The Pope -- long seen as an uncompromising upholder of the sanctity of human life -- has unexpectedly expressed support for the right to die. His comments follow the case of Miss B, the paralyzed British woman who won a legal battle in the London High Court last week to have her life-support machine turned off.
Pope John Paul II has been a staunch opponent of euthanasia, considered by the Catholic Church as usurping God's role in the creation and ending of human life. The Vatican has also bitterly opposed any experiments on fetuses as well as abortion.
However, speaking to an international delegation of doctors in Rome, the Pope said doctors should not always use medical science to prolong the lives of their patients. Instead, he said that educating people to a serene acceptance of death was part of a doctor's mission.
"Certainly one cannot forget that man is a mortal being," the Pope said. "There are limits that cannot be humanly surpassed; in these cases one must accept one's human condition with serenity, which the believer is able to interpret in the light of divine will."
The Pope, 81, is suffering from several ailments including symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Ten years ago he had surgery on a bowel tumor.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Britain said that the Pope's support for the right to die did not represent a change of doctrine.
"The Church does not say that you have to keep someone alive at all costs -- but you should not take steps to deliberately shorten a life," the spokesman said.