Is killing ever good? A conversation about active assistance in dying

Interview about euthanasia with Gerhard Cardinal Müller by Lothar C. Rilinger

Cardinal Gerhard Muller is seen at the Vatican in this 2016 file photo.(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The right to life is regarded as a human right—as a right that everyone also views as fundamental—and ultimately it belongs to everyone, at least theoretically. Preborn human beings—even if they were capable of it—cannot always invoke this right; it is only granted to them selectively, only if the mother agrees with it. This withdrawal of the human right to life is manifested not only in abortion law. This legal restriction of the right is being discussed also in connection with active assistance in dying, and this restriction has already become a legal reality in several European countries. Whereas after the last World War there was still a generally accepted taboo against debating the legalization of killing within the framework of active assistance in dying, the ethical debate developed gradually and now includes the legalization of killing by third parties, if someone wishes it. The ethical dimension and relevance of this debate are immense.

For this reason the dogmatic theologian and ecumenist Gerhard Cardinal Müller agreed to inform the public about his view of how active assistance in dying should be classified ethically and legally.

Rilinger: Is the human right to life assigned to human beings by a political elite, or is this right intrinsically inherent in every human being, born or preborn?

Cdl. Müller: Every human being is conceived by and born of his father and mother. He proceeds from their bodily generative power and—we hope and pray— encounters parents and relatives who welcome him full of love and respect and thus communicate to him a primordial confidence in the goodness of being. The state is only the organizational form of societal life, but it is not the creator of life, let alone the master and owner of the inhabitants of its territory. We are free citizens, not vassals of potentates and slaves in the workplaces.

Any state perverts its limited authority in questions concerning the common good, if those who guide its fate behave like tyrants and have themselves worshipped as gods. For the true God, as the Judeo-Christian tradition believes in him, is the Creator of life who generously guarantees freedom. He also establishes the inalienable dignity of every individual human being by predestining him to eternal salvation. The topic of human dignity is not some abstract reflection accessible only to the brightest philosophical brains. After the atrocious crimes of totalitarian states—in the twentieth century, no less, which claimed to be so enlightened—the fathers and mothers of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of German formulated the inalienable dignity of every human being and fundamental human rights as the basis of a constitutional democracy. These fundamental rights precede all positive legislation as a critical standard.

Any state and any international organization that denies and restricts [1] the right to physical integrity, which is already given in man’s rational, corporeal, and social nature, and [2] the right to free will and freedom of conscience in matters of religion and ethics, is automatically perverted into a system of injustice. Fundamental rights must be derivable from man’s rational nature and cannot be decreed “from above” in a positivist and arbitrary way by the governmental authority through a majority decision or the dictates of a ruling oligarchy. The “political-medial class” cannot prescribe what philosophers have to think and what the faithful may profess—not yet. Moreover the subtle pressures to conform in one’s convictions and opinions about religious, spiritual, and moral life conjure up the danger of a totalitarian dictatorship in modern dress. This is true also for the countries of Europe or the European Union, which wrongly conclude from their self-understanding as parliamentary democracies that they can restrict or even abolish fundamental rights by majority decisions. To mention one terrifying example: It is and remains a crime against humanity when governmental agencies deprive parents of their natural right to care for their children, just because they prudently do not accept certain individually debatable measures in the coronavirus crisis.

Rilinger: The Fifth Commandment forbids killing. Under what conditions, though, could the killing of human beings nevertheless be justified?

Cdl. Müller: The biblical Decalogue reflects Israel’s faith in God, the Creator of life and the liberator from inhumane slavery. But the requirements of the “Ten Commandments” are comprehensible for every reasonable human being as the natural moral law, because the contrary would mean the collapse of all humanity. Without these principles we end up with “might makes right,” that is, the triumph of power over goodness or the subjection of truth to the lies of propaganda.

The historical legal practice of the death penalty was based on the truth that someone forfeits the right to his own life only if he freely and knowingly murders a fellow human being for base motives or if he maliciously puts the community in danger of death, for instance through an act of high treason. We know very well, though, how the death penalty was exploited millions of times to assert power and to intimidate. Moreover the thousands and thousands of judicial errors and judicial murders committed against innocent human beings have made the death penalty obsolete in modern democratic constitutional states—thank God.

In the case of self-defense, the attacker himself is to blame if he dies, because in threatening an innocent fellow human being he immorally risked his own life. Nevertheless an extreme case must be evaluated in terms of moral principles; it cannot be used the other way around to relativize the general prohibition against killing. The difficult dilemma in a pregnancy, when the life of the child supposedly conflicts with the life of the mother, cannot be resolved by appealing to the moral right to self-defense, but only in terms of the love of a mother whom God alone can help.

Rilinger: The act of killing human life can never be undertaken without a moral conflict. In order to get around this dilemma, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer suggested making a distinction between a human being per se and a person. According to this theory, the human right to life should not be linked to mere humanity—he classifies the life of a newborn human as less valuable than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee—and consequently it should belong only to human beings who can exercise rationality, autonomy, and self-awareness, and thus are to be regarded as persons. Can you accept this distinction?

Cdl. Müller: These “philosophers” with their preferences for pigs, dogs, and chimpanzees are unreliable simply because they apply their insane, misanthropic principles only to others but not to themselves. A mother who after a successful birth cuddles her child in her arms would be, according to that logic, morally on a lower level than a dog lover who lets his full-grown four-legged friend lick his face. Seeing a pregnant woman or a newborn child in his cradle arouses in every psychologically normal human being a joyous amazement at the miracle of life and in addition produces more happiness hormones than the sight of a herd of grunting swine or a troop of screaming monkeys.

Rationality, autonomy, self-awareness, intelligence, talent are on the one hand natural dispositions in every individual human being, but on the other hand they are innate or acquired qualities which are and can be developed in individual human beings to varying degrees. Any computer has better calculating capability by dint of “artificial intelligence.” Nevertheless it is not a living being, and certainly not a human being endowed with mind and morally responsible for his actions and omissions, whose individual particularity we call a “person.” Incidentally, the definition of the concept of person goes back to Boethius, a real philosopher who was ruined by political intrigues. Theoderich, the King of the Goths, had him brutally executed around the year 524 or 526 for high treason. Ever since Socrates, power has been at war with intellect.

Rilinger: Does man behave like a god when in his hubris—as Robert Spaemann put it—he cuts himself off from creaturely fellowship with all living things on earth through active assistance in dying?

Cdl. Müller: The phrase “active assistance in dying” sounds so nice and helpful and empathetic. Euthanasia is a euphemism, suggesting a “good death” that delivers us from our pains and fears and generally from the torments of earthly existence, and also from the need to cope with our uncertainty. The truly philanthropic help for a dying person is to respect his dignity as a human being in the last phase of life, to encourage him in his anxiety. A fellow believer will console him with the hope that our Creator does not leave us alone, not even in and after death. God grants us peace and a home in eternal communion with HIM. Medical alleviation of pain should also be available to every dying person. Emotional accompaniment through the loving care of his relatives and spiritual accompaniment by pastoral care workers are more in demand than an ostensible solution through technology by simply switching off the light of life, i.e. knowingly and deliberately killing the patient. That is the worst attack on his dignity, because it tells him that he does not exist for his own sake and is not loved by us as a person, but only insofar as he is useful to society. It lets him know that he is being disposed of like used-up material. And insidiously he is even expected to give suicidal consent so as to stop being an unnecessary burden on his fellow human beings.

[The next Q&A reflects current abortion law in Germany.]

Rilinger: Could the decriminalization of abortion during the first three months and after counseling have consequences for the further legal treatment of the right to life and serve to curtail the right to life of human beings who are born? Since ultimately all changes in law grow from small beginnings, from insignificant shifts in emphasis, could it lead to a reappraisal of the right to life?

Cdl. Müller: Killing a human being in his mother’s womb is a horrible crime against the dignity of this human being in his unrepeatable uniqueness. The fact that he happens to be in the initial phases of his bodily development in no way changes his existence as an individual human being. If a majority of deputies in the European Parliament—diabolically perverting the concept—demands a “human right” to abortion and tries to criminalize the defenders of the right to life of every human being—and precisely of the child in his mother’s womb, too—then this is nothing but public backsliding into barbarity. We are talking about the worst possible suicidal attack of the constitutional state on itself.

In Germany some people have given in to the illusion that the state can fulfill its responsibility for the unrestricted right to life of children in the womb even without penal law. Current practice makes a mockery of such wishful thinking. Above all a false sense has crept in that an act is unjust only if it is punished by law. What is permitted seems to be just also. Now, the legal order is not identical to ethics. Yet the two orders must not stand side by side completely unrelated, either. Otherwise law becomes arbitrariness and morality becomes a private matter.

Rilinger: Shouldn’t the discussion about legalizing active assistance in dying—as the constitutional lawyer Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde has demanded—take into consideration also the forces which exist prior to law and are found in religion?

Cdl. Müller: The positive legislation in changeable state laws and the corresponding administration of justice must be preceded by a moral consciousness that supports them. Even positive laws cannot always be applied formalistically. Depending on the circumstances, there are exceptions, too. When a pedestrian crosses the street against a red light, the driver of an automobile who has a green light still cannot insist on his right and endanger the pedestrian. In other words: No one has the right to switch off his moral reason and appeal to his formal right or even to allege the necessity of following orders [Befehlsnotstand], just to avoid responsibility for the negative consequences of his actions. Even if a European physician is ordered by law to perform an abortion, he is just as responsible for the child’s death as his colleague in China is for government-ordered organ “harvesting.”

Rilinger: May utilitarian considerations, which could be purely financial reasons, be cited in order to justify active assistance in dying?

Cdl. Müller: Commercially-run “assistance in dying” or assisted suicide is nothing but a serious crime against the dignity and the life of a human person, however much it is whitewashed and “sold” (in the worst sense of the word) as a good deed.

Rilinger: In some European countries active assistance in dying has been legalized. Can you share the opinion of the French author Michel Houellebecq, who declared that a state which legalizes euthanasia has lost all respect, so that it must be dissolved in order to make room for another system?

Cdl. Müller: Yes. Without further ado I can agree with him. He is not the only thinker who, even without explicitly referring to God in the Jewish and Christian sense, sees that the foundations of the European culture of reason and humanity are endangered today. With their program of systematic de-Christianization, the political-medial nomenklatura [members of the ruling class] sign their own death sentence for the Europe that they pretend to represent.

Only a mighty renaissance of the truth about the inalienable dignity which belongs by nature unconditionally to each individual human being can save us from the abysmal disaster of an Orwellian dictatorship of naked, mindless power and of amoral, utilitarian calculation—the Fascist and Stalinist systems in the twentieth century were only horrible previews. But when our neighbors to the East were brutally oppressed by the three absolutist states Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and then by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, what did they sing? “Poland is not yet lost, as long as we are alive….”

Believers know that from time immemorial the enemies of the people of God have put their “trust in chariots and horses” (see Ps 19:8, Douay-Rheims [Ps 20:7]), and therefore today in the financial power of the elites and brainwashing for the masses. But contrary to all earthly calculations “we will call upon the name of the Lord our God.” To him the psalmist cries out: “Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen” (Ps 22:21 RSV-2CE).

Rilinger: Many thanks!

(Editor’s note: This interview was first posted in German at CNA Deutsch. Link: Gibt es ein gutes Töten? Ein Gespräch über die aktive Sterbehilfe ( It is published here in English translation with permission from the interviewer. Translated by Michael J. Miller.)

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  1. For Rilinger: Peter Singer doesn’t present his argument that pigs are equal to humans; Singer, a former Australian animal rights advocate, later advanced advocacy to ethics and the classic definition of a human as a rational animal. Singer proposed if a human loses that capacity in infancy or in adulthood he qualifies for euthanasia. Singer chaired Princeton’s ethics dept with that argument. The issue today is similar couched in context of Quality of Life. Insofar as a human possesses life he’s considered of value for Catholicism. One major issue consequently becomes suffering, whether it can be controlled. Cdl Müller gives a correct assessment of end of life care and Rilinger’s query on assisted death. Pain control has various forms morphine can be used generously even if it borders on risk of death for excruciating pain. The Milan Institut national du cancer has successfully and ethically provided such care for decades with ecclesial approval. Furthermore, sedation has been accepted by Catholic theologians, although there are kinds of sedation that distinguish ‘mercy killing’ from ethical care as explained by the medical chief of intensive care where I was chaplain. She said sedation can either inhibit respiratory function or may not; the latter was recommended by her as morally correct. Otherwise, another physician on the staff recommended sedation for mentally compromised patients as an ethical means of ending suffering [his view entered in the NJM] which in fact is unethical. There will generally be some form of suffering in this life and death as a solution is both cowardly and contrary to God’s precious gift of human life in his own image. A major ethical problem throughout the medical system is the surreptitious death by sedative approach easily disguised from medical examiner boards. In his summation Cdl Müller warns of the “brainwashing of the masses by the intellectual elite”, many, for example young minds distorted to the truth at our universities with men like Peter Singer Princeton called by Peter Unger NYU “The most influential ethicist alive”. What the Church sorely lacks is a medical ethics curriculum for the laity, as well as the reasoned assertion of Catholic ethical principles within education.

    • Added to the above, our world has lost its sense of the eternal. Life is short enjoy it if you can avoid any suffering, whereas the Christian called by Christ to charity perceives his efforts, and ordinary sometimes challenging pain as essential within the economy of salvation. Moral character requires courage, and reasonable acceptance of pain firms the will toward the good during the ordinaries of life, and at times the extraordinaries.

    • Vatican II taught about the responsibility of the lay faithful for the temporal order. The National Catholic Bioethics Center, run by laymen, offers resources and consultation on medical-moral questions, not only to Catholic institutions but also to individuals.

  2. Are we living in times when the ‘twisties ‘ have afflicted our ( cultural ) consciousness at large , from choices done at massive levels , out of fear and despair alone …

    Thank God that The Church ( alone ) stands as the bearer of Light , reminding the children to say with The Mother – ‘Fiat ‘ – ‘ Let Your Holy Will be done ‘ , in us and others , even in the littlest and the weakest and at every moment , to thus let in the Light of Truth of being blessed and loved , how so often too , a truth that could have been ignored under the same and often subtle spirits of despair …

    to replace and make reparation for same , through the Great Call and Destiny in offering Thanksgiving , in His Will and Love, with all of Heaven ..esp. at every Holy Mass ..

    Glory be !

  3. Cardinal Muller seems to me to be a wise and good man. I believe he has suffered for the truth and I have great respect for him.

    The current teaching about the death penalty just doesn’t seem right. I thought the Catholic teaching was that the abuse of something doesn’t negate its proper use. What gives? Isn’t the death penalty–properly used, simply applying the principles of self defense to the state as a whole? How strange. Common sense and decency seem to demand death penalty in certain cases. I’m very surprised that so many people don’t see that.

  4. My 90-year-old mother is dying right now in the convent where she has lived for the past 30 years. She has both dementia and Alzheimers, and cannot remember anything or anyone from the recent past, and confuses almost everything and everyone from the distant past. She is anxious, agitated, and fearful most of the time. She is anything but rational. However, when one sings Latin chants or hymns to her, she calms down and joins in with her beautiful soprano. No doubt there are better ways to die, but there are many worse ways to die as well. Above all, we NEED those who are dying. They teach us forbearance and charity.

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