With doctor-assisted suicide now legal in Quebec and available across Canada to anyone granted permission from a Superior Court judge, bishops and pastors will face new pastoral dilemmas.
Can they give the sacrament of the sick to someone intent on having a doctor end their life? Can the church allow them a Catholic funeral and burial in consecrated ground?
“Somebody comes to you and says, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to get the needle and I would like the sacrament of the sick.’ How are we going to handle those kinds of questions?” asked Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Bishop Douglas Crosby.
Through most of church history people who committed suicide were buried outside of consecrated ground and denied a funeral mass and other forms of prayer. They had, by virtue of their act, excommunicated themselves.
But by the middle of the 20th century the evolution of psychology led to the understanding that the minds of people suffering depression, addiction and other mental disease endured enormous internal pressures. The usual pastoral judgment became that suicides were not freely chosen and salvation remained possible. Mercy for those who kill themselves is reflected in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide,” reads paragraph 2282. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.”
Yet mercy is different from the morality of taking a life — even your own. “Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope and charity,” reads paragraph 2325. “It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.”
Church teaching against murder and suicide has been constant throughout history.
“From the earliest times in the church there were three sins never allowed — murder, adultery and apostasy,” said Regis College moral theologian John Berkman. “Suicide is just a 17th-century term for self-murder, at least if done freely. To tell people that self-murder can be OK is scandal in the traditional Catholic meaning of the term.”
Scandal, defined in the catechism as a grave offence, an attitude or behaviour which leads another to do evil, is a major concern expressed by the Quebec bishops in a December pastoral letter reacting to that province’s new “medical aid in dying” law.
“ ‘Medical aid in dying’ is in truth euthanasia on demand,” wrote Bishop Paul Lortie, Quebec Assembly of Bishops president. “This is not care and should never be associated in any way whatsoever with true end-of-life care, that is palliative care.”
A year ago the Supreme Court ruled that to access a doctor’s help to commit suicide the applicant must be judged of sound mind and there must be reasonable assurance the choice is free and informed. This rigid criteria makes it difficult for a pastor, however merciful, to say that someone who opts for assisted suicide meets the catechism standard for “psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship.” So should these people be buried in unconsecrated ground and denied a funeral mass?
“There are so many things that would go into a decision like that,” said Crosby. “You wouldn’t just sit down and make a decision on the brute facts.”
Crosby does not foresee a national policy on how to bury suicides. That is up to individual bishops. But he expects bishops would seek expert opinion from theologians, Crosby said.
“It is a pastoral question,” said moral theologian Rev. Leo Walsh of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute at Assumption University in Windsor. “But part of that pastoral question is the notion of scandal. That should not be something that the individual priest has to deal with. That should be a diocesan thing.”
Given guidelines a priest should “be able to make prudent, pastoral and merciful judgments” that consider the full picture, Walsh said.
“What you’re dealing with can be loved ones who were against this,” he said. “You know you’re hurting them badly (denying the family a funeral in church),” said Walsh. “Not only are the people dealing with suicide, which is awful, but then rejection by the church, which is a double whammy.”
Crosby believes every case must be decided individually and pastorally. Pastors are caught between the poles of mercy and the true meaning of suicide.
“You would have to know what was going on — what was going on in their minds and their hearts. Are they rejecting their faith? What are they doing?” said Crosby.
For Berkman, there may be “issues of invincible ignorance” to be considered.
“I’m not necessarily going to say flat out, ‘Kill yourself and you’re damned,’ ” he said. “But you certainly don’t want to give the opposite impression that if you kill yourself everything is OK.”
When government and popular opinion are in favour of death as the solution to suffering, the church must provide a counter-witness, Berkman said.
“We cannot judge conscience, ever,” he said. “We just cannot do that. It’s not that we think this person has obviously died in mortal sin and therefore they’re going to hell.”
At the same time, the scandal of suicide can not be ignored.
“What we could be doing by giving Catholic funeral rites would be saying that there’s nothing wrong with suicide itself,” Berkman warned. “To say it’s ultimately OK would fundamentally undermine the church’s witness against the culture of death and euthanasia more generally. I would be shocked if the Canadian church capitulated on this one, and I wouldn’t want them to.”