How do you decide to end the life of your best friend? I grapple with this question each time one of my dogs approaches death. I especially struggled with Border, the dog with whom I had the deepest relationship.
My faith is the primary source of my struggle. After all, the Catholic Church is a pro-life church, teaching that the dignity of human life is sacred from womb to tomb, as they say. Unfortunately, the term "pro-life" is generally reduced both inside and outside the Church to one issue and one issue alone: the stance against abortion. However, being truly pro-life encompasses far more than this. Being pro-life is a way of seeing the world and all that is in it. It is a view that acknowledges God's desires of salvation for all human life, whether it is in the womb (or, let's not forget, the mother with that womb), crossing the US-Mexico border, sentenced to life in a federal prison, mumbling to one's self on the street corner, or trading sex for meth at a truck stop. To be pro-life is to see value in all people and to stand up for the voiceless, the oppressed, the crucified. To hold to account the powerful, the greedy, and the cruel. To sacrifice one's self in order to help God create a just, equitable and compassionate world where all people and communities can thrive. (So, let's be clear, Donald Trump: you are NOT pro-life. Not by a long shot.)
This acknowledgment of the inherent sanctity of life is the bedrock of Catholic Social Teaching. It is an inspired and inspiring way of understanding the great gift of being alive. But, where do animals fit into this framework? Ah, a different standard applies, you might say. Hmmm...does it? Why as human beings are we so quick to jump to the conclusion that our lives are more sacred, more special, more meaningful than any other creature on earth? That we have the right to shoot animals for sport, to carry out brutal science experiments on them, to annihilate their habitat, to corral them into the unspeakable cruelty of factory farms (do you know they rip the testicles off male piglets without even a drop of anesthesia? Think about that next time you eat that bacon that you don't really need.). Why is it that we think we are so different, so much better, so entitled? Yes, we have special gifts and certainly a different level of power and responsibility, but we are not more sacred. God's Spirit runs through every single thing on this planet, and God is continually inviting us into a deeper noticing of this sanctity pulsating all around us.
Where does this leave me? When one of my dogs approaches death, I agonize about whether and when to euthanize. What does God want for this creature? Is God asking me to end their suffering or am I taking power that is not mine to take? Is euthanasia a compassionate gift (the constant refrain of the veterinarians) or am I interfering with God's process of preparing this life for its earthly conclusion? Who am I to take a life away? It's excruciating. I run through these gymnastics each time, and each time I end up at the same place: it is unethical for me to intervene and end this life that God has brought into the world. This is not my right--it is God's and God's alone.
But then, there is the reality in front of me. I look deeply into the eyes of the being who is suffering. Who is falling down in his own urine and feces, and is too weak to pull himself up. Who is so thin from illness that you can count every bone in her spine and ribcage. Who paces night after night because his dementia is so severe he cannot sleep, even with the help of a tranquilizer. Whose yellow eyes stare into mine, saying "I am ready to go." What does it mean to be pro-life now? Do I to allow the slow and painful decline to continue for weeks or even months? Do I order the killing of this creature with whom I am deeply bonded? I beg God in prayer for answers, but they do not come. I am left without clarity, only love. I opt for mercy and make the decision to intervene, to bring the suffering in their eyes to an end. Maybe it is the right thing to do. Maybe I am just too weak to allow life to fully run its course. Whatever the case, it rips me apart every time, and all I can do is ask the Lord for forgiveness.
As difficult as this process is, I hope it never gets easier. I will enter the end-of-life phase with every dog anew. Each life on this earth matters. The trees and the rivers and the bees matter. All is imbued with God's Spirit, with everything communicating to us something about who God is, what God desires, what God dreams. I consciously embrace being a human being in this sacred milieu, as well as the burden of this terrifying power. This burden is the price of living life through the eyes of the Sacred Heart of God. It is the price of love.
-- In loving memory of Border, who passed away this day of December 8th, 2020 at 9:11 am.