It was one of those great ironies of timing.
The same week that Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made a joint appearance in St. Peter’s Square for a Mass and encounter with the elderly, a story broke out of Belgium about a husband and wife who are planning their double suicide.
The couple, Francis, 89, and Anne, 86, said they feared loneliness should one of them die first due to natural causes. “We want to go together because we both fear the future,” Francis said. “It’s as simple as this: We are afraid of what lies ahead.” Fear, in some form or another, rules this sad story from start to finish: fear of being alone; fear of having to dip into savings and pensions for care; fear of being a burden to children and grandchildren. It was even fear that drove Francis and Anne from traditional suicide — the couple had first planned to die together on their 64th wedding anniversary Feb. 3 by taking sleeping pills and covering their heads with plastic bags — to doctor-supported euthanasia.
Euthanasia, initially legalized in Belgium for the most difficult of situations, has slipped its way into casual use,
and we hardly are surprised.
“It takes courage to hang, it takes courage to jump into the canal,” Francis told Britain’s Daily Mail. “But a doctor who makes you a shot and lets you gently fall asleep? It does not take courage.”
The couple has the full support — and encouragement — of their three adult children, who say they would be unable to care for a parent left behind.
“Right-to-die” legislation has been one of the most hotly debated topics in our lifetimes. In the United States, Washington, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and New Mexico have all legalized some form of doctor-assisted suicide. In Europe, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg all have legalized euthanasia — with, perhaps most notoriously, Belgium legalizing it for terminally ill children earlier this year.
What makes Francis and Anne’s story unique is that neither is terminally ill — a former prerequisite for requesting to be euthanized. The law, initially developed in the traditionally Catholic country for the most difficult of situations, has slipped its way into casual use, and we hardly are surprised. Now the argument is for the common good: that it is better for all if the “burden” of the elderly is removed from families, from communities and even from insurance plans.
In many parts of the world, the Old and New Testament idea of supporting families, and particularly of respecting and caring for the aged and infirm, is becoming counter-cultural. Pope Francis recognizes that shift, and has spoken out against a “throw-away culture” that discards the young and the old.
In his encounter with the elderly Sept. 28, the pontiff said caring for our parents and grandparents is a challenge that must be met with imagination and wisdom. Old age, he said, is “a time of grace.” The elderly who have faith “are like trees that continue to bear fruit,” but who are too often abandoned. “We are all called to counter this culture of poisonous waste.”
How successful are we at meeting the pope’s challenge? In our own families, do we spend time with our parents and grandparents, reminding them of their dignity and assuring them of love? Do we do the same for society at large? Do our parishes identify the elderly who are alone or who need help? As older Americans, do we raise our hands and ask for it?
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reminds us during this Respect Life Month: “each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation.” What a different world this would be if we each took that to heart.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor