The state’s religious communities are divided over what is perhaps the most profound question on this year’s ballot: Should people nearing the end of terminal illnesses be allowed to obtain a prescription drug to end their lives?
The largest religious force in Massachusetts, the Roman Catholic Church, has come out squarely against the referendum, as have other prominent faith voices. A handful of smaller denominations support the measure known as Question 2.
But some umbrella faith organizations remain loath to stake out a position, reflecting, they say, the range of opinion among their membership on an issue that proponents refer to as “death with dignity’’ and opponents call “doctor-assisted suicide.’’
“It points to the diversity of political and ethical positions within the life of the church right now,’’ said the Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an ecumenical partnership of 17 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, referring to the lack of consensus within the council’s membership. “With complex theological issues that have public policy expression, there are Christians of strong conscience and faith who disagree.’’
Rarely does the political system confront matters of life and death so directly. With Election Day less than two months away, many religious leaders are intensifying their focus on the question.
The Catholic church is waging an all-out battle against what it calls a “grotesque threat to the elderly and sick.’’ The church teaches that human life is sacred from conception to natural death,and that suicide in any form is a grave sin.
“We are called to comfort the sick, not to help them take their own lives,’’ Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said in a video homily played in churches across the archdiocese this year.
The church is educating parishioners about what it sees as flaws in the proposal through brochures, workshops, pew cards, and even a town hall meeting on Catholic TV. It has also been reaching out to other faiths to discuss the issue.
Campaign finance reports released Monday show that Catholic and conservative Christian organizations from outside the state have contributed most of the $900,000 raised by the main committee against the question, the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide.
Dignity 2012, the committee in favor of the question, has raised about $310,000, from a combination of out-of-state supporters and groups and individual Massachusetts donors.
In the broadest terms, the teachings of most forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam oppose ending life before natural death.
Eight prominent Reform rabbis began circulating a letter to their colleagues Monday arguing in a gentle tone against the ballot question, which would allow a coherent patient who is expected to survive six months or less to ask a physician for life-ending medication.
“Although Reform Judaism gives personal autonomy great weight, Judaism has always understood that life is a gift and that ultimately life belongs to God,’’ the letter says.
Opposition is not uniform. A few denominations, like the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, with about 22,000 members in Massachusetts, officially support the concept. The Unitarians and other mainline Protestant denominations typically do not take positions on specific state proposals.
And, in an age when many ecclesiastical hierarchies are weakening, in a country where many people are used to filtering religious beliefs through personal and secular lenses, individual clergy and congregants do not necessarily follow the lead of church officials.
The national Episcopal Church, for example, officially opposes physician-assisted suicide. But the Rev. Daphne B. Noyes, a deacon at the Church of the Advent in Boston and a hospital chaplain, said her work with dying people and their families has led her to believe the option should be available under rigorously limited circumstances that ensure that participation by all parties is voluntary and deliberate.
“Looking at the ethical principles, this is one of autonomy and justice,’’ she said.
The Jewish Community Relations Council is also declining to take sides. Instead, said executive director Jeremy Burton, the group is focusing on raising awareness about the question, which is a challenge in a presidential election year when there are also Senate and congressional races competing for voters’ attention.
The implications of voters’ decision on the November ballot question could be significant: Both sides of the issue see Massachusetts as a test for whether similar measures could succeed outside the Pacific Northwest, where Oregon and Washington are the only states where voters have approved similar referendums.
For religious people, the issue raises theological questions surrounding the holiness of life, the nature of human dignity, and the process of dying.
“Ultimately, the moment of death is not for us to decide,’’ said Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Sinai in Brookline, who signed the rabbis’ letter. “That’s the gift of the spiritual tradition to say it’s ultimately God’s choice.’’
But many clergy also draw on their experiences over years spent at the bedsides of dying people and their families.
In seminary, the Rev. Tim Kutzmark, a Unitarian-Universalist minister in Reading, wrote an impassioned paper against allowing the terminally ill to hasten death by prescription. He argued that God never gives people more suffering than they can handle. Then he got ordained and watched death up close.
“I’ve really changed,’’ he said. “I believe that death is a highly personal experience, and it can be excruciating and drawn out for the individual who is ill and for their families. Sometimes what is best and right for the individual is to claim that moment of death for themselves, knowing they are freeing themselves from . . . needless pain and suffering.’’
Joseph T. Baerlein, president of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, is handling strategy for the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide. Baerlein, who claims an undefeated record in running ballot campaigns, helped liquor wholesalers win a come-from-behind ballot question victory in 2006, when grocers wanted to be able to sell beer and wine. He did it by enlisting the support of law enforcement officials, who saw the issue as one of public safety.
He said the committee will focus on harnessing the opposition to Question 2 from the state’s medical community, whose professional associations are largely aligned against the measure. Opponents, he said, will emphasize what they see as flaws in the way the bill is written. For example, patients are not required to consult with a mental health practitioner to make sure they are not suffering from depression.
“With no disrespect to any religion, in the world we live in, we say, ‘How do you get to 51 percent?’ ’’ he said. “The fact is, this state is more secular than religious.’’