Clergy are asked on a fairly frequent basis what a family should do in facing the final illness of a loved one. I know I’ve had to answer those kinds of questions several times over the past few years. Very often families get pressured by a doctor to withdraw nutrition and hydration so that their loved one can “go peacefully,” in the mistaken idea that food and water somehow “prolong suffering.”
Although the Church has always been clear in her teaching, today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued responses to specific questions. The answers are the same as they’ve always been, but sometimes we need to hear things more than once to make sure our understanding is clear. Here are the questions and the responses as they were presented by Cardinal Levada to the Holy Father, and which the Pope has approved for publication:
First question: Is the administration of food and water (whether by natural or artificial means) to a patient in a 'vegetative state' morally obligatory except when they cannot be assimilated by the patient's body or cannot be administered to the patient without causing significant physical discomfort?
Response: Yes. The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life. It is therefore obligatory to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper finality, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient. In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented.
Second question: When nutrition and hydration are being supplied by artificial means to a patient in a 'permanent vegetative state,' may they be discontinued when competent physicians judge with moral certainty that the patient will never recover consciousness?
Response: No. A patient in a 'permanent vegetative state' is a person with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means."