Religion plays a key role in addressing the spiritual, emotional, and psychological concerns faced by many patients and families around dying and the care they want near the end of life. Yet religious communities vary in their approach to the questions that people wrestle with when confronting a serious illness. The Center for Practical Bioethics, with the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts, engaged a group of two dozen Catholic educators and thought leaders from a variety of clinical, religious, and ethical perspectives to explore differences in understanding and applying church teachings regarding palliative care and advance care planning.
The ensuing report, “Pathways to Convergence,” reflects a robust discussion of church teachings on every individual’s value and dignity and the moral considerations of burden and benefit around treatment. The report studies a Catholic’s social responsibility to uphold the dignity of life, regardless of patient capacity and dependency, and the complex ethical issues affecting providers and stakeholders during shared decision-making.
Significantly, the group agreed on the importance of palliative care as described by Pope Francis as “an expression of the truly human attitude of taking care of one another, especially of those who suffer.” The group pointed to the need for overarching discussions of palliative care in a patient’s first medical encounter during a serious illness, underpinning the idea that clinicians, spiritual leaders, and others in the health system should accompany patients and their families throughout their illnesses.
Finally, the group acknowledged that all Catholics have a duty to promote the church’s clear vision of palliative and end-of-life care through further dialogue that raises public awareness about the complex issues that patients and their families encounter with a serious illness. These exchanges should occur in myriad settings, including dioceses, Catholic universities and schools of medicine, Catholic health systems, and secular forums.
Lee Goldberg directs Pew’s improving end-of-life care project.