Q. Two years ago, my daughter was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. We understand that the disease is considered terminal but pray for a healing. Two of her friends died of cancer, so she has witnessed firsthand the stages of dying and the profound sadness which that leaves in its wake. Based on those experiences, my daughter has said more than once that, when her own death draws near, assisted suicide is her wish. (And her husband has promised her that he will comply.)
I have prayed about this but don’t know how to approach my daughter without alienating her. (She believes in God but doesn’t worship formally.) Please give me your thoughts. (Upstate New York)
A. Life comes to us as a gift from God, and God alone has the right to decide when it is time for us to return that gift. This is the fundamental reason why I, along with the church, oppose assisted suicide. It violates the sacredness of human life.
But even without that theological basis, there are many who find the notion discomforting. Among them are a host of physician groups, including the American Medical Association, because it violates a doctor’s oath, which is to heal and to do no harm.
Disability advocates also are strongly opposed because it seems to equate human worth with social utility. (One danger is that people who are seriously ill might feel “obliged to die” because they have become a burden to their family, either emotionally or financially.)
Palliative care and, in the final stages, the merciful ministry of hospice, can do much to relieve a patient’s pain while also providing emotional and spiritual support. You might assure your daughter of that, along with the pledge that you will be with her all the way through, helping to ease her burden.
I can only imagine how difficult it must be for you to speak with her about this matter. The New York State Catholic Conference in Albany has some helpful material that you might want to pass on to her, perhaps with the comment that you have come across this information and wondered what she might think of it.
Be sure that she understands, too, that the church does not require burdensome treatment that offers little benefit and would simply prolong the agony of dying.
Please know that I will pray for your daughter and for the healing you so fervently desire.
Q. I was married to my husband in a traditional (tribal) ceremony. He is not a Catholic but has allowed me to practice my Catholic faith. All of our children have been baptized in the Catholic faith, and two years ago my husband and I went through the Catholic course of marriage preparation with the plan of marrying in the Catholic Church. But we never went through with that ceremony because my husband feels strongly that the ancestral wedding ceremony was sufficient.
I suffer greatly because I cannot receive holy Communion. I would even like to leave my husband because of this. (I would not be able to return to my hometown because everyone there thinks that I am married and would not accept me back as a single woman.) I still love my husband but cannot continue living in sin. Please help me because I do not want to do anything that is against God’s will. (Mpumalanga Province, South Africa)
A. Fortunately there is a ready-made solution, already provided for in the church’s Code of Canon Law (Nos. 1161-65). The technical name for the process is “radical sanation” (which means “healing in the root”), and it can be applied when the non-Catholic party is unwilling to have the marriage “blessed” in a Catholic ceremony.
It involves a retroactive validation, i.e., a decree by the diocesan bishop that the church accepts the original consent as valid, without having to go through a new marriage ceremony.
There are some conditions that must be fulfilled, including: There is no previous marriage by either party that needs to be annulled; the consent of the parties to the marriage still exists, along with the essential requirements for a valid marriage: the intent of monogamy, fidelity, permanence and openness to children; and, the Catholic party intends to remain a Catholic and to do all that he or she can to see that any children of the marriage are baptized and brought up as Catholics.
There is also a provision that “for a grave cause” the non-Catholic partner need not even be informed of the church’s decision. (For example, if the non-Catholic were likely to have an extremely negative reaction to the sanation process.) In your situation, you would best be advised to consult with your local diocese. If your circumstances qualify you and the decree of sanation were to be granted, you would be able to receive the Eucharist.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St. Albany, N.Y. 12208.