I noticed something beautiful in my inbox in recent days: People praying. While some statements and sentiments about prayer in the face of violence and death have gotten some media criticism of late, there are people among us who put a lot of faith in prayer. And they are often the people running the maternity homes and the soup kitchens and the hospices and helping immigrants become part of the community.
The something beautiful I eyed was a prayer novena. Later this week California becomes a state with legal assisted suicide and, having lost the political battle, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is at prayer, encouraging a novena for “the Elderly, Disabled and Terminally Ill.”
So I asked Kathleen Buckley Domingo, associate director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, why they would mark the beginning of the new law on June 9 with prayer and fasting. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You lost on assisted suicide in California, why pray now?
Kathleen Buckley Domingo: We did lose on assisted suicide, but we also learned a lot in the process. We learned that people are very fearful of the way we die now, and unfortunately in many instances their fears are justified. Many people in California, even with Obamacare, are uninsured or underinsured. The health-care system in California is overwhelmed and cannot serve those in need adequately. Only one-third of cancer patients on MediCal will be covered for treatment. The other two-thirds will be denied.
We learned that many Catholics have no idea what our Church teaches on end of life issues or why. Many either think we are vitalists, pushing life at all costs or else see nothing wrong with assisted suicide as a humane option. Catholics, too, are affected by the health-care system and have all but given up on the possibility of a good death, a holy death. We pray now because we need to recommit ourselves to the creation of a community that puts people first and rallies around those in need. We want to create a culture right here in Los Angeles where there is no need for assisted suicide — where health care and families work together to provide the best possible care to each person, allowing them to die well.
Lopez: Do you have any legal hope for the future?
Domingo: With the current climate and slate of legislators here in California, we do not have a great deal of hope for a legal victory against assisted suicide. There is some work being done to that end, but I believe our best efforts are spent creating systems that get the best possible care to people in need.
Lopez: Is this an education campaign as much as a prayer and fasting drive?
Domingo: The call to prayer and fasting in the nine days leading to the implementation of doctor-assisted suicide is meant to mobilize a large number of people in a short space of time and call down a whole bunch of grace at a time when California will be inundated with pro-suicide messaging. But, this is not the entirety of the effort. Once the dust settles, we need to learn how to live with the new law. Already, the Archdiocese has been conducting parish-based training efforts titled “Care and Prepare” focused on teaching Catholics what we believe about end-of-life issues and why, how to prepare for the end of life, and offer real-life examples of what a good, holy death can look like. They have been hugely successful, and we have plans to continue them indefinitely.
Lopez: Why did you begin with a Mass at Santa Teresita nursing home? What’s important for people to know about what happens there?
Domingo: We rail against a broken health-care system, but people need to see what good care actually looks like. We need to offer a solution, not just point to a problem. Santa Teresita is a special, sacred place. Everyone who enters wishes they could end up there when they are old and sick. The rooms in the nursing home are beautiful — chandeliers, hand-stitched quilts, paintings and statues of Jesus and Mary. Residents are treated like family by a staff who is always smiling. Music is piped into the facility — an album of the sisters singing in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Excellent health care is provided there to be sure. But, so is excellent person care. They will tell you countless stories of residents transferred to their care who were given mere days to live in a prior facility but, after arriving at Santa Teresita, flourish under the care they provide and live for happy months or years. We point to Santa Teresita and the care the sisters and their staff provide to show that it is possible to build a thriving facility around the two tenets of quality health care and quality person care.
Lopez: How does the new law “prey[s] upon the fears and anxieties of the frail, the poor, and those in our immigrant communities”? The most famous advocate for assisted-suicide, the late Brittany Maynard didn’t fit in any of those categories.
Domingo: Doctor-assisted suicide is always promoted as an “option” for people at the end of life to choose or not. Supporters use autonomy arguments. In reality, assisted suicide disproportionately affects the poor, the disabled, and those in our immigrant communities. In these most vulnerable communities, people have less access to health care. They are less likely to have a primary-care physician or have the means to navigate complex medical decisions or advocate for themselves or a loved one. These communities are most vulnerable to coercion as their options for treatment are dramatically reduced or there is no insurance available to them. Once legal, assisted suicide ceases to be a choice for a few elites and can become an expectation for the poor.
Lopez: I notice you use the word mercy in your prayer. But that’s exactly the word advocates of legal assisted suicide use. How are you so sure your position is the merciful one.
Domingo: Supporters of doctor-assisted suicide have commandeered words such as “dignity” and “mercy,” words Christians have been using at the bedsides of the ill and dying for over 2000 years. But, mercy for a Christian is a very different concept. Offering assisted suicide to a dying person is essentially telling them that their life is not worth living; that there is no reason to extend ourselves to bring them comfort and peace in their last days; that they are better off dead. This is never the intention of mercy. Mercy is not merely receptive, but an active message, requiring us to be agents of mercy, to go beyond ourselves to offer the best for the other. Hastening death is never mercy. Allowing a person to spend his or her last days in comfort and peace, providing for spiritual and emotional needs as well as physical, inconveniencing ourselves so that another can die well — -these are the trappings of true mercy.
Lopez: What’s your prayer for this campaign and going forward?
Domingo: We pray that we have the wisdom and fortitude to complete this enterprise of building a culture of life — one in which no one needs to die alone or in pain or forgotten. We ask that people of good will all throughout California join us in our pledge to treat people with dignity every moment of their lives, fostering well-being through our intentional actions for those in need at every stage of life. We pray that people live well and learn that dying well is not only possible but something they strive for, a death where time is given for forgiveness and community and healing. And we pray for all those who are currently considering assisted suicide, that they be given a moment of grace that will help them to see that there is another way, that they do not need to hasten death but can find the hope they seek through the compassion of a friend.