Leading Catholics And Rabbis Agree: Help Terminally Ill, Reject Assisted Suicide


By Kevin J. Jones

Leading Israeli rabbis and Catholic Church leaders have signed a joint declaration on the ethics of treating the terminally ill, and rejecting assisted suicide and euthanasia, while also advocating for improved palliative care.

“For both Jews and Christians, taking care of the terminally ill with belief, respect and love means truly to light the lamp of faith and hope at a time shrouded in darkness and a sense of solitude and abandonment for both patient and dear ones,” they said in a joint declaration at the conclusion of a recent gathering in Jerusalem.

The delegations from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews met in Jerusalem May 2-4 for their 17th bilateral meeting. The meeting was the first in five years, due to delays from the Covid-19 epidemic.

The topic of the meeting was “Jewish and Catholic Approaches to the Terminally Ill: the Prohibited, the Permitted and the Obligatory.

The two delegations agreed on the importance of “compassionate palliative care and maximal effort to alleviate pain and suffering.” Their joint declaration cited the October 2019 joint declaration of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders that rejected active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide while promoting palliative care.

Chairing the Catholic delegation was Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. He was joined by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa O.F.M.; Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana, the apostolic nuncio to Israel;  Italian theologian Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto;  Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem;  Msgr. Pier Francesco Fumagalli, a consultor for the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews; and Fr. Norbert J. Hofmann S.D.B., secretary of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Rabbi Rasson Arussi, director general of the Chief Rabbinate, headed the Jewish delegation. Joining him were U.K.-born Rabbi Eliezer Simha Weisz, who now serves on the Council of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate; Rabbi Prof. Avraham Steinberg, a medical ethicist and pediatric neurologist; Rabbi David Rosen, a former Chief Rabbi of Ireland who is International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee; Rabbi Gidon Shlush of New York; and Yehudah Cohen and Oded Wiener, who are both former directors general of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

The Catholic presentation at the meeting highlighted the guiding principles for treating the terminally ill. It began with Pope Francis’ caution regarding contemporary cultural context that is, in the pontiff’s words, “progressively eroding the understanding of that which makes human life precious.”

The joint statement said the presentation reaffirmed “the dignity of every human being, which for Jews and Catholics flows from the religious affirmation of the sanctity of human life.”  

The deliberations expanded on the topic of the 2006 bilateral commission meeting topic, which was human life and technology in light of “the far-reaching advances in medical science.”

As quoted by the joint declaration, that previous meeting had affirmed: “the principles of our respective traditions that God is the Creator and Lord of all life and that human life is sacred precisely because, as the Bible teaches, the human person is created in the Divine Image.”

“Because life is a Divine gift to be respected and preserved, we perforce reject the idea of human ownership of life and of the right of any human party to decide its value or extent,” the 2006 gathering said. “Thus we repudiate the concept of active euthanasia (so-called mercy killing) and physician-assisted suicide as the illegitimate human arrogation of an exclusive Divine authority to determine the time of a person’s death.”

The latest meeting’s second discussion session concerned guidelines for the terminally ill “as legislated in harmony with Jewish tradition” and their global ramifications. The discussion highlighted distinctions between “actions that hasten death, and actions of omission beyond the provision of basic human needs.”

The joint declaration contrasted active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, both actions that hasten death, with actions that withdraw continuous medical treatment. The latter includes technological aids such as a ventilator or pacemaker, or treatments that prolong life “beyond basic human needs” such as dialysis and chemotherapy.

“The delegations recognize that the ethical and religious complexities involved in end-of-life situations require that each situation be addressed according to its particular circumstances and needs,” the joint statement continued.

The delegations visited Israel’s Shaarei Zedek Medical Center to see the treatment of the terminally ill informed by these principles.

“The members of the delegation gave thanks to God the Creator, asking for His blessing upon all who are sick, and all who are engaged in healing and preservation of life,” the joint statement said.


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