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Utopia, Euthanasia and the Catholic Church Essay

Pretend for a moment you are a sailor, you have been at sea for about two months and you can not wait to get home. Suddenly a terrible storm rolls in on the horizon, you do not panic thinking it will pass. However, it hits your ship with a vengeance, throwing people over board at every turn. Then you fall into a black stupor; when you awake you are on an island. The people graciously take you in and you are shocked to find them incredibly hospitable. The people tell you where you are and begin to explain how their society functions. All the people on this island are dressed almost identically and every single one of them has a purpose and a place in society. The island you have landed on is Thomas More’s ideal fictional society, Utopia. In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia, which is considered to be one of his most influential works.

Although, More was not the first person to write about an ideal society he did coin the term Utopia. This term has become an idea and has subsequently been used to create a new genera of literature containing idealistic societies and even a few dystopic societies. Utopia is filled with ideas that in the year 1516 would have been radical. In Utopia everyone, including women, receive an education and continue growing intellectually until they die. The Utopians also support euthanasia if it deemed by the priests and councils to be the last resort. Euthanasia is the action in which a person intentionally, possibly with the help of others such as doctors or nurses ends, their life to be released from pain and suffering.

The topic of euthanasia is incredibly controversial in modern society. Even in Thomas More’s time it was considered to be wrong by most societies due to the Catholic Church’s position, which for centuries has been against any idea that threatens the sanctity of life. Thomas More was an incredibly religious man; he became a martyr of the Catholic Church when he would not sign King Henry VIII’s First Succession Act. With this in mind why would More write about euthanasia in his idealic society when he believed so much in the Catholic Church and it’s teachings? The answer could be simply for satirical purposes. This paper will discuss the idea of euthanasia presented in Utopia and how it is problematic with the Catholic Church’s view of life.

Thomas More introduces the Utopians as a people who live for pleasure. However, their ideas of pleasure are quite different than that of a modern American. The Utopians have pleasure of the mind and the body. The pleasure of the mind is their individual intellectual pursuits. On the other hand, the pleasures of body are divided in to two parts. The first are the sensory perceptions such as food and drink. The second pleasure of the body is health. Utopians view health as “the calm and harmonious state of the body… when undisturbed by any disorder”. The Utopians believe much like many people today, that pain is the opposite of pleasure. In their mindset pain is correlated with disease which is the opposite of health therefore health and pleasure are aligned.

The Utopians maintain health and pleasure to remain an active participant in society, which is their most important duty. Every single Utopian not only has a trade but also knows how to farm for they are all required to spend some part of their lives farming. They only work six hours of the day the rest of their time is devoted to their own intellectual endeavors. The Utopians function as a collective group even though they do not all have the same ideas. The majority of the Utopians agree on a religion in which there is one Supreme Being who is their parent, however, those that do not quite agree with the masses still have something in common with them; all Utopians believe that there is only one higher power whatever it may be. More introduces the idea of religious tolerance and freedom into his fictional society.

He also describes, “how eagerly they assented to” Christianity. The Utopians, like Christians, believe suicide, the intentional ending of one’s life for no other reason than one wants to, is wrong. However, there is a caveat for the terminally ill in the Utopian society. If the priests and public officials think the time is right they will urge the invalid to release him/herself from pain and agony. This idea goes back to every Utopian has a duty to the community, when a terminally ill patient becomes “a burden to [themselves] and to others; [they] have really outlived [their] own death”. In the Utopians eyes it is considered not only honorable to ends one own life when they can no longer function in society as they should but also God’s will interpreted by the priests.

The Catholic Church has had the same stance on suicide and euthanasia since its very beginnings. In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote the Apostolic Letter Evangelium Vitae. In which he discusses all the ways the sanctity of life is attacked in today’s world. In paragraph sixty-five, he addresses euthanasia defining it as, “the action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering”. Pope John Paul II goes on to clarify that euthanasia does not include the ending of medical treatment. For example, if a cancer patient who knows death is “imminent and inevitable” then the patient can decide to forego the treatment that will painfully and precariously prolong the their life. This decision to forego treatment is not suicide or euthanasia; it is however the acceptance that it is our nature to die.

Pope John Paul II also brings up the idea of palliative care “which seek to make suffering more bearable in the final stages of illness and to ensure that the patient is supported and accompanied in his or her ordeal”. In dealing with palliative care today one of the many questions is about the use of opiods and analgesics, which are painkillers or sedatives. In a terminally ill patient the use of these drugs can shorten the patients life. The patient’s body is working very hard at this stage to work when one would give the patient these medications to relieve pain they can slow down the respiratory and heart rates slowly shortening the patient’s life.

However, just like ending medical treatment this is not considered to be suicide or euthanasia because the patient is not seeking or willing death. This also allows the patient to satisfy their religious, moral and familial duties. Pope John Paul II believes that including the distinctions of what is included in euthanasia and what is not included he can say, “euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person”. In most circumstances the practice of euthanasia “involves the malice proper to suicide or murder”.

The basis of this teaching lies in one of the fundamental aspects of the Catholic Church: the Ten Commandments. St. Augustine, a man who More revered, commented on the fact that the fifth commandment “Thou shall not kill” must refer to oneself because it did not specifically say otherwise. The tenth commandment says “Thou shall not covet they neighbor’s wife”; this commandment says who and what you shall not covet. The fifth commandment does not therefore Augustine came to the conclusion that it not only meant that one must not kill others but also that one must not kill him/herself. As a young adult More had given lectures on Augustine and his thoughts on the commandments, knowing this many people have been troubled on why More allows his fictional society to practice euthanasia.

According to Warren Wooden the use and ideas of euthanasia in Utopia were used as satire only. Wooden also believes that More used euthanasia in his ideal society to rile up some of the theologians and academics of his day for his close friend Erasmus who was the target of their scorn. There was a constant battle going on between Erasmus and the theologians about their different viewpoints. However, suicide is a common theme in More’s other notable work A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation. Through this work More shows his real belief system of suicide is in complete alignment with the Catholic Church. The two main characters debate the ideas surrounding suicide; one always trying to convince the other that suicide is not the right option in any situation.

The very first theme in Catholic Social Teaching is that life is sacred among all things, in all forms even in sickness. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops say, “the dignity of the human person is the foundation for a moral society”. The Catholic Church believes if people would learn to respect all forms of human life from conception to natural death the world would be a better place. In the Declaration of Euthanasia given on May 5, 1980 Cardinal Seper says, “life is the basis of all goods”. Seper expresses that Catholics believe life is sacred, however he believes life is more than that it is “a gift of God’s love”. Like a gift from anyone life should be treasured above all things. The Utopians agree with the Church in that life is sacred however their focus is on the quality of life and community life.

The quality of life debate is one that took The United States by storm in the early 1990s. It was at this time Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, assisted in the suicide of Janet Adkins a fifty-two year old woman who had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Kevorkian made a machine that when a patient pulled the string it would deliver a lethal dose of medication allowing the patient to pass easily into death. Kevorkian would absolutely agree with the Utopians however they differ on one main point. In Utopia to even be considered for euthanasia the patient has to be terminally ill and in agony. The patient must be in so much agony that they can no longer function effectively in the Utopian society. However, Dr. Kevorkian believes the patient must only have unbearable suffering.

Most of the time the patients who have unbearable suffering are the terminally ill but not always. To discover if a person requesting his help were truly suffering he would interview them; if any of the patients who came to him had any chance for life he did not help them. Many of the patient’s he treated were those with debilitating diseases such at Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Kevorkian felt that as a doctor he had to help those that were suffering he believed that he was acting in compassion for his fellow humans. The Utopians feel the same way; they treat every patient to the absolute best of their ability. Like Kevorkian’s way the action of carrying out death had to be voluntary, in Utopia it was not forced on a person just suggested.

Yet, there is a slight flaw with Kevorkian’s methods. A doctor, nurse or medical professional can not possibly know whether or not a person is truly suffering. One of the first things a nurse learns is the idea of pain. Pain is subjective; “it is whatever the patient tells you it is”. One patient can say they are in unbearable suffering but the same ailment for another person could be just pain. There is no way to standardize what pain and suffering are because every person perceives them differently.

Since every single persons’ idea of pain is subjective there is no way to decide if a person is truly suffering. How then can a medical professional judge whether or not a person deserves to be helped into death? In three American states, Washington, Oregon and Montana, euthanasia is legal. In Oregon the patient must be a resident, be terminally ill, and have a prognosis of only six months to live. Due to the knowledge that pain can not be measured and standardized the Catholic Church’s standpoint holds that life is given to humans out of love from God and therefore should not be destroyed by any means except when God calls his children home.

Works Cited
Abrams, A.C., S.S. Pennington, and C.B. Lammon. Clinical Drug Therapy: Rationales for Nursing Practice. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/ Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2009. Craven, R.F. and C.J. Hirnle. Fundamentals of Nursing: Human Health and Function. Philadelphia: Wolter Kluwer Health/ Lippincott Williams &Wilkins, 2009. Green, Paul D. “Suicide, Martyrdom and Thomas More,” Studies in the Renaissance 19, (1972): 135-55.

John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Evangelium Vitae. Vatican City, Rome, Italy, 1995. More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration of Euthanasia (5 May 1980): AAS 72 (1980).

Strate, John M., Marvin Zalman and Denis J. Hunter, “Physician-assisted Suicide and the Politics of Problem Definition,” Mortality, 10 no. 1 (2005):23-41 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching,” USCCB Online; available from http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of catholic-social-teaching.cfm; accessed 14 April 2012.

Wooden, Warren W. “Antischolastic Satire in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 8, no. 2 (1977): 29-45.


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