A Catholic understanding of palliative care

Palliative Care is not something to be scared of.

‘Palliative care is the holistic care of anyone with a life limiting illness, young to old, and their families at any and all points in their illness. This means that you don’t have to be scared. You and your loved ones are not alone, you can take back control. You have control.’ Catholic Health Australia Work Plan document, 2021

In the Catholic tradition, human life is defended from conception to death. The sanctity of life is the fundamental underpinning of the Catholic Church’s understanding of human existence. All life is to be valued and nurtured until the moment of death. Even after death, a person’s life is respected, in the way that their body is treated and in preparations for their funeral, together with the way that family and loved ones are supported through their grief and loss.

Palliative care is a holistic and comprehensive form of care for people who are living with a life-limiting illness (this may also be known as a terminal illness). Palliative care is everyone’s business and for health professionals the hallmark of good palliative care is to improve the quality of life for people with a life-limiting illness, and help their loved ones in bereavement.

In the Catholic tradition, death is part of life and any act to deliberately hasten or shorten a person’s life is not supported. Palliative care is a means to promote a culture of life rather than support a culture of death. A palliative care approach does not seek to unnecessarily prolong or hasten death but accepts a death as part of the overall mystery of life.

Catholic approach to palliative care is distinctive in at least two ways. Firstly, it has clear standards about treatment at the end of life. Catholics believe that we have an obligation to use those means of sustaining our lives that are effective, not overly burdensome and reasonably available. But on the other hand, Catholics believe that we have a moral right to refuse any treatment that is futile, or that we judge to be overly burdensome or morally unacceptable. Treatment is futile if it provides no benefits, such as slowing down the progress of disease, sustaining life, or relieving distress or discomfort.

Treatments are burdensome when they cause distress and suffering, cause difficulties for the patient or his or her family or are costly to obtain or provide. These clear standards help us to make wise choices as we approach the end of life.

Secondly, the Catholic approach to palliative care is distinctive in its passionate commitment to this important care. There are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, the Catholic faith holds that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. This affirmation of the great worth and dignity of all people empowers Catholic institutions to care passionately for each and every person.

Thirdly, Catholic hope in the Resurrection connects death with the bright promise of eternal life. Catholic institutions are therefore comfortable with death, and also comfortable to be with people who are dying. Thirdly, Catholic reflection on the mystery of suffering reminds us that even at our very worst times there are still great possibilities. There can be special moments (even times of reconciliation) with those we love. Although many things disturb us, there can be deep peace. Even as our physical body fails, our spirit can grow. There can be hope in despair, healing in pain, light in darkness, and life in death. The distinctive Catholic approach to palliative care is coloured by all these things.

Provision of Palliative Care in Catholic Health, Catholic Health Australia, 2009, p. 12

For further information on palliative care and your choices please click on the links below:

Additional resources

Living with the knowledge that death is close at hand can take a huge emotional toll. These resources will help you through the experience of facing death.