By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
Illustrated and illuminated by Church teaching, a free resource is now available to help Indiana Catholics express their health care wishes in advance if they are one day unable to do so themselves.
“A Catholic Guide to an Advance Directive” is a booklet designed to help individuals and families navigate complex medical, emotional and spiritual issues surrounding treatment preferences and end-of-life care.
“This resource gives clear direction about these issues from a Catholic moral teaching perspective,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), which produced the booklet. “We hope it can be a helpful guide for individuals, family members and even entire parishes, and we want everyone to know that it’s available free of charge from the ICC.”
The booklet includes background on moral and ethical considerations for Catholics regarding health care decision-making. It outlines and includes two copies of an Indiana Catholic advance directive, which is a document allowing individuals to state their health care preferences in the event of a serious illness or life-threatening situation, particularly when the person is rendered incapacitated.
“Advance directives are a way to give your family peace of mind,” said Dr. Elliott Bedford, an ethicist based at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. “They’re a means of helping you think about and express what you want so that your family doesn’t have to guess.”
Bedford, Ascension Indiana director of ethics integration, emphasized that, ideally, conversations about health care wishes should occur long before a family is faced with a dire medical situation.
“This is something that prudent, responsible adulthood calls us to do,” Bedford said. “Advance care planning is not just about end-of-life issues.”
Bedford said completing an advance directive – particularly appointing a designated health care representative – should be a priority for everyone once they reach adulthood at 18.
“The first question I ask people to consider is, ‘Who will speak for you if you couldn’t speak for yourself?’ That person would have to speak in the patient’s voice,” Bedford said. “So first, designate that person, and then tell that person and everyone else who might be involved, ‘These are the things I would want.’
“People don’t even have to focus on specific medical treatments. Instead, they should talk about their goals. ‘I want to see my daughter graduate from high school. I want to see her get married.’ It’s about what you find meaningful and valuable in life.”
Bedford, a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Indiana, praised the content and design of the resource, which he said reflects “the beautiful guidance of the Catholic Church in its long tradition.” The cover art is “The Death of St. Joseph,” a 19th-century painting depicting the Holy Family as St. Joseph departs his earthly life with the Virgin Mary and Jesus at his side.
The booklet is an updated version of a 2007 ICC resource. The revisions reflect legislation that passed the Indiana General Assembly in 2021 when lawmakers simplified and streamlined state law concerning advance directives.
“Respect for the dignity of life is the basis of Catholic social teaching,” said Angela Espada, ICC executive director, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “Respecting the dignity of those who may not be able to care for or speak for themselves is crucial. We supported lawmakers’ efforts two years ago to eliminate much of the confusion that had existed with regard to advance directives. Now people can appoint a representative with the certainty that their faith-directed wishes will be adhered to by that representative.”
Dr. Daniel Capes, a hospice and palliative medicine specialist with Community Health Network in Indianapolis, guides families through these conversations.
“Medical care – particularly as one develops a chronic illness or is potentially nearing their end of life – gets really, really complicated,” Capes said.
For Catholics, Capes added, there are moral questions to consider based on Church teaching, which makes the ICC resource particularly helpful. Capes said there are many misconceptions about where the Church stands on certain issues, with people often assuming that life must be preserved at all costs.
“The Church does a beautiful job of upholding life and the dignity of life balanced with individual autonomy,” said Capes, a member of St. Joan of Arc and Holy Rosary parishes in Indianapolis.
Like Bedford, Capes encourages people to discuss their medical wishes long before the need arises.
“Ideally, you shouldn’t be in a crisis to have these conversations,” Capes said. “The number-one thing I always tell people, no matter how old they are, is to at least have a health care representative or a health care power of attorney. It doesn’t have to be a spouse or even a family member. It can be a friend. But it must be someone who knows you very well.”
For those nearing the end of life, Capes said that proper advance planning offers tremendous comfort for patients and their loved ones.
“It’s incredibly beautiful to see a person who is ready for death and at peace about it,” he said.
To receive a free print copy of “A Catholic Guide to an Advance Directive,” email [email protected] or call 317-236-1458. Electronic versions are available in English and Spanish at indianacc.org/bishopsstatements.