Reflections on “Aid in Dying” – A message from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M

As the Bishop of a Diocese, I am frequently asked to issue “statements” on a variety of subjects and I often do.  I try to be very careful in what I write and preach, avoiding topics of a political nature, keeping in mind my responsibility to use opportunities that I have to address and teach the faithful on matters of faith and morals.  I prefer to label my writings as “reflections” or “messages,” more homiletic in nature and content, designed to encourage believers to follow the Gospels of Jesus Christ and to apply the teachings of the Church to issues or events of contemporary relevance to Catholics in our Diocese.

It’s not that I don’t have political opinions — I do.  We all have a right to our own opinions, political and otherwise, and a right to express them with constitutionally guaranteed protections.  But I don’t consider the various pulpits that I have as Bishop to be the appropriate place to make my political opinions known.  The faithful look to their Bishop for spiritual not political guidance.  My proper text is the Word of God as truth; my proper text is the teaching of the Catholic Church as truth; my proper text is the Christian life as truth that these texts attempt to encourage and support.

When issues that confront us in contemporary culture undermine our Catholic faith, compromise or, worse, prevent our constitutionally guaranteed “free exercise of religion,” those issues need to be challenged.  The Bishop has an obligation to do that in and for his Diocese.  It is part of his office and ministry in the Church to teach, to govern and to sanctify.  And priests and deacons who share in his ministry also share that obligation in virtue of their ordination.  The lay faithful are likewise encouraged to speak out in virtue of their baptism.

Any assault on the God-given gift of life in contemporary culture needs to be challenged.  That challenge is not rooted in political opinions or agendas, although the media often refer to assaults on life as “‘hot button’ political issues.”  No, that challenge is rooted in the fundamental truths of our faith.  That’s the text we preach.  As St. Paul has written “we believe and so we speak (2 Corinthians 4:13).”  Even the Declaration of Independence affirms “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Our nation was founded on that belief and conviction.
As Bishop, I believe, and so I speak, this challenge to be an assault on life that has become imminent in New Jersey.

As of August 1, New Jersey’s “Aid in Dying” legislation is the law of the state.  This legislation is morally wrong on so many levels.  It flies in the face of what our Founding Fathers believed.  It flies in the face of what the Church believes and teaches.
As we witness the slow but steady erosion in contemporary culture of the conviction that all human life is sacred and worth preserving at every moment from conception through natural death, I call upon all Catholics within the Diocese of Trenton, indeed, upon all people of good will, to recommit themselves to the belief that God is the only Creator and source of all human life and that, therefore, God alone has the right to determine its natural end.

Human life is about joys and sorrows, good times and bad, health and sickness, love and loneliness, abundance and sacrifice, time and eternity and every human experience in between: yesterday, today and forever.

Everyone who lives will eventually die. That’s the way God made us and there are no exceptions and no escape.  No one wants, seeks or enjoys sickness, suffering or the pain that touches every one of us in this journey through natural human life.

But natural human life is, truly, a journey from its first moments in the womb through its last heartbeat and breath on earth.  And God our Creator is the thread that ties every moment, every instance of that journey together from beginning to end.  Laws do not alter that reality, try as they might.  Laws should not interrupt that continuum, try as they do.  Death brings the same result whether legal or not; whether through someone else’s assistance or by one’s own hand; whether natural or induced.

The only real “death with dignity” is the one that follows a full “life with dignity” as God our Creator has designed and intends it to be, with all its natural, God given and human moments.  Anything else is a rejection of God our Creator as Creator and an affront to the human nature God has implanted within us, one and all.

The so-called “Death with Dignity Act” — physician or “anybody else” assisted suicide — is another tragic example of human hubris, re-creating God in our own image; imposing our own limits upon God’s law and will and wisdom; exhausting God’s otherwise inexhaustible mystery and merciful companionship in our journey through the natural, fully human life God alone can give. And when sickness comes to those we love, it is our obligation to care even when there is no cure.  I write these reflections as Bishop and shepherd, yes, but even more personally as a son who stood with his brothers by their parents’ sides as they breathed their last.  Although now that it has become law in New Jersey to bring about the end of life, it is an option and a choice that we should never make.