Vatican pro-life chief: Only palliative care offers 'death with dignity'

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- "Dying is part of the process of living and should not take place in a pre-cemetery," said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Without pain relief and without loving care -- "accompaniment" in church-speak -- people who are living the last stage of their earthly life often endure the suffering and the lack of dignity that proponents of euthanasia cite to advance their cause, the archbishop told reporters May 14.

Archbishop Paglia is traveling to Toronto May 21-23 to participate in a symposium on palliative care sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the pontifical academy. The theme of the international interfaith symposium is "Towards a Narrative of Hope."

Comprehensive palliative care, which includes pain relief as well as spiritual, physical and psychological support, is the best hope for an alternative to euthanasia, the archbishop said.

Canada enacted a law on "medical assistance in dying," or MAID, in 2016, exempting from criminal charges doctors and nurse practitioners who either directly administer or prescribe medication to cause a person's death at that person's request.

The temptation of euthanasia or medical assistance in dying, Archbishop Paglia said, "is not that people want to die. It's that they do not want to suffer, and they do not want to die alone."

But as medical science and technology make it easier for people to live longer, even in pain, palliative care has focused so much on pharmaceutical pain relief that it can be "quasi euthanasia," the archbishop said, and can address only part of the problem of people who know death is near.

Archbishop Paglia said that in Italy it was only three years ago that medical schools started offering courses on palliative care, betraying an attitude that saw it simply as "giving up" on treating the patient.

"But for us, it is not just about pain relief, but about giving meaning to this last stage of life," he said. And that means acknowledging the God-given dignity of the patient, helping the patient put his or her whole life into perspective and giving loved ones an opportunity to show the patient just how much he or she means to them.

Archbishop Paglia also said he would visit New York and Washington before going to Canada.

He is the postulator of the sainthood cause of Father Félix Varela, a 19th-century Cuban priest who helped organize Cuba's independence movement from Spain. But the priest, who was sentenced to death for his activity in Cuba, fled to the United States in the 1820s and eventually became vicar general of the then-Diocese of New York. The archbishop will be visiting places associated with Father Varela in New York.

And, he said, he will meet with experts as part of the Academy for Life's ongoing work to promote ethical guidelines for the development and use of artificial intelligence, legal standards to regulate it and educational programs to help people understand it.

Since 2020 the academy has been promoting the "Rome Call for AI Ethics," a project that has garnered the signatures of top leaders of Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and other major players in the field as well as representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities.