Friday, September 14, 2007

CDF Issues Ruling on PVS: Food and Water = "Right and Duty"

Ending a two-year inquest sought by the American bishops in the wake of the Terri Schiavo case, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a decision this morning to clarify that "it is not acceptable to interrupt or to withhold" nutrition and hydration to patients in a vegetative state.

The congregation's formal response to the two questions submitted in July 2005 by Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, the USCCB president, was presented to and approved by the Pope in late July, at which time Benedict XVI mandated their publication. The text -- published in Latin and the Holy See's working languages of Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Polish -- is accompanied by an extensive, similarly-translated "commentary" sketching out the development of the Magisterium on the topic, summarized by its statement that, even when the vegetative state is persistent, "the provision of water and food, even by artificial means, always represents a natural means for preserving life, and is not a therapeutic treatment" (emphases original).

The decision, communicated to the bishops of the world earlier this week, sides with the pro-life activists who vigorously protested the 2005 denial of food and water to Schiavo -- a Florida woman who had been in a vegitative state for fifteen years following a cardiac arrest. After a five-year legal battle between her parents and husband, Schiavo died thirteen days after the removal of her feeding tube. The case became a political football, as state and federal courts, Congress and the White House became involved at various turns. Within the church, though, some of the activists faulted the hierarchy for a response the former deemed lackluster.

As the CDF's preparatory work for today's decision entered its final stages, an Italian "right-to-die" case late last year brought the issue right into the Vatican's backyard.

In late December, Piergiorgio Welby, an Italian poet and activist suffering from muscular dystrophy, died after his respirator was turned off at his own request. Though not in a vegetative state, Welby's interventions on the issue -- including a book he titled "Let Me Die" -- led the Italian hierarchy to deny him a church funeral, citing his repeated and much-publicized intent to end his life.

As controversy over Welby's campaign and death dominated the nation's chattering circles, his funeral rites in a Roman square attracted thousands. After an ethical panel unanimously exonerated the physician who terminated the patient's respirator on charges of malpractice, Benedict employed a Sunday Angelus talk to "urge all not to fall prey to the deception of thinking that they can dispose of life to the extent of ‘legitimizing its disruption with euthanasia, perhaps masking it with a veil of human pity.’"

In other CDF-US news, it's come to light that Fr Peter Phan, a Georgetown University theologian and former head of the Catholic Theological Society of America, is under Roman investigation for a 2004 book that, the dicastery said, "is notably confused" and "contains serious ambiguities" on the church's teachings on Christ as savior and the salvific role of the church.