First and foremost the Church teaches that human beings are endowed with inviolable dignity from conception to death and that this dignity must be respected and protected. This is the underlying principle for the Church’s opposition to euthanasia. For more on the euthanasia debate and Church position visit our page (scroll to the bottom) here.
But more broadly than this the Church teaches us that that dignity is to be protected throughout life by the way we treat people. In his Encyclical about caring for creation, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis teaches us that the throwaway consumerist culture that is damaging our planet is also infecting the way we treat each other. For older people this is especially dangerous because our relationship to the aged has significantly and negatively changed over the last century or so and as we come more and more to value people by what they can produce in economic terms, we value less and less both their innate worthiness as children of God, but also we come not to see them as whole human beings, but rather broken down, useless parts no longer needed in the capitalist mill. Further, as our culture grows more individualistic seeing older people, and all those who cannot participate ‘properly’ in the economic sphere, we lose both our capacity and desire to be in relationship with each other and so it is so much easier to discard those we don’t see as useful to us. This kind of culture led Pope Francis to say, ‘the elderly are discarded with attitudes of abandonment which are a real and proper hidden euthanasia’.
More than this though, our Church teaches and reminds us that is not just care and respect that older people need, but their autonomy, gifts, self-determination and participation in society do not, and should not, be taken away simply because of age. In his 1984 Address to Older People Pope John Paul II said, ‘you are not and must not consider yourselves to be on the margins of the life of the Church, passive elements in a world in excessive motion, but active subjects of a period in human existence which is rich in spirituality and humanity. You still have a mission to fulfil and a contribution to make’.
Almost thirty years later Pope Francis continued in this mission with his Pontifical Council on the Family hosting a special event in 2014 called ‘The Blessing of a Long Life’. The President of that Council, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, said in the lead up to the day: