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Enforcing the Vatican's “redemptive suffering” on the dying?

The goal of human rights is to promote happiness and fulfilment. However, the Vatican explicitly rejects the “joys of life” as its aim for humanity [1] and, instead, lauds “suffering and pain” for creating “interior riches”, [2] and for making people, in desperation, “turn their hearts to God”. [3] Whether or not it produces “interior riches”, a tolerance for suffering can certainly create “exterior riches” for oppressive regimes bolstered by religion. At a mass at the Santo Niño Basilica in Cebu City when some of the worshippers were why religion is so important to them, poverty was a common answer. “It's very important because we are very poor, so that’s the only thing we cling on to, the hope,” said Antonia Deligero. “Every time we suffer, we all say, ‘That’s okay because it’s the will of God.’” [4]

The "hope" that is drawn from suffering involves the doctrine of “redemptive suffering”. That's the claim that suffering in this world helps redeem people from tortures in the next. It is supposed to reduce the supernatural punishment for sin, like an indulgence. In theology-speak: “Even from evil, God draws a greater good.” [5]

Pope Benedict urged imitation of saints who accepted suffering as God’s will. In fact, some of these saints are not known for much other than their painful ends. St. Sebastian was stuck with arrows, St. Valentine beheaded, St. Lawrence roasted on a spit and St. Ignatius fed to the lions. And papal admiration for suffering is not confined to the travails of historically dubious saints. Pope Francis has even claimed that, through their suffering, child cancer victims did “much good for the Church”. [6]

The dying kept conscious to satisfy Vatican doctrine

When it comes to the end of life another Vatican doctrine threatens to interfere with health care. This is the idea that the dying should be kept conscious for religious reasons. John Paul II, quoting Pius XII, put it this way:

"it is not right to deprive the dying person of consciousness without a serious reason" [7]:  as they approach death people ought to be able to satisfy their moral and family duties, and above all they ought to be able to prepare in a fully conscious way for their definitive meeting with God. [8]

And the Guideliens of the US bishops for Catholic healthcare state that the dying patient should remain "fully conscious" and "should not be deprived of consciousness without a compelling reason".

What right do the Catholic bishops have to decide whether a dying person wracked with pain has a sufficiently "compelling reason" for terminal sedation? And they go on to say that "Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering". [9]

But what if the patient doesn't want to do “much good for the Church” though his suffering and also doesn't want to be conscious when he meets God? What if he thinks that a merciful God would be perfectly happy to welcome him when his suffering was over and he woke up painfree in heaven?

A recent study has shown that even doctors who are not supported by a “religious ethos” at their workplace may limit the choice of their patients. Doctors who described themselves as very religious were about four times less likely than their non-religious or mildly religious colleagues to have discussed the possibility of a legal course of treatment intended or expected to hasten the death of a mentally competent patient with a terminal illness. [10] And where the Vatican has decisive political influence, restrictions are being placed on even passive euthanasia. In 2011 Italy removed a patient’s right to refuse food or water. [11]

In the US the Catholic Bishops tightened up their health care guidelines in 2009 to make feeding tubes obligatory even for those who will never recover and who have stated in writing that they do not want this. Hospitals and nursing homes do not have to comply with requests that are “contrary to Catholic moral teaching”, and this applies to non-Catholic patients as well. [12] State-subsidised Catholic institutions can force unwilling non-Catholics to “live” for years in a permanent vegetative state.

Order of Malta’s state-funded London hospital follows Vatican rules. Its hospices, too?

  Instructive was the furor over the policies of a Catholic hospital in another area where Vatican doctrine can conflict with best medical practice — women's health. This is “John and Lizzie’s”, the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth in London which is run by the Order of Malta. In 2011 it benefitted from corporation tax relief, business tax exemptions and estimated VAT (sales tax) savings of £2.6m. [13] And in 2017 it managed to get additional tax exemptions, having to pay "only £1.2 million of its £5.9 million rates bill during the next five years because it is a charity." [14] Yet it is funded by the government (through the National Health Service), self-paying private patients, private health insurance companies, and charitable donations. [15] In other words, by everyone except the Catholic Church, yet this who has the say.

In 2005 Cardinal Murphy O’Connor who is its patron, consulted with the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog group, about the fact that the hospital had sublet some space to NHS doctors who were legally obliged to provide any services their patients needed, including prescribing the morning-after pill and referring them for abortions. [16] Acting on Vatican advice, the Cardinal imposed new guidelines, which led to the resignation of two directors. [17] This code of ethics was drawn up to specifically to “stop doctors referring elsewhere any women who inquired at the hospital about contraception, the morning-after pill or abortion. It also bans amniocentesis to detect Down’s syndrome in unborn children and in vitro fertilisation for couples struggling to conceive naturally”. [18] When the majority of the doctors objected they were threatened with “immediate legal action” if the code were not accepted in its entirety. [19]

However, in public the hospital played this down. In 2011 the claim on the website that this “operates according to Catholic ethics”, was softened to a vague mention of “the Catholic ethos upon on which [the hospital and hospice] were founded”. [20] Softly, softly.

Even quieter is the way the SMOM has blended in with the Venerable Order of Saint John, a largely Protestant order, which in the UK runs the familiar St John Ambulance Corps. Together they form the Orders of St John Care Trust. (Who can keep track of all these St. Johns?) Since 1999 the OSJCT has been busily taking over care homes from local governments. [21]

In preparation for the aging baby boomers the Catholic Church is now ramping up its terminal care, both in terms of ideology and facilities. In 2009 the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor was canonised. This is a Catholic order that runs hospices in 32 countries caring for 13,000 elderly residents. [22] And from their base in Britain the Knights of Malta, under their pseudonym, the Orders of St John Care Trust, run 71 care homes and five extra care schemes in four countries caring for approximately 3,500 residents. [23]

A court case in the US shows the threat posed by Catholic docrine in Church-controlled hospitals. It involved a hospital which was the result of a merger between the Christus Health System of Texas with the St Vincent public hospital ten years before. But even in this merged hospital, Catholic doctrine prevailed and a patients end-of-life directive was ignored. As a result, she was recuscitated against her will and condemned to live with disability and in severe pain. [24]


1. “Life's Joys Are Not the Goal, Says Pope”, Zenit, 28 February 2010.

2. “The Health Care Council and Humanae Vitae”, Zenit, 11 September 2010.

3. For an application of this Vatican doctrine, see John-Henry Westen, “The Japan earthquake and ‘punishment from God’”, Life Site News, 17 March 2011.

4. Michael French, “The New Atheists of the Philippines”, Atlantic Monthly, March 2017.

5. “All Will Be Well, Assures Benedict XVI”, Zenit, 2010-12-01

6. “Pope Meets Polish Children Suffering With Cancer”, Zenit, 2013-12-02

7. Pius XII, Address to an International Group of Physicians (24 February 1957), III: AAS 49 (1957), 145. [quoted below]

8. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 25 March 1995.

9. US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, 5th ed., 2009, #61.

10. Clive Seale, “The role of doctors' religious faith and ethnicity in taking ethically controversial decisions during end-of-life care”, Journal of Medical Ethics, 25 August 2010. [abstract]

11. Hilary White, “Bill to outlaw dehydration euthanasia passed by Italy’s lower house”, Life Site News, 13 July 2011.

12. Harris Meyer, “Catholic directive may thwart end-of-life wishes: Bishops cite ‘obligation’ for using feeding tubes at religious facilities”, Kaiser Health News, 2010-02-24

13. “US companies criticise UK healthcare firms' charitable status and tax breaks”, Guardian, 2013-06-21

14. “Private hospitals to get £52m tax break as NHS bills rise”, Times, 2017-08-21 

15. Riazat Butt, “Directors quit Catholic hospital in ethics code row”, Guardian, 7 December 2007.

16. Jonathan Petre, “Celebrity birth hospital faces inquiry over Catholic ethics”, Telegraph, 12 August 2005.

17. Riazat Butt, “Directors quit Catholic hospital in ethics code row”, Guardian, 7 December 2007.

18. “Hospital of St John & St Elizabeth: continuing saga”, Catholic Family News, 28 May 2007.

19. [untitled], Catholic Family News, 14 May 2007.

20. Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, London, UK, “About us” (accessed 18 July 2011).

21. The Orders of St John Care Trust, History of OSJCT, 2011.

22. “Fast facts about the Little Sisters of the Poor today.”

23. Order of Malta, Activity Report for 2013, p. 41 and the website of their hospital in London. For a more general view see the introduction to their “international cooperation agreement” with Hungary.

24. “Woman sues hospital for resuscitating her”, Albuquerque Journal, 15 November 2018.

“Patient sues doctor for saving her life”, Times, 19 November 2018.

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