Kudos to Portland, Oregon, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample, who offered an important and moving statement in the name of the Catholic community in response to the announced plans of Brittany Maynard to kill herself soon. Maynard has made a lot of news recently, after moving with her husband to Oregon, to take advantage of its assisted-suicide law. It is a sad and tragic story.
This week, Archbishop Sample issued what he called a “Pastoral Statement on Assisted Suicide.” It’s brief and to the point, insisting that “Life is a gift of God” and that assisted suicide “suggests that a life can lose its purpose” — both true statements that need to be made. In what was to me the most effective part of the statement, the archbishop wrote directly to people who might be considering suicide as a response to suffering:
“Don’t give up hope! We are with you. As friends, families and neighbors we pledge to surround you with our love and compassion until the sacred moment when God calls you home.”
It’s a beautiful statement, full of love and power and goodness. It is the assertion of a truly Christian, truly Catholic community to one who suffers — as Brittany Maynard clearly is, in many ways — presuming of course that that community is prepared to back up its words in real action. And it’s just the right message we should be able to offer, and must offer, to people in situations like Maynard’s.
Of course, it’s also precisely the statement we should be able to offer to many other people in many other situations, and reading Archbishop Sample’s words were for me an occasion of an examination of conscience. I would suggest it might serve as an examination of conscience for the Church.
“We are with you. As friends, families and neighbors, we pledge to surround you with our love and compassion.” Can we and do we say this, and mean it, to people among us who are poor, homeless, unemployed? Can we and do we say it to people on death row? To the unwanted unborn, the women who carry them, the doctors who have aborted them?
Such an examen is also relevant in the wake of this month’s Synod on the Family and the difficult issues that were addressed there. What consequences might be suggested if we decided we want to say it to the divorced and remarried? What might that mean? To people who are gay? People who are gay and in civil marriages?
Indeed, some of the synod discussion suggests we might ask: Are we willing to say it to folks such as these? Or do we only choose to say it when we’re trying to prevent someone from doing something we know is bad, but lose interest in saying it after they’ve done it?
I’m not saying the answers to these questions are obvious or that there will only be in all cases one right answer. But I do think Archbishop Sample offers us a good, useful, and challenging statement by which we can measure ourselves and the effectiveness of our Catholic witness to the world.