the suffering. When man loses the sense of God, everything loses its deeper meaning. “Life itself becomes a mere “thing,” which man claims as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control and manipulation…Birth and death, instead of being primary experiences demanding to be “lived”, become things to be merely “possessed” or “rejected”.”[11] In our utilitarian world, man forgets that his life is a good, not because of what he does or experiences, but simply because he exists as a reflection of God. Death is viewed as an ominous threat to the purpose of his existence, yet in the case of intense suffering, death is viewed as freeing. However, man’s suffering is not simply a burden, as modern society thinks, but rather because man is a reflection of God and ordered towards communion with Him, as we have shown, his suffering carries immense value.

As we discussed in the beginning, in our world of moral relativism, people move away from Church teaching for a more “compassionate” approach. St John Paul II addresses this idea very clearly in Evangelium Vitae when he writes: “Euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing “perversion” of mercy. True “compassion” leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.”[12] Thus we see that, although our natural response is to turn away from that suffering which pains us to see, it is through true compassion that we share in the suffering of the other and open ourselves to love and the redemptive power of suffering.

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II also explains how the Gospel of life, as taught by the Church, is not something foreign to non-Catholics, but rather echoes in the heart of every man, “believer and non-believer alike.”[13] The modern man fights for radical autonomy, while at the same time fighting for a law which reflects the moral relativism of the masses. Objective moral truths are seen as an enemy to true freedom and if anyone dares to object to rapidly changing “morals”, they are viewed as insensitive and not compassionate. Laws are pushed to protect the modern ideas of moral freedoms and rights. However, as Evangelium Vitae explains, “natural law, written in the human heart, is the obligatory point of reference for civil law itself…Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality.”[14] Thus we see that morals are not derived from the law, but rather the law is derived from morals and objective truth. He says: “It is therefore urgently necessary…to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person.”[15] This truth explained by the Church, therefore, is not simply for those in the Magisterium or certain Catholics who choose this for themselves, rather, it arises in the conscience of every human person who seeks to find the truth.

The Church’s teaching is a way of simply inhibiting personal choice, as Mr. Diaz implies in his statement. She teaches these things as a way of guiding the hearts of those seeking the truth and responding to the questioning conscience. Freedom is not a radical autonomy and independence from others; it is found within a framework of relationships and duties towards God, others, and ourselves. This dependence on others is not an evil, but by recognizing that each person exists within a larger framework, man can better understand who he was created to be. Freedom allows us to choose what we ought while acknowledging that we do have a given nature we must strive to order ourselves to. We need not create our own lives according to our own plan, but rather should strive to conform ourselves to Christ, who reveals to us the meaning of our existence and the meaning of suffering.

Although Mr. Diaz must have experienced great pain in the loss of his wife, by not drawing on the Church’s understanding of suffering he misses out on the meaning that would make his wife’s suffering bearable and redemptive. He asks that the Church stay out of his wife’s personal decision, yet the Church points out that the truths are essential for all human persons. Suffering is an evil, therefore a lack of some good, but Christ redeems our suffering. Mr. Diaz and others like him acknowledge in some way that God exists, yet deny His revelation about the dignity of the human person and the redemptive power in suffering. They view morality as something that changes with each situation and how one believes they can be most “compassionate”. Compassion though cannot be shown without recognition of the dignity of the other, and true compassion can only be found in giving meaning to suffering, not trying to eradicate it at the cost of personal dignity. This moral relativism is a slippery slope that quickly leads to extremely dangerous ideas, which we can see in Canada currently.

Bill C-7, presently being put forward by the Canadian government, advocates for the expansion of euthanasia to include those suffering from mental illness. This is disturbing, as it removes the requirement that the one seeking euthanasia needs to be near death. This allows a perfectly healthy person, who feels that their life is pointless or too difficult to continue, to choose suicide with the support of their doctors, family, and friends. Those who are suffering in this way need our help; they need to know that they have immense value and worth simply because they exist and were created in the image of God. They also need to know their suffering has value. They do not need people pushing euthanasia on them because it is a cheaper or easier option. Their suffering, united to Christ’s suffering on the Cross, has redemptive power for themselves and others. In this climate of moral relativism, where truth is rapidly being treated as restrictive and outdated, we as Catholics must live and promote a culture of life that accepts suffering as a means to a greater glory. In the face of suffering, we must take up our cross and follow Christ and invite others to do the same.

[1] Alex Da Dalt, “New Poll: Majority of Canadians Support Expanding Access to Medical Assistance in Dying,” Dying With Dignity Canada, February 6, 2020, “

[2] Brittany Maynard, “Brittany Maynard | Compassion & Choices,” Compassion & Choices, 2014,”

[3]Dan Diaz, May 16, 2019, “

[4] Pope John Paul II, “Salvifici Doloris,”, February 11, 1984. 11.

[5] Matthew 27:46

[6] “Salvifici Doloris”, 26.

[7] “Salvifici Doloris”, 23.

[8] “Salvifici Doloris”, 28.

[9] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,”, 1993, ““, 2280.

[10] Pope John Paul II, “Evangelium Vitae,”, March 25, 1995, ““, 11.

[11] “Evangelium Vitae”, 22.

[12] “Evangelium Vitae”, 66.

[13] “Evangelium Vitae”, 2.

[14] “Evangelium Vitae”, 70.

[15] “Evangelium Vitae”, 71.