Brittany Maynard and Suffering: A Study in Contrast

At the beginning of the movie Shadowlands, CS Lewis is heard saying, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It is an obvious reference to CS Lewis’ theology of suffering. The point, however, is to make note that each person suffers and, at times, suffering is part of the Divine plan. Recently, it has come to light that Brittany Maynard, 29-year old Oregon resident who suffers from a rare form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme, intends to take her own life under Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act”. Under this nefarious law, if a person is a legal resident of Oregon, judged to be competent and terminally ill, then a physician can prescribe a lethal dose of medication to the patient, to be taken any time by the patient, for the purpose of committing suicide.

Mrs. Maynard’s story is a quintessential study in the theology of suffering. Newly married and looking forward to family life, she never thought her life would be tragically cut short. No doubt Mrs. Maynard suffers from the mental anguish of her impending death as she states, “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.” A painful death is something virtually everyone fears; even the Lord feared His impending scourging and crucifixion. But Mrs. Maynard raises an important question, will her death be dignified? Many in modern society may think so, but in reality Mrs. Maynard’s death will be a tragedy—a model of what not to do.

brittanyChrist gave mankind a conclusive model regarding death with true dignity. In the darkness of the midnight hours the Lord prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Christ’s fear becomes apparent to the reader of Scripture when Christ uttered the words, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14: 36). The beginning of Christ’s Passion is a study in the subject of suffering. It is here one sees how His suffering was more than just the mere physical tortures He went through, but rather illustrates how the mental anguish caused by physical suffering can be just as tortuous.

It should be noted, however, that Christ’s suffering also included the element of temptation. Here, the Word of God Incarnate faced His greatest battle with Satan. Even though the Evil One was not specifically mentioned within the passages of the Garden of Gethsemane, He was there. Jesus must decide: will He take the easy way out or will He take the tortuous path that He is supposed to. Adam faced Death too in the Garden of Eden and His decision was a similar one. But instead of acquiescing to the will of God, he chose his own will instead. As a result, Jesus must do what Adam failed to do. And it was in His perfect sacrifice that mankind gained a model of how to handle the path that has been laid before every human being when it comes to the subject of suffering. The Lamb of God took up the cup that had been given to Him. Throughout His tortures neither did He complain nor did He condemn His persecutors.

But sadly, Mrs. Maynard has not followed this example. In her Op-Ed piece that appeared on CNN.com she penned the following sentiment, “Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve [emphasis mine] this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain?” Unfortunately, she does not see the opportunity to show her love for God by being brave in the face of adversity. As St. Pope John Paul states in Salvifici Doloris, “We could say that suffering…is present in order to unleash love in the human person…” (no. 29).

Mrs. Maynard notes that she still may have a change of heart, “Now that I’ve had the prescription filled and it’s in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief, and if I decide to change my mind about taking the medication, I will not take it.” It is so ironic how the lethal dose represents the forbidden fruit in Eden. She certainly hasn’t “eaten” the forbidden fruit yet, but the Devil is obviously tempting her through her potential suffering.

Regrettably, the deadly sin of Pride also plays a significant role in Mrs. Maynard’s story. She wishes to die on her terms. She deliberately chooses not to take the path that has been laid out for her; unlike Christ who humbly and lovingly accepted what must happen. The love of Christ shone through by Him, literally taking on unjust tortures to forgive the sins of mankind.

While the story of Christ may seem long ago to many moderns today, and His death by torture and crucifixion as to be unfathomable; there are many other Christian examples of those who suffered through terminal illnesses with true dignity. Most notably was St. Pope John Paul II who wrote on the subject of suffering as mentioned above. Much like Mrs. Maynard’s illness, Parkinson’s is a debilitating illness and the world watched St. John Paul II suffer from it. But St. John Paul II gave life to his own words in his suffering, “Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God” (Salvifici Doloris, no.12).

Again, the CS Lewis of Shadowlands stated it best, “I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering…You see we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel which hurt us so much with are what makes us perfect.” It is in this time that prayers should be offered for Mrs. Maynard. Her suffering presents an opportunity to help her grow in her relationship with God. It is a time for her to show true courage in the sight of mental agony, even if it is the agony of watching others agonize because of her condition. It is time to pray that she will choose the path of God.

Joe Kral has been involved in the pro-life movement since he has been in college.  His MA in Theology was completed at the University of St. Thomas where he specialized in bioethics.  From 1996-2003 he was the Legislative Director for Texas Right to Life.  During that time he was also a lobbyist for the Department of Medical Ethics at National Right to Life.  From 2004-2007 he consulted the Texas Catholic Conference on pro-life legislative initiatives.   In 2006 he was awarded the “Bishop’s Pro-Life Award for Civic Action” from the Respect Life Ministry in the Diocese of Dallas.  He currently serves as a voluntary legislative advisor to Texas Alliance for Life, is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, taught as an adjunct professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, teaches as a Forward Toward Christian Ministry instructor for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and is doing doctoral studies at Harrison Middleton University where he is specializing in the ethical and legal theory of St. Thomas Aquinas. He has been married to his wife, Melissa, since 2004 and they have 2 children together. They attend St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Sugar Land.
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  • cminca

    Tell me–where do you draw the line?

    • Joseph Kral

      It is a good question. Bu the best (and most simple) way to answer this is to say that life is to be respected from conception until a natural death. To unjustly cause an unnatural death such as assisted suicide is contrary to that basic principle

      • cminca

        I’m not sure you saw my entire post. I had a problem with Disqus and had to add the majority as an “edit”.

        You claim it “unjust” to cause an “unnatural” death with assisted suicide.

        Where is the “justice” in the disease? Where is the “justice” in the death of a young mother?

        I’m guessing your answer is “we shouldn’t question God”. Sorry–I don’t think your version of religion should trump her rights to her own body.

        • Joseph Kral

          This is obviously a very personal issue with you so please know my prayers are with you. Please understand that I too have had family members die of cancer and, in fact, I have a parent who is also dying of a brain tumor.
          Let me begin by saying assisted suicide is not a good thing. We already know about abuses that have cropped up in Oregon since the US Supreme Court upheld its legality in the late 90’s. Some scholars have argued that this law may be challenged legally since it discriminates against non-terminally ill patients who want to die (such as those who are severely depressed).
          Furthermore, in the Netherlands has shown the world a slippery slope when you legalize assisted suicide. It’s law has morphed into full blown direct euthanasia where patients are not always asked if they wish to die or not, the doctors simply euthanize them.
          Justice, as the Catholic Tradition, understands it is simply that which is due to another. In this case it is the good of the patient. If a patient is in the process of dying, it is not our job to kill the patient (or have the patient kill himself/herself). Our job is to provide for that patient, to be their and to truly support that patient in their time of suffering.
          You bring up the issue of palliative care as well. This is perfectly acceptable care, because you are not killing the patient, but rather providing relief for the patient from physical pain.
          We need to understand that many who face terminal illness are dealing with depression…so we need to treat the depression. By treating the depression we provide true justice for the patient.

  • mumof6

    Thank you for such a clear and concise discussion on the position of the church on assisted suicide. I believe that God provides us with opportunities to love and we simply need to recognize those opportunities. We are either the receivers or the givers of that love. I am saddened that Mrs.. Maynard and her family were unable to recognize that opportunity. May her soul rest in peace..

    • Joseph Kral

      Thank you for your response! I was also saddened to hear the news of Mrs. Maynard’s death as well. I have been praying for her soul and her family.

  • respectful1

    Not for you to judge, not for you to inflict religion in her choice. Each persons life is their own to decide what to do with. No one else has the right to interfere in their free will and it is between them and God. NO JUDGEMENT please!!!!

    • Joseph Kral

      This is simply part of democracy to debate these issues. And the US Constitution provides that religion does have a political voice…even in the legislatures.
      While we should not judge the person, we can judge acts. We do it all the time. If someone steals money from someone to buy drugs we call it wrong (and rightly so). This is precisely the argument here…the question being is assisted suicide morally appropriate or not. According to the Natural Law it is not.