... if no other means exist, and if, in the given circumstances, this does not prevent the carrying out of other religious and moral duties.
Q. What is the church's position on the practice of administering morphine to a terminally ill patient until he or she dies? (Indianapolis)
A. Morphine, which is a strong opiate, is commonly administered to dying patients to help ease their pain, and this is not only permitted by the church but encouraged. The answer to your question has everything to do with intention. The purpose of the drug is not to hasten death but to help provide comfort in dealing with pain.
Some medical experts have said that in most cases, the use of morphine may prolong life by relieving anxiety and suffering. But if an unintended consequence of the morphine were to shorten somewhat the patient's life, the medication would still be justified under the traditional moral principle of double effect.
As St. John Paul II said in "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life") in No. 65: "In such a case ... death is not willed or sought, even though for reasonable motives one runs the risk of it: There is simply a desire to ease pain effectively by using the analgesics which medicine provides."
I would, though, offer one caution. Many years ago, Pope Pius XII was asked by a group of physicians whether narcotics could be used to remove pain and consciousness at the approach of death, even if that might shorten life.
He is quoted also in No. 65 of the document as saying that "if no other means exist, and if, in the given circumstances, this does not prevent the carrying out of other religious and moral duties." So before the morphine might result in rendering the patient comatose, that patient should surely be offered the opportunity to speak with a priest in case there might be any unfinished business.
Q. I am 87 years old, a Catholic all my life, and I have been diagnosed with dementia. My memory is terrible; my wife has to identify even relatives for me by name. How should I handle this problem in confession with a priest? Should I tell him my problem first? I have always used the commandments of God and the church in examining my conscience, but now I wonder if I should be wasting a priest's time by going to confession if I can't even remember my sins. I'm looking forward to a response which will let me continue to be a good Catholic. (City of origin withheld.)
A. You certainly are a "good Catholic," and your devotion to the sacraments is commendable. I would encourage you to continue to go to confession even though you can't remember specific sins.
Tell the priest that you are 87 years old, have been diagnosed with dementia, that you can't remember any specific sins but that, if there's anything you have done to offend the Lord, you are sorry.
You surely have the sincere contrition that is required for the sacrament, and the priest will give you absolution for any and all sins. (And if you can't remember what penance the priest has given you, don't worry: just say an Our Father and a Hail Mary.)
The sacrament will bring you grace and blessings; each sacrament is an act of worship, because you are thanking God for his goodness. (Pope Francis has said that he goes to confession every couple of weeks and that it helps him to think about the great mercy of the Lord.)
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St. Albany, N.Y. 12208.
Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service
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