Catholic Church Teaching is Constant and Unchanging –
The Teaching from Florida is Not!
(Confusing the Terri Schiavo case)

    Somewhere along the line, perhaps due to slanted and erroneous media reporting, someone got the idea that Terri Schiavo was a terminally ill patient.  She had to be “terminal” because she was never going to come out of that coma or “PVS” condition, they said. We all have a pretty good visual idea of what “coma” or “PVS” is supposed to mean.  And most of those who are familiar with her case and have seen her videos realize she is most certainly not in a coma, but is rather very much awake, quite alert and responsive to pain, music, joy and the love of her parents and siblings.  But what about that pesky other word, “terminal”?  Isn’t that supposed to mean that a patient is dying?  That death is imminent?  That the disease or condition the person has will bring about their death?  Well, the media decided, she MUST be terminal if she is living in Hospice, right?  That’s where the terminally ill go to die. Okay, someone please pinch me – wake me up and explain just how a person can be terminal for 13 years?  Terminal?  Hardly.  Disabled? Yes.  Is her disability going to cause her death?  Most definitely not. And while we can blame the reporting of such errors on a biased and ill-informed media, what excuse can possibly be given to those in authority who know better and yet choose to remain silent – or worse, misinform thousands of the faithful entrusted to their spiritual care?

    The most shameful display of non-pastoral statements came directly from the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida and Bishop Robert Lynch, who argued that cases such as Terri Schiavo’s “are complicated”; that it seemed there was no clear definition as to what the Catholic Church instructs the faithful on such matters; that it was “regrettable that the family could not resolve this”.  Well, I for one as a parent, would be pretty hard pressed to see how anything could be “resolved” with an estranged ” family member”  intent on killing my child. In sworn testimony, this so-called “family member” – Michael Schiavo told a jury in 1993 that he wanted to care for Terri “for the rest of his life.”  And immediately upon receipt of the $1.2 million dollar award, he instead began his relentless pursuit to end her life.

 And as for this matter being so “complicated” – just what is it that is so hard to understand here? Terri’s husband is living with another woman with whom he has fathered two children. He has a new life, he wants Terri dead.  And the really frightening part is that Terri is not terminally ill. The only thing that is going to cause her death is her deliberate starvation.  Whether she ever gets any better than the condition she is in today is irrelevant.  Many disabled people never get better, but they are still loved and cared for by others.  And her parents want to provide her that care.

 So shall we believe then that somehow the Church is unsure in such cases?  Absolutely not!  For if ever there was a time when the Catholic Church was most certainly – without question – crystal clear on situations of both terminal and non-terminal patient care, this is it.  The Church  is also exquisitely lucid on calling a spade a spade. In this case, the Church rightfully defines the removal of a feeding tube from a non-terminal patient as MURDER –  a term that Bishop Robert Lynch emphasized must never be used when evaluating Terri’s case. With all due respect, the intentional killing of any innocent human being cannot be sugar-coated in pretty terms.  

    Further, Michael Schiavo claims his wife would not want to live this way, but we are quite sure Michael never asked his wife if she wanted to be starved to death.  And even if she ever did say such a thing – even had she put such outrageous statements in writing –  while the State would have honored those wishes long ago, it may surprise you to learn that the Catholic Church would not have condoned it based on Terri’s actual medical condition. For faithful Catholics are morally required to use ordinary means -nutrition and hydration – and such moral obligation may not be exonerated by living wills or the dictates of the State.   Following this introduction are simple excerpts from the very clear guidelines in Catholic Church teaching,  which without question show that:

  1. Nutrition and hydration, whether given artificially or orally are considered ordinary care
  2. Catholics are morally obliged to provide ordinary care.
  3. Nutrition and hydration can never be withheld unless the person’s death is imminent and the use of such would be either harmful or of no benefit
  4. The willful withholding of nutrition and hydration in order to bring about a person’s death is euthanasia
  5. Euthanasia is without question, the crime of murder.

 Somehow and for some unknown reason, these simple facts became blurred and lost to the Diocese.  The Florida Bishops had it right in 1989 when they jointly signed a Statement of the Life, Death and Treatment of Dying Patients (see excerpt below).  They had it right again in February of 1998 when they produced a Catholic Directive on Life and Death with a valid, Catholic living will one could use to ensure their wishes were in line with Church teaching and their medical requests would be protected.  But in a bizarre twist in November of 2001, an entirely new set of directives was produced, quoting previous statements out of context and omitting important key teachings in an entirely new directive.  Ironically, it is nearly identical – word for word – to the State of Florida’s sample living will found in 765.303  Suggested form of a living will.

    The question remains unanswered, why was this done?  Was it to somehow conform Catholic teaching to the civil law?  We asked our attorney to examine the previous document that was most certainly Catholic to see if it would stand up to current law.  The answer was, “absolutely!”   Under Florida Law, Section 765.102 (3) it states: “…The Legislature declares that the laws of this state recognize the right of a competent adult to make an advance directive instructing his or her physician to provide, withhold, or withdraw life-prolonging procedures, or to designate another to make the treatment decision for him or her in the event that such person should become incapacitated and unable to personally direct his or her medical care.”  

    The civil law is clear.  The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is clear. And just because the current Catholic leadership of the State of Florida seems to be very unclear of what not only their predecessors in Florida professed, but also, of what the USCCB and Vatican have taught for years doesn’t mean YOU have to be kept in the dark!  We begin with the following:

From the Florida Conference of Bishops

April 27, 1989

“In most cases there is not an excessive burden in the artificial administration of nutrition and hydration. The total care of such patients may be a burden, but it is the burden of this particular treatment that must be judged, not the burden of the person’s life itself. We can never justify the withdrawal of sustenance on the basis of the quality of life of the patient. Because human life has inherent value and dignity regardless of its condition, every patient should be provided with measures which can effectively preserve life without involving too grave a burden. Since food and water are necessities of life for all human beings and can generally be provided without the risks and burdens of more aggressive means for sustaining life, the law should establish a strong presumption in favor of their use. (Statement on Uniform Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities, June, 1986, Origins, Vol. 16, Page 222.) Clearly, nourishment or hydration may be withheld or withdrawn where that treatment itself is causing harm to the patient or is useless because the patient’s death is imminent, as long as the patient is made comfortable. In general the terms “death is imminent” and “terminally ill” imply that a physician can predict that the patient will die of the fatal pathology within a few days or weeks, regardless of what life prolonging methods are utilized.”
Entire Statement found at: 

    We pause here to re-emphasize the above:  Food and water are necessities of human life…withholding of such is only permissible when it causes harm to the patient or when the patient’s death is imminent.  Terri Schiavo’s death is not imminent.  We would not think of starving a dog in this manner, but somehow, the Florida bishops were content to let this happen to one of their own.  Read on….

Declaration on Euthanasia – Vatican Documents
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith May 1980

“By euthanasia is understood an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated. Euthanasia’s terms of reference, therefore, are to be found in the intention of the will and in the methods used. It is necessary to state firmly once more that nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly,  nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity. It may happen that, by reason of prolonged and barely tolerable pain, for deeply personal or other reasons, people may be led to believe that they can legitimately ask for death or obtain it for others. Although in these cases the guilt of the individual may be reduced or completely absent, nevertheless the error of judgment into which the conscience falls, perhaps in good faith, does not change the nature of this act of killing, which will always be in itself something to be rejected.”

Entire Vatican Document found at:

   Again we reiterate:  The teaching of the Catholic Church is clear.  As painful as it may sound to some, no one can legitimately hasten the death of another human being – terminal or not – because it violates the very teaching of the Judeo-Christian belief that life is a sacred gift from God and no authority has the right to interfere with the natural law.

    And just in case you are still not quite sure whether the Church is clear enough on what constitutes “ordinary” or “extraordinary” care, consider this wisdom of the Florida Bishops in their 1974 Directives on this matter:


April 1974

“In order to understand the Catholic position on medical treatment for the dying, let us consider the medical and moral meaning of “ordinary means” and “extraordinary means” for preserving health and life . The terms do not have the same meaning for the physician and for the theologian. This is obviously an area of potential problem in any Catholic health facility. In consequence it is most important that the meaning of the terms be clearly understood; with clear understanding problems do not disappear but a reasonable approach to their solution is possible.

For the physician, ordinary means of preserving health are “standard, recognized, or established medicines or procedures of the time period one is acting in, at the level of prevailing medical practice, and within the limits of availability.”

For the physician, extraordinary means for preserving life would be medicaments or procedures that are fanciful, bizarre, experimental, incompletely established, unorthodox, or not recognized.

From the viewpoint of the theologian, ordinary means for preserving life include not only food, drink and rest, but also in terms of hospital practice, “all medicines, treatments, and operations which offer a reasonable hope of benefit for the patient and which can be obtained and used without excessive expense, pain, or other inconvenience.”

For the theologian, extraordinary means for preserving life are “all medicines, treatments, and operations which cannot be obtained or used without excessive expense, pain, or other inconvenience for the patient or for others or which, if used, would not offer reasonable hope or benefit for the patient.”

These are important definitions and distinctions. They are not always properly understood by some medical men. Legislators are often unaware of them. From the failure to understand these definitions and distinctions, serious misrepresentations of legitimate practice have resulted.”

Entire Document Available at:

    Now you have the truth laid clearly before you.  Ordinary care is what all of us expect from our physicians or loved ones if we are ill or disabled, and what is more natural than feeding one who is hungry, helpless, disabled or in need? Would we say that autistic children, mentally challenged adults, the elderly suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, victims of stroke, paraplegics or anyone for that matter, who needs the loving care of another human being to attend to their needs should be discarded like yesterday’s garbage?  Are we now to assume that anyone who cannot feed oneself by ordinary means, either due to a physical or mental impairment is somehow not worthy of living?  Is there some confusion or complication in this matter that we have missed here?  Are the guidelines from the Catholic Church somehow so fuzzy we could not possibly render a simple, logical and correct judgment? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding and unequivocal NO! Any other answer would refute our own civil decency as a member of the human race and is tantamount to declaring ourselves as a culture that defends only the life of the strong, the perfect and the pleasing.  Survival of the fittest belongs to the animal kingdom – not to the human race. 

Debra L. Vinnedge
Executive Director
Children of God for Life