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Life is a Gift From God
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Are ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ Orders Moral?
Who Decides What Is Heresy?
When a Host Is Dropped
Can Two Catholics Marry in a Civil Ceremony?


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 DNR forms?

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 inferior.

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 any indication.

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 marriages.

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.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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