Euthanasia (/Assisted Dying/Assisted Suicide) is now legal in New Zealand. If you want to die there today, there is now someone to help you along your way with all the compassion and kindness of the law. The crucial vote took place a year ago, so Christians have had plenty of time to formulate their responses to the new context (/’culture of death’).
The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference has issued the helpful document entitled Ministers of Consolation and Hope, which explains the mission imperative:
The law change provides us with an opportunity to renew our commitment to the dignity of every person in practical ways: advocating for equitably available effective palliative care; forming outward looking parishes that reach out to the lonely, sick, elderly and disabled and their whānau; supporting in prayer and other ways those who are engaged in caring for people at the end of life, including those contemplating assisted dying.
The key phrase is “supporting in prayer and other ways“, for those other ways extend to something quite extraordinary.
There is no compulsion upon Roman Catholic priests whose consciences are opposed to ‘Assisted Dying’ to participate in or to facilitate in any way the death of someone who has chosen to their life, but a priest who will not anoint and give the Last Rites to someone choosing euthanasia must find another priest who will.
4. vii. Similarly, it is proper that the Church’s sacraments – encounters with God – are provided to the person who requests them. In accordance with pastoral practice in other areas, the sacraments should only ever be declined in those very rare cases when someone seeks them in bad faith. All ministers are entitled to presume that a person asking for the sacraments does so in good faith.
7.ii. If an individual priest, chaplain, pastoral worker, healthcare professional or caregiver decides that there is a limit to their ability to accompany a person seeking assisted dying, such a decision should be fully respected. At the same time, they should ensure that provision is made for the person to be accompanied by another.
The rationale for this:
The introduction of euthanasia in Aotearoa New Zealand presents a renewed opportunity for the Catholic community, working in collaboration with many others, to put into practice the loving and compassionate consequences of our belief in the inviolable dignity of all human life.
May Mary, Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows), accompany all those who humbly and generously remain alongside the dying through the last stages of their earthly life. Their enduring commitment points to God’s unconditional love for every person and our great hope for eternal life.
If a priest believes in the inviolable dignity of all human life, why are they obliged to ‘accompany’ those who choose freely to end that life, or find a priest who will do so? Presumably, the Catholic priest is not at liberty to find a friendly Protestant to administer the Last Rites to a euthanasia-bound Roman Catholic (for they exist), but is obliged to find a fellow Roman Catholic priest whose conscience permits it (if they exist). And if the one who has chosen to die is not Roman Catholic, the priest “should ensure that provision is made for the person to be accompanied by another”.
You may argue that this is simply the pastoral expression of compassion and kindness, but a priest ‘distancing’ himself from the deed with a convenient vicarious commissioning is still complicit in the deed. And where is the place for repentance and salvation? May priests who ‘accompany’ those who are intent on dying not seek to change their minds by telling them how much they are loved? May they not speak of hope and healing? May they not talk to them about the value of life and the sanctity of life and the sovereignty of God?
Or would such ‘accompaniment’ cease to be compassionate and kind?
1.i Accompanying someone who is expressing a desire for assisted dying does not imply moral agreement by the accompanier. Nor does it ask us to suspend our own belief in the Church’s expressed teaching on euthanasia. Rather, accompaniment ensures that no one is abandoned to desolation (cf. Spe Salvi, 38). It calls pastoral carers to enter into a liminal space where the Church’s beliefs about euthanasia sit alongside its teaching about accompaniment and consolation.
What if the one who has chosen to die is not in full possession of their faculties? Certainly, the medical practitioners who are doing the assisting of the dying must be satisfied that they are, but what if the attending priest is of the view that anyone who chooses to end their life has lost, at least in part, some critical faculty of mind?
What if the priest is not persuaded that the one who has chosen to die understands that they are about to meet God and give account for their lives? What if, in administering the sacraments for the last time, there is scant understanding of the grave consequences of mortal sin? Does not euthanasia mean automatic excommunication? Must the priest then ‘accompany’ them on their path to Purgatory or to Hell, or find someone else who will abandon them to desolation?
Or is belief in eternal life and a day of judgment somehow ‘suspended’?
Would the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference issue guidance to a priest ‘accompanying’ a woman to an abortion? Would they write: ‘When someone contemplating termination of a pregnancy requests spiritual accompaniment from a priest, chaplain or pastoral worker, their desire for a compassionate companion is already a sign of good intent’? If a priest truly believes in the inviolable dignity of all human life, what is the difference between the baby in the womb and one who seeks euthanasia?
Why has the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference reduced priests to being accompanying ministers of death who may not actually speak of hope, healing, life and salvation? Why have they limited the work of God to words and not the whole pattern of thought which they imply? Is euthanasia unconditionally inconsistent with biblical ethics, or does the absence of explicit condemnation in biblical texts admit the possibility of divine approbation? What is the status of these ecclesiastical “Principles and Guidelines” in the worldwide Catholic Church?