LN Feature: The Theology of Palliative Care



April 18, 2017
On the feature this week, a look at the theology that drives Christian opposition to euthanasia, and support for palliative care. Our guest is Dr. Theodore Van Raalte, a professor of ecclesiology and ethics at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario.

The audio is taken directly from the eighth instalment of ARPA Canada’s Palliative Care video series. You can find the full video series here.

How do we love our neighbour in a situation where love has been so redefined as to include putting people to death, whether voluntary or involuntary, euthanasia requested or not? Our practice of love would include taking jobs as nurses and doctors, if we can in good conscience continue, and doing palliative care. Our families should be a model of love. When one of our loved ones is in E.R. and we surround the bedside and sing some psalms and hymns, it should be a witness to the community that there’s a different approach to matters of life and death and that the sanctity of life ethic is robust and warm and it really is an ethic of love.

Let me give you an example. One of my colleagues had an uncle recently who went into cardiac arrest and went into E.R. While there, his condition did not improve and he was comatose and his heart rate was being monitored, his breathing was being monitored and the family gathered and his heart rate was at about 110 beats per minute. The family knew that he loved Psalms and singing so they did so around the bedside in the middle of the emergency room, and every time they sang the heart rate level went from 110 down to 80 invariably. Just to show that he was comforted. And this is the kind of thing that Christians want to do in palliative care. We don’t believe that it’s love to put someone to death, but it is loving to increase their comfort, decrease their discomfort, and just love them and be there.

I was ordained about 17 years ago and served as a pastor for most of those years except for a time when I was doing further study. And yes there were a good number of times where I was in hospice or palliative care tending to a parishioner. In every case that I can think of, they were surrounded with family and were blessed with a good number of children and grandchildren around them or, if they were younger, many siblings. And in each case the care of the hospital or the hospice was tremendous. It was extraordinary. They were really cared for and loved. The concern was to alleviate their pain and just provide them with the best atmosphere with their family around them.

When I think about something like end of life care, it’s not just that person’s suffering and pain. But my response to your suffering and your response to my suffering forms me. It’s not just about you experiencing pain and having it alleviated in some way, but what’s happening to me inside? How is my character being formed and developed in the midst of caring for someone who is in need? The way that we treat them doesn’t just reflect who we are, but forms and shapes who we are. And looking at us as not just blobs of material, but body/soul combinations in some holistic way, speaks to this and it speaks to palliative care, it speaks to end of life. I think it’s something that needs to recognized.

The legalization of assisted suicide is just another step in what seems to be a program of secularization. But it certainly does something to who we are as a society. It puts a chill into society. I would explain it this way. I go to a palliative care facility. If we take the example of British Columbia right now, palliative care facilities do not offer physician assisted death. They’re looking at offering that and some physicians are strongly opposed. Now they rightly point out that their patients are in an environment of care and trust. They trust that the sole purpose of the palliative care facility and the sole purpose of being in hospice is to be cared for, to feel worthwhile, to matter, and just to be loved and surrounded with love. As soon as you put in the option of physician assisted death, you’re now faced with the question, “does this doctor want me to live, or would this doctor rather have me die?” And it erodes the trust relationship that you would have with the doctor.

The lack of care for the marginalized, the poor, the underprivileged was a mark of pagan society for centuries. We really live in a Christianized society and so many of these good things have grown and developed out of a Christendom of sorts. So we can look back and see that in the Roman Empire, the church was the body that people began to recognize, cared for the exposed infants.

If anything is central in the Christian community, it’s the words of Jesus. And the Lord Jesus is the one who is known throughout the world as the compassionate teacher who laid down His life so that others would live. And in His ministry he once said – and I’m thinking here of Matthew 11 and I just have my Bible here – where Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” When I look around society, when I look inside myself: rest for our souls. What more do we want? We want peace. And there’s such a lack of it in this world. And Jesus invites people to Him and He is particularly looking out for the marginalized, the downtrodden, the poor, those without any means to care for themselves. And the Christian community adopted that as its ethic to such a degree that the Apostle John would write, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” And love in the Christian community is not just a feeling that I feel and tell you I feel it, but it is put into words and it is put into actions. And the legalization of doctor assisted suicide in Canada may lead to an increase in the level of care that religious facilities provide as an alternative so that people can go where they will be served by those who believe that love is of God.

Palliative Care, Worldview Email Us 

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