No easy answers to pastoral questions on assisted suicides

By Nancy Frazier O’Brien

prepares for the legalization of assisted suicide throughout the country in
June and nearly half of the U.S. states take up some kind of legislative
proposal on the topic this year, questions arise about its pastoral

What should a hospital chaplain
do if confronted with a patient who expresses a determination to use assisted
suicide? Can anointing of the sick be given to such a patient? How do pastors
decide whether a person who carried out an assisted suicide should receive a
Catholic funeral?

Experts in Catholic health care
and ethics seem to have reached agreement on the answer to those questions: It

“At this point in time, you
really can’t give an answer,” said Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of
Charity who headed hospitals in Florida and the District of Columbia before
becoming president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association in 2005.

“If someone confessed or
told a priest about their individual situation, their individual culpability
about the decision remains between the person and God, and the priest cannot
talk about it,” she added. “I don’t think we ought to ever decide what
should happen in the internal forum between the mercy of God and a priest
working with someone.”

Marie T. Hilliard, director of
bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in
Philadelphia, also said the question is not a matter of ethics but of “the
governance of the church in terms of access to sacraments.”

“The denial of absolution
is not at all our call at the NCBC, nor the call of any one ethicist, but the
judgment of the confessor at the time, considering the intention of the
penitent to reform,” she said.

Assisted suicide is currently
legal in Oregon, Vermont, Montana and Washington state. A California law
allowing assisted suicide takes effect June 9 and a Canadian court order
permits it throughout the country beginning June 6. An effort to bring the
California law before the voters failed to gain the 365,880 signatures needed
to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot.

In Canada, Archbishop Terrence
Prendergast of Ottawa, Ontario, did not specifically address the pastoral
implications of assisted suicide in a letter read at all Masses in the
archdiocese March 5-6. But he said, “From not only a Catholic perspective
but any rational perspective, the intentional, willful act of killing oneself
or another human being is clearly morally wrong.”

He quoted the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, which says, “Whatever its motives and means, direct
euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or
dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.”

“To formally cooperate in
the killing of the disabled, frail, sick or suffering, even if motivated by a
misplaced compassion, requires a prior judgment that such lives do not have
value and are not worth living,” the archbishop added. “But all human
life has value.”

In an interview with Canadian
Catholic News, Archbishop Prendergast said those who choose to participate in
assisted suicide do not have “the proper disposition for the anointing of
the sick.”

“The rite is for people who
are gravely ill or labor under the burden of years, and it contains the
forgiveness of sins as part of the rite,” he added. “But we cannot be
forgiven pre-emptively for something we are going to do, like ask for assisted
suicide when suicide is a grave sin.”

The Code of Canon Law says
anointing of the sick “is not to be conferred upon those who persevere
obstinately in manifest grave sin.” But the 1983 code now in effect
dropped a norm from the 1917 code that had denied a Catholic funeral to those
“who killed themselves by deliberate counsel.”

At least one canon lawyer thinks
the practice of denying a Catholic funeral should be revived in two specific
cases — to the murderer in murder/suicides and to “suicides committed in
accord with civil euthanasia laws.”

In a March 29 email to Catholic
News Service, Edward Peters, who holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka chair at
Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, affirmed the views about assisted
suicide he outlined in a 2013 posting on his blog, “In Light of the Law: A
Canon Lawyer’s Blog.”

“A key point of these
(civil assisted suicide) laws is to rule out suicide motivated by depression,
mistaken prognosis, third-party pressures and so on,” he wrote. “In
other words, the observance of these laws eliminates the very factors upon
which ministers can base their doubts about one’s personal culpability for
self-slaughter and grant the church’s funeral rites to those killing

Peters was commenting
specifically in that blog post on the case of 45-year-old deaf twins Marc and
Eddy Verbessem, who requested lethal injection in Belgium after learning that
they would go blind at some point in the future. Belgium’s assisted suicide law
does not require that a patient be terminally ill before making such a request
but only that he or she be suffering “unbearable pain.” The twins’
brother Dirk told news media that the thought of being dependent on others was
unbearable to them.

By committing suicide together,
“I think they plainly and publicly committed a gravely sinful act, left a
horrid example to others facing these or similar physical challenges and
contributed mightily to society’s growing assumption that the disabled are
better off killing themselves,” Peters wrote.

Both Archbishop Prendergast and
Sister Carol stressed in their comments that hospital and church personnel must
help Catholics understand church teaching on end-of-life decisions and the fact
that there is no obligation to undergo what the CHA president called
“massive amounts of intrusive but futile care.”

“We see that as our
responsibility. We are finding over and over again that there are
misunderstandings about dying and that the church’s teaching gets
misrepresented and misunderstood,” she said. “People need and deserve
an understanding that whether they are fully in control of their thought
processes and their faculties, their wishes and autonomy are going to be
respected. Dying patients have a right to make those choices” or designate
someone to make those decisions for them.

Archbishop Prendergast said in
his letter that the church “does not advocate prolonging life at any cost.
Rather, the church is guided by the principle of the quality of life that
considers the whole person and not simply keeping the body going no matter

“As rational Catholic
Christians,” he wrote, “we ask the question in evaluating whether or
not to accept life-prolonging treatment: Is there a reasonable hope of benefit
without excessive pain, expense or other serious problem?”

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