Theological implications of terminal medical care: An analysis of two recent cases

Patricia Anne Talone, Marquette University


The decision to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from comatose or terminally ill patients has fueled considerable debate in contemporary legal, medical and ethical circles. This study, in focusing on two cases, argues that a systematic theology of life, suffering and death should inform end-of-life decisions, enabling patient or proxy to decide each case not on the basis of individualism or utilitarianism but with theological principles consonant with Christian beliefs. Chapter one presents the controversy which the Herbert and Conroy cases occasioned in ethical literature. Issues are: the distinction between killing and allowing to die, the significance of ordinary/extraordinary means, the burden/benefit calculus, and artificial feeding as care or treatment. Chapter two, in examining the Jewish-Christian tradition of sanctity of life, asserts that life is not a possession, but rather a gift from God, demanding a corresponding responsibility to preserve it. The chapter demonstrates that quality of life need not necessarily be antithetical to sanctity of life. Chapter three explores the origin and cause of suffering as disclosed in Christian revelation. Faced with the agony of dying persons, we ask how suffering, experienced as evil, can have meaning and redemptive value. We claim that even the laudable goal of elimination of suffering fails to provide a sufficient reason for actively ending a life. A theology of suffering remains incomplete without an understanding of the theology of death. Chapter four explores Karl Rahner's extensive analysis of death as a paradigm of such a theology. Rahner's contention that death is both "passive" and "active" supports the Christian doctrine that death results from the Fall while asserting that all can choose their attitude towards death and order life's actions accordingly. Chapter five returns to the cases, evaluating them in light of the theology of life, suffering and death advanced in the preceding three chapters. Some principles--theological, practical and pastoral--are offered to aid decision-makers in the task of discerning whether to discontinue life-supports to dying persons.

Recommended Citation

Talone, Patricia Anne, "Theological implications of terminal medical care: An analysis of two recent cases" (1988). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI8904282.