Giving absolution for a sin about to be committed is not something clergy or bishops should be encouraging. Photo/Max Pixel

Opinion: Atlantic bishops' reflection on assisted suicide fails in its approach

  • December 14, 2016

Earlier this fall, the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories released guidelines to help priests offer pastoral care to individuals and families contemplating voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. The guidelines were fully Catholic, comprehensive, compassionate and courageous, as detailed then by Peter Stockland in these pages.

As a parish priest, I found those guidelines were eminently practical, offering guidance for concrete situations, and underscoring that when eternal salvation or damnation is at stake in a matter of days, a pastor must be moved by the urgency of conversion.

The media caricature that the Alberta bishops were refusing the sacraments and funerals to those who chose assisted suicide was flat out wrong. The guidelines urged pastors to leave no stone unturned — including personal fasting in such cases! — to obtain the grace of conversion for those choosing what is always a grave sin. But the Alberta bishops acknowledged that sacramental absolution cannot be offered to those fully, consciously determined to take their own life in the near future, or that of another.

Ten bishops of the Atlantic Episcopal Assembly have now issued “A Pastoral Reflection on Medical Assistance in Dying.” It is brief — just three pages — and does not offer any practical guidance for concrete situations. It is an exhortation to pastors to accompany the suffering with compassion and dialogue.

“To one and all we wish to say that the pastoral care of souls cannot be reduced to norms for the reception of the sacraments or the celebration of funeral rites,” the bishops write. “Persons, and their families, who may be considering euthanasia or assisted suicide and who request the ministry of the Church need to be accompanied with dialogue and compassionate prayerful support. The fruit of such a pastoral encounter will shed light on complex pastoral situations and will indicate the most appropriate action to be taken including whether or not the celebration of sacraments is proper.”

Of course pastoral care “cannot be reduced” to the norms, but it certainly must include them, as the bishops recognize implicitly when they raise the question of whether “the celebration of the sacraments is proper.” What priests need is some additional, practical help in making that determination. That’s why the Alberta bishops document, at more than 10 times the length, is helpful in working through practical situations in which the sacraments would be proper and when they would not. The Atlantic document, in contrast, is not an adequate response that would actually help priests do what their bishops are telling them that they should do.

The Atlantic document reads like the introduction to a longer text, not a complete text in itself. Much is left out. It encourages priests to imitate Pope Francis in the “art of accompaniment” but says nothing of the Holy Father’s consistent and insistent condemnations of a “throwaway” society. Offering the sick and disabled euthanasia and suicide is a clear example of just that.

It presents Jesus on the road to Emmaus as the model of pastoral engagement, though I doubt very much it intends for priests to reprimand those asking for suicide in the manner of Jesus: “How foolish you are and slow to believe!”

The Atlantic document speaks of “medical assistance in dying (as) a highly complex and intensely emotional issue which profoundly affects all of us” but offers an analysis that is neither complex nor intense.

Above all, the Atlantic document suffers from an approach that would be unimaginable if it were applied to any other serious moral issue. For example, take one of the sins that cries out to Heaven: defrauding a worker of his wages (cf. James 5:4). Consider an employer who had decided upon some maneuver that would deprive his workers of their wages, but asked for absolution beforehand, still determined to so defraud the workers the day after tomorrow. If all this is known, what would the bishops advise? Likely they would say more than what their pastoral reflection states: “The Sacrament of Penance is for the forgiveness of past sins, not the ones that have yet to be committed…” More likely they would suggest that sacramental absolution was not possible until a time of greater conversion and purpose of amendment.

Finally, it is off-putting to read bishops, in a formal document, write of “medical assistance in dying.” It is an Orwellian construction designed by those who wish to disguise the enormity of what is being done — the killing, voluntary or otherwise, of the sick by the very doctors and nurses pledged to care for them.

Ontario’s bishops have yet to formally produce guidelines. “People Look East” is a popular Advent hymn. Not on this matter. Go west, dear bishops, go west.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine:

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