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Case stirs debate even between Catholic leaders

Published April 1, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Roman Catholic officials from the Vatican to a parish priest condemn the manner of Terri Schiavo's death as unethical, immoral and against the teachings of God.

They say depriving her of a feeding tube starved her.

But the ranks of Catholic clergy and theologians do not all agree on what constitutes ordinary - that is, morally obligatory - means of keeping a person alive, and what can be considered extraordinary or optional.

In a statement a year ago, Pope John Paul II said: "The administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act."

The pope went on to say that its use should be considered, "in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality."

But there is room for interpretation.

"Every Catholic is in agreement in the abstract," said the Rev. James Bretzke, a Jesuit priest who is an associate professor and co-chair of the department of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco. "But we are in disagreement with the application of the principle in the Terri Schiavo situation."

He said the pope did not say that the feeding tube in the Schiavo case was ordinary or morally obligatory and that those who have spoken from the Vatican were talking on their own behalf. On another matter, he said cremation has been acceptable for Catholics since Vatican II.

The Rev. Jordi Rivero, director of Respect Life for the Archdiocese of Miami, said he sees the Schiavo case differently.

Rivero said extraordinary means are those that are "very grievous to the patient and offer no hope of helping the patient survive; for example, a cancer patient who is terminal or a person whose vital organs are failing or a person who is actually declared to be brain dead. We do not need to keep this person alive using machines when the natural process of dying is taking place."

Terri Schiavo, he said, "certainly was not in the process of dying and she simply needed water and food, which in the church's teaching is considered ordinary means."

Bretzke, the Jesuit, said he and others believe that in the Schiavo case, "where the vast majority of medical opinion is in agreement" that she was in persistent vegetative state, "the feeding tube becomes an artificial block to the natural dying process."

Bishop Robert N. Lynch, head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, issued a statement about Terri Schiavo's death from India on Wednesday, where he is traveling to assess Catholic aid to tsunami-damaged areas: "At this time, now that Terri has gone to meet our Lord, I continue to hope and pray that all of Terri's family members may seek and find healing and peace from God, our creator."

In an Aug. 12, 2003, statement, Lynch said people are not required to seek "every possible remedy in every circumstance." But recently, a diocesan spokeswoman said the bishop believed Schiavo's tube should remain.

In a statement, John Favalora, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Miami and former leader of the St. Petersburg diocese, said that "food and hydration, regardless of the tube, is not considered artificial except when it worsens the individual's medical condition or when death is imminent. Morally we may not ask in the living will to have water and food denied to us since this is starvation, a deliberate mutilation of the body."

[Last modified April 1, 2005, 08:39:43]

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