Although Payne and other institute leaders are still working out a specific agenda for coming projects, they have no shortage of ideas. They plan to push for changes in end-of-life care—and views of what it means to die a good death—through health care systems, churches, academia, popular culture, and other institutions across our society.
“One of our missions is to contribute to public discourse on caring for our fellow human beings who are terminally ill and dying, and to explore ways that faith-based communities will contribute to caring for them,” Payne says.
One possibility is a competition to encourage filming of movies that tell the stories of people who managed to live well and transform others in the face of death. Payne plans to work with Duke faculty and staff who have expertise in film and intends to work with other national programs in this regard.
The idea is to share widely inspirational stories that show death as an inevitable part of the cycle of life rather than a cause of debilitating fear.
“People can learn that you can live while dying,” Payne says. “You can transcend the terror of dying. There are people who have created entire branches of mathematics while they were dying. The experience of dying has moved people closer to God.”
Another possibility, Payne says, is a partnership between the institute and St. John’s Health System, a Detroit-based system with strong ties to the Catholic Church. The ultimate goal would be to improve access and quality of end-of-life care, and to affect both caregivers and patients.
Details of the project still must be worked out, but that process is exciting to Payne.
“How do we inculcate the values inherent in Catholicism and translate them so they inform specifically the way all patients who are dying and are seriously ill are cared for?” he asks. “There are good things that can come about from that. Look at what Mother Teresa did.”
Verhey, who has worked with the institute, seeks many of the same ends through his work in the classroom and through publishing.
“Our community needs to be less about the denial of death,” he says. “We need to form communities for the dying and for those who will care for them.”
Such communities should be able to help families address both practical details, such as determining power of attorney before a medical crisis reaches its apex, and spiritual needs.
Verhey also points out that suffering and dying are part of the human condition. Despite its best efforts with technology, humanity will not master nature or overcome mortality, he says.
“If we did eliminate our mortality, we’d be taking the human condition out of the human condition,” he says. “One of the problems is the medicalization of dying. We tend to think that dying is about medicine—and its failures. We think that the story is about medicine and about mastering nature, but, for Christians, the story we want to tell and own of our dying is always the story of Scripture.”
As they agree about inadequacies in current care systems, Verhey and Payne also agree that the partnership of church and medical communities has the power to change the way people live and die. Creating that partnership in the most effective way will take a great amount of study, reflection and collaboration. But that intersection is where these two scholars say they will make their mark.
“Medical centers and communities of faith need to come together in new ways,” Verhey says. “We all can find something instructive in this. That’s so much richer than these communities working alone.”
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