Q: My mother, an 81-year-old devout
Catholic, now lives in a nursing
home. The home has asked my brother,
who has her medical power of attorney, to
sign a “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) form for
her. My mother can speak, answer questions,
feed herself and express her opinions.
What is the Catholic Church’s teaching on
A: Does this nursing home require
a DNR form for all its patients?
If so and if she is capable of consenting,
she could sign the form herself. A medical
power of attorney form indicates the
patient’s wishes about specified procedures,
including a DNR order. If the
person is incapable of making these decisions,
the designated person does so.
If your mother did not consent,
would this nursing home require her to
move out? I am not aware that any
nursing home requires a signed DNR
order as a condition for residency there.
A lawyer could point out relevant state
laws on this matter.
If this is genuinely informed consent,
signing a DNR form for oneself or
for another is not inherently immoral
because it identifies the extent of medical
care that a person wishes to receive.
Life is a gift from God, to be welcomed,
nurtured and cherished. There
is, however, no moral obligation to
prolong it by every means possible.
Some medical procedures are morally
optional. All life comes from God and
must eventually be returned to God.
In their book Life Issues, Medical
Choices: Questions and Answers for
Catholics (Servant Books), Janet Smith
and Christopher Kaczor address the
question, “What is the difference
between ordinary means and extraordinary
means of preserving life?”
Smith and Kaczor describe ordinary
means as “treatments that are more
beneficial than burdensome to the
patient and others” and extraordinary
means as “treatments in which the benefits
do not correspond to the burdens
of treatment.” They go on to write: “In
determining whether or not a given
procedure should be begun or continued,
patients and physicians must
assess the likely benefits and burdens of
the procedure for a particular patient...what is in question is whether the procedure is worthwhile, not whether the
person’s life is worthwhile.”
Q: I realize that maintaining doctrinal
discipline is a key function of the
pope and his brother bishops. Because
many heresies touch on profound mysteries
such as the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity
and humanity—and similarly important
matters—how can the Church enforcers of
doctrine be sure that they are correct?
Is it not possible that when all is revealed
at the Last Judgment, some of the Church
doctrines will be shown to be in error?
A: Officially identifying a teaching
as heretical says that this teaching
is contrary to the Catholic Church’s
belief about faith or morals in a very
serious way. In fact, the term heresy comes from a Greek verb meaning “to
choose.” A person cannot be a heretic
by accident; it requires a definite choice.
Once the teaching in question has
been officially clarified by the Church,
anyone who persists in upholding the
rejected teaching has, in effect, chosen
to follow a different path from the
rest of the Church on a key matter.
Every new teaching by the Church
does not mean that its previous teaching
on this subject was heretical. At
the Council of Nicaea in 325, the
Church’s bishops adapted an existing
creed in order to clarify the Church’s
faith in the divinity and humanity of
Christ. At the Council of Constantinople
56 years later, other bishops
added a section on the Holy Spirit in
order to clarify the Church’s belief about the Third Person of the Trinity.
The term heresy is not to be applied
lightly. For example, the terms infallibility as applied to the pope and transubstantiation as a way to explain the
Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
were initially rejected by the Church
but were later accepted. One becomes
a “formal” heretic only after rejecting
an authoritative teaching that has been
reaffirmed or clarified by the Church’s
magisterium (teaching authority).
Words matter. It makes a great deal of
difference if someone affirms, for example,
that Jesus was truly divine, sharing
the same “substance” as God the Father,
or if someone teaches that Jesus was
merely similar to God the Father. Not all
differences can be dismissed as verbal
nit-picking. That explains why some
people refuse to give up opinions that
the Catholic Church has identified as
contrary to its faith.
In 1962, three Catholics in the Archdiocese
of New Orleans were formally
excommunicated by Archbishop Joseph
F. Rummel for maintaining that the
Bible commands racial segregation. At
least one of those three was later reconciled
with the Church.
It makes a great deal of difference
whether we say that all people are created
and loved by God or we say that
people of certain races are automatically
You are right that there are many
heresies connected with the Church’s
teaching about the Trinity or the Incarnation
of Jesus. The Church worked
for years to find the language that
reflects its faith about these mysteries.
The Church cannot, however, lead
its members into serious error on a
matter of faith and morals.
The Church can make the kind of
judgments for which Pope John Paul
II publicly asked God’s forgiveness during
the Jubilee of Pardon celebrated at
St. Peter’s Basilica on March 12, 2000.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope
Benedict XVI but then prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, asked pardon for offenses committed
“in the service of truth.”
The fact that this Jubilee service occurred
does not justify universal skepticism
about the Church’s ability to
teach with authority on serious matters
of faith and morals.
The Church’s respect for the truth
prevents it from saying that all teachings
are equally good or reflective of
God’s will for the human family.
There is room for legitimate theological
diversity within the Church.
The Church’s teaching authority (local
bishops in union with the bishop of
Rome) indicates which teachings reflect
the Church’s faith and which do not.
Over the centuries, heresies have
always presented themselves as some
type of shortcut in belief about something
that was not all that important
anyway. In fact, heresies have turned
out to be dead ends. They also carry a
hidden but expensive price tag.
Q: Twice I have seen a host dropped
during the distribution of Holy
Communion. Once a communicant
dropped it, picked it up right away and
placed it in her mouth. The second time
a priest dropped it and then gave it to
the person, a friend of mine. Should he
have consumed the host himself?
A: I am not aware of any official
teaching about this situation.
Whenever a priest, deacon or extraordinary
minister of the Eucharist drops
a host, I think it is best if the distributor
consumes it immediately. If a communicant
drops it, he or she should
do the same.
This avoids the unease of other people
wondering if they will receive the
dropped host. Fortunately, this situation
rarely occurs—if my 35+ years of
distributing Holy Communion or seeing
others perform this ministry are
Q: Is a marriage between two Catholics in a civil ceremony considered
valid? Someone recently told me that it can be. I thought a
civil marriage would be valid only if both parties were not Catholics,
that any marriage outside the Church by a Catholic is invalid.
A: The marriage you describe is valid in civil law if the man and
woman meet that state’s requirements. The Catholic Church,
however, regards such a marriage as valid only if the couple
has requested and received from their local bishop a dispensation
from “canonical form,” the requirement to marry before a
priest, deacon or other person authorized by the Catholic Church to witness
Unless there is some kind of civil emergency, such dispensations are
not readily given if both parties are Catholic. A valid civil marriage by
two Catholics, however, could later be “convalidated” if the couple
requests that and if the Church agrees that this man and this woman are
free to marry each other.
The late Msgr. Joseph Champlin’s February 2004 St. Anthony Messenger article on convalidation can be accessed through www.AmericanCatholic.org.
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