Alberta N.O. bishops: Priests may need to deny sacraments to Catholics who seek euthanasia
While the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada does not alter the truth that these acts are “gravely immoral,” it is “foreseeable” that priests will receive requests for the sacraments from Catholics contemplating these actions, the Alberta and NWT bishops stated in a document released Wednesday.
As well as requests for confession and anointing of the sick from Catholics who might have arranged for or are considering assisted suicide or euthanasia, or from their families, priests can also expect requests for Catholic funerals “for persons who have been killed by these practices,” noted the 34-page “Vademecum for Priests and Parishes.”
“How are we to respond with a pastoral care that at once expresses the Church’s deep concern for the salvation of souls and safeguards the dignity of the sacraments and the nature of her funeral rites?” wrote the six bishops, who are responsible for more than one million Catholics in five dioceses.
The document outlines the obligations of a priest when asked to confer the sacrament of penance or anointing of the sick in various scenarios, such as hearing the confession of a Catholic who has already requested assisted suicide or euthanasia, or is contemplating it — including the priest’s duty to uphold the inviolability of the seal of confession, and under what circumstance he must defer or deny absolution.
The latter would be called for if a penitent has “officially requested physician assisted suicide or euthanasia” and therefore is in an “objective state of sin,” having “incited and socially arranged for someone to kill them.”
The document notes:
If the penitent, having been made aware of the gravity of the situation, is open to learning the Church’s teaching on this issue, and open to reconsidering the decision, the priest can absolve. There is at least the beginning of contrition, a willingness to reconsider and thus possibly rectify their situation.If they are not open at least to prayerfully considering the rescinding of their request – now that they know it is a grave sin – they would be choosing to do something gravely wrong, that is to say, deciding to remain in a situation of sin rather than seek to amend their life. In this case, the minister would need to delay absolution to a later time when the person may be properly disposed.
“Penitential fasting” for conversion recommended
In the Vademecum, the bishops consistently emphasize the possibility that those planning an assisted suicide or euthanasia, or of collaborating in these evil acts, will convert, and they frequently recommend prayer and “penitential fasting” by priest and laity to that end.
The spiritual peril in which such people are found requires the pastor of souls to accompany them with every effort and in fervent prayer. The priest must first engage such persons with compassion, being careful to listen attentively and receptively to them.It is vitally important … that the priest act with as much compassion and firm gentleness as possible in assuring the penitent that he and the Church will pray for their salvation. Indeed, it is fitting that the priest inform the penitent that he will be praying constantly for their turning away from such a sin.Perhaps even the offering of penitential fasting by the confessor and other members of Christ’s faithful for the conversion of this individual might stir even the most intransigent of persons to repentance and conversion.Every effort must be made to bring the flame of faith to life. Neither, however, is there to be a passivity before such a decision even in the face of seeming serenity. The prompting of the Holy Spirit leads “into all truth” and so the truth must be proclaimed and proposed.
The bishops also cautioned against causing scandal, which could be the effect, for example, if the individual requesting anointing of the sick had publicly declared an intention to be killed by assisted suicide or euthanasia.
It must be very clear to all that the Anointing does not in any way convey blessing upon or permission for the commission of any sin, in particular the sin of voluntary suicide through the assistance of a physician or other agent.If this understanding is not manifestly clear to the priest, he should seriously consider the denial or deferral of Anointing, and instead offer to pray with the person for God’s gift of healing. In the latter case, the priest must assure the person of continued prayers and offer spiritual counselling.
“Truth also demands that the sick person be aware of the consequences if the last gift a person can offer those around them – namely, showing them how to die – is in fact a scandal,” the Vademecum stated.
“The priest should assure the person that he will walk with them and help them offer as final earthly act of love the witness of a holy death,” and the “offer of assurance that the priest and the community of Christ’s faithful will be present to the dying person should be confidently made.”
Denying a Catholic funeral may be necessary
The possibility of causing scandal also arises if a Catholic funeral is requested for a person killed through assisted suicide or euthanasia, write the bishops.
The Church does celebrate Christian funerals for people who committed suicide, because people “are not able to judge the reason the person has taken that decision or the disposition of their heart,” they write.
But in the case of a death from assisted suicide or euthanasia, “more can sometimes be known of the disposition of the person and the freedom of the chronically ill man or woman, particularly if it is high-profile or notorious. In such cases, it may not be possible to celebrate a Christian funeral.”
“If the Church were to refuse a funeral to someone, it is not to punish the person but to recognize his or her decision – a decision that has brought him or her to an action that is contrary to the Christian faith, that is somehow notorious and public, and would do harm to the Christian community and the larger culture.”
The bishops note:
There may also be the case, however, of a family or friends that wish the funeral rites to be an occasion to celebrate the decision of their loved one to die by assisted suicide or euthanasia and thus to promote these practices as acceptable. This would be truly scandalous, as it would be an encouragement to others to engage in the evil that is euthanasia and assisted suicide. Such a request for funeral rites must be gently but firmly denied.