Euthanasia and the moral meaning of suffering

Michael A Vetrano, Fordham University


This dissertation explores the relationship between euthanasia and the meaning of suffering. It argues that the question of euthanasia is most centrally a question about the meaning and significance of suffering and suggests that an adequate perspective on euthanasia in Catholic theology must be drawn from a theological understanding of suffering and human freedom. It further suggests that a freedom-centered approach to suffering and euthanasia can be an instructive and valuable point of dialogue between theology and secular bioethics. Theological resources for the dissertation include Bernard Häring's approach to medical ethics and freedom, and the deeper appreciation of suffering and freedom found in Karl Rahner's theological anthropology and christology. Chapter 1 presents an analysis of various arguments for and against euthanasia, showing how each argument embodies a particular anthropology. The chapter concludes that many arguments lack a much needed sense of the meaning of suffering in human life. Chapter 2 turns to Bernard Häring's argument that a convincing argument against euthanasia can only be made in the “perspective of freedom.” This insight, a critical point of departure, establishes freedom as a essential point of reference for medical ethics. Chapters 3 shows how a theology of freedom, drawn from the theological anthropology of Karl Rahner, enables the construction of an adequate theological perspective on the meaning of suffering. Rahner's theological understanding of freedom is examined in three movements: the relationship between suffering, finitude, and freedom; the moral challenge of illness for freedom; freedom and the incomprehensibility of suffering understood as part of God's own incomprehensibility. Chapter 4 draws a connection between freedom in Rahner's theological anthropology, his christological understanding of the cross, and the christological interpretation of suffering and death in Catholic theology. The chapter employs the three movements developed in chapter 3 to establish the suffering and death of Jesus as a paradigmatic example of human freedom engaging suffering. Chapter 5 applies the above theological insights to the arguments examined in chapter 1, demonstrating how opposition to euthanasia in Catholic theology is strengthened by an articulate approach to suffering and freedom. The chapter also comments on how a freedom centered approach to euthanasia can be of assistance to the wider bioethical community.

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Recommended Citation

Vetrano, Michael A, "Euthanasia and the moral meaning of suffering" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9926895.