Time Magazine is Irresponsible for Printing Pope John Paul II Euthanasia Article

Published September 26, 2007

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Time Magazine has published a story that suggests John Paul II may have been euthanized by his doctors at his own request.

The article is blatantly irresponsible, for the reasons I will explain below. But of even greater journalistic concern are the author’s false statements about what the Catholic Church teaches regarding end-of-life care.

It would be in the magazine’s best interest to issue a public retraction of its error.

Blatantly Irresponsible

With the provocative title “Was John Paul II Euthanized?” Time editors have lobbed suspicion into the public square about the late pontiff’s personal integrity.

We are made to wonder if John Paul II practiced what he preached. The world knew him as the great defender of the dignity of human life, from the moment of conception until natural death, but according to Time’s report, when the going got tough, John Paul II himself may have thrown in the towel.

This would be a great story if it were true. The facts say it’s not.

Time regurgitates an article written by Italian medical professor Dr. Lina Pavanelli. She claims John Paul II did not die of natural causes, but rather by what the Catholic Church itself would consider euthanasia. Dr. Pavanelli says that from what she could see on television, the Pontiff was losing weight and had difficulty swallowing. Therefore, doctors should have inserted a feeding tube into the ailing patient much sooner than they did. Because she trusts that her medical colleagues who attended to the Pope would have offered him good advice, she surmises the Pope must have rejected the feeding tube with the intention of accelerating his own death.

The problem is Dr. Pavanelli — Time’s only source for this bombshell accusation — had no personal contact with the patient and no access to his medical records.

And everyone who did … says she is wrong. In Italy, her article was overlooked as bad science and good (so to speak) politics.

Time Magazine knows this. In fact, they quote John Paul II’s personal physician, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, as saying, “His treatment was never interrupted. Anyone who says it was is mistaken.” The magazine also notes that, according to Dr. Buzzonetti, a permanent nasal feeding tube was inserted three days before the Pope’s death … as soon as he could no longer sufficiently ingest food or liquids.

That would seem like good timing.

Even if the Pope’s personal doctor were telling fibs, as Time must logically insinuate, one would have to wonder why John Paul II would have rejected a feeding tube at first, only to accept it three days before his death, if his hypocritical plan was to accelerate his own departure.

Oh how quickly we forget! The world watched John Paul die. Those of us in the media listened to the daily news briefs about his medical condition. For the doubters among us, Dr. Buzzonetti even provided a public death certificate.

April 2, 2005, in Rome, 9:37 p.m. local time. Cause of death? Septic shock and cardio circulatory collapse.

With such clarity form the ones in the know, why such cynicism from Time?

Yesterday I spoke by phone with Time reporter Jeff Israely. He assured me neither he nor his editors had ill intent: “There is a fine line between creating an open discussion and doing a story just for the sake of scandalous controversy. I hope this article isn’t seen as such.”

I don’t doubt Jeff’s righteous intent. I know him and respect his journalistic work. But in this case, I am dismayed by Time’s journalistic judgment. For whatever reason, they chose to give one weak source — a very weak source — a global megaphone to call into question the character and courage of John Paul II.

False Statements

Perhaps of greater journalistic concern than the blatant irresponsibility described above, are the article’s false statements about what the Catholic Church teaches about end-of-life care.

The Time article sets up the case for John Paul II’s alleged hypocrisy with this statement: “Catholics are enjoined to pursue all means to prolong life.”

This is false. It’s good for the story, but it’s not true. Time Magazine will never find such a pronouncement in any official teaching of the Catholic Church. On the contrary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, commissioned and approved by Pope John Paul II, clarifies that our moral obligation to preserve life in its last stages does not include applying extraordinary or disproportional means:

“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted.” (#2278)

Time was eager to publish this report in order to draw us into a debate over Pope Benedict XVI’s recent clarification that the administration of food and water to a patient, even by artificial means, in principle, should be considered ordinary medical treatment, and therefore, should not be withheld from a patient. The clarification was seen as the Vatican’s definitive response to the Terri Schiavo case.

Fair enough. Debate is good, especially on issues which are rarely black and white. But let’s base our debate on facts.

For the sake of journalistic integrity, it would be in Time Magazine’s best interest to issue a public retraction of its error.

We’ll be watching.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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