[Below is an article I wrote for the St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church newsletter in 2002. It is a theological response to Professor Jonathan Hardwig's position that terminally ill elderly people may have a duty to die, in some cases even a duty to commit suicide, if they are a burden to their loved ones. (Professor Hardwig is Chairman of the Philosophy Department, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville). I sharply disagree, and below is an argument against Hardwig's position based on the doctrine of the Trinity.]
It is interesting that the longest season of the church year, the Trinity season, is focused on what seems to be the most esoteric doctrine of the Christian Church. Not only is the doctrine of God being three persons in one nature a mystery, but it also seems so distant from our everyday lives. If I am struggling with a moral dilemma, I may consult what scripture and tradition say, may ask myself what the Christ-like thing to do would be, but I normally do not contemplate the Trinity to help me make a decision.
But since God, our Creator and Lord, is God in three persons, surely this has implications for the way we live our lives. For example, that fact that God is three persons who love and communicate with each other is a model for the love we should have for each other as human beings. This love within God Himself can give us insights into how we should behave towards others.
There are some situations which test the limits of relationships, of love, and of faith. One such situation is when one of us or someone we love becomes seriously ill. Serious illness hits us hard, for we realize our limitations more keenly than in almost any other situation, and we may have to face the possibility of being much more dependent on others than usual. Illness is particularly hard to bear when we are dependent on those we love the most, and we may feel that we are being a burden to them. Those who write about medical ethics have had much to say concerning the moral obligations of the health care providers who care for the seriously ill patient. But more recently, one finds, in the medical ethics literature, a position which should be deeply disturbing to everyone, especially to those who are orthodox Christians. This position concerns the moral obligations of the seriously ill patient, and asserts that when a person is old and has lived his life, and is ill to the point of becoming a serious burden to his family, he has a “duty to die,” including the duty to commit suicide. This is actually set forth as the “loving” and “unselfish” thing to do. Although this is an extreme position, many people say, “I don’t ever want to be a burden to my family.” While this is understandable—who would want to be a “burden” to anyone—it can too easily lead to the position that “I WILL NOT be a burden on my family, and I will not put my loved ones in a position of having to take care of me. I will NOT put myself in the position of being dependent on others!” To be concerned about the burden loved ones would bear taking care of me when I’m sick is consistent with love and with Christian ethics. To refuse care from loved ones due to such a fear is not, and if followed consistently, leads ultimately to the extreme position that there are situations in which we have a “duty to die.” There are a number of reasons that the latter position is not Christian—one is simply that the family may not think it is a burden to care for someone they love. Even if they did find such care a burden, there are more than enough good reasons to show that the attitude of so many Americans (who often seem to value “self-reliance” and “personal autonomy” above everything else) on this issue is fundamentally wrong.
An understanding of the love relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost can help to see what is wrong with a refusal to receive help from loved ones. As some recent theologians and philosophers (such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Fr. Norris Clarke) have pointed out, the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is one of mutual giving—and receiving. The Father, the Source, gives Himself, His goodness, love, and being, fully to the Son and Holy Spirit; the Son and Holy Spirit receive this gift gratefully, and freely give their love, sharing their goodness totally with the other members of the Trinity. It is not that the Son or Holy Spirit lacks anything–they are fully God, and lack nothing; the point is, that in God Himself, there is not only giving between the persons of the Trinity, but gracious receiving. If the love within God himself, who has no need, includes receiving—how much more should we, who are finite and weak and have so many needs, graciously receive gifts from God—and from other people. Human beings should both give and receive from each other—both giving and receiving are necessary parts of human love. The baby’s receiving care from his mother and father is just as much a part of love as their giving in taking care of his needs. Applied to the issue of illness, the sick person’s gracious receiving of help from loved ones is just as much a part of love as the loved ones being willing to take care of the sick person. To say “I’m not going to put my loved ones in the position of having to take care of me” is not giving them the opportunity to love, and may speak more of pride and selfishness rather than love. It fails to give loved ones an opportunity they may want because they love their family member. It fails to be Christ-like, for Christ’s loving the Father and Holy Spirit includes receiving as well as giving. Surely we do not want to claim to be better than God! Let us, then, be willing to help those we love, no matter how inconvenient it might be to our so-often spoiled, rich lifestyle. But let us also be willing to receive care, to love our families by receiving care, if we, sadly, find ourselves in a situation in which we need it.