I have recently received several communications expressing concern about the supposed decision of the Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories to deny funerals to anyone who has died by assisted suicide. The decision is often portrayed as cold and heartless and even as a pastoral abandonment of a suffering family at a very difficult time. Many people express deep hurt and anger over this decision.
After hearing people's concerns, my first question is, “Have you read the document, or just the media reports?”
Fellow Catholics, if you learn anything from this episode, let it be this: whenever the media reports something about the church that makes you confused or frustrated, check the sources.
While some media outlets have been more careful than others, it is certainly fair to say that the impression most Canadians have is that the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories have pronounced that no one who has died by assisted suicide will be permitted a Catholic funeral.
This is simply untrue.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that some reporters contacted bishops' offices in Quebec and heard that those bishops would not deny Catholic funerals to those who die by assisted suicide. There is little that is more enticing than a dispute between Catholic bishops on a contentious and sensitive topic. The problem is that the dispute is a false one because the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories did not say what everyone is assuming they said.
So, what did they say?
In a substantial document dealing with many issues of pastoral care and sacramental ministry surrounding assisted suicide, the bishops include an important section on “The Celebration of Christian Funerals.” In it they note that the church does celebrate funerals in cases of suicide and that burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy. They also note that assisted suicide is unique because, in some cases, the disposition of the deceased towards church teaching is sometimes known and public.
In light of this, the bishops mention two possible cases where Catholic funerals may be impossible. The first is that of a high profile case where the person's opposition to church teaching is manifest. Even here the bishops do not say that a person must be denied a funeral, but rather, “In such cases, it may not be possible to celebrate a Christian funeral.” And they go on to note that, “If the church were to refuse a funeral to someone, it is not to punish the person, but to recognize his or her decision.”
As the bishops had noted earlier, the church does not offer funeral rites to those “who have defected seriously from the faith, “because the church is “respectful of the conscience and decisions of those who have died.”
The second case that the bishops consider is when “family or friends . . . 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.” On this the bishops' language is more definite: “Such a request for funeral rites must be gently but firmly denied.”
The underlying concern in both cases is that of public scandal. That is, the church cannot be seen to condone assisted suicide. Nor should it be manipulated into celebrating that which it can only lament.
This does not mean that no one who dies of assisted suicide will get a Catholic funeral, nor does it mean families will be abandoned by the church in their grief. The bishops note, e.g., “Perhaps the family did not will the assisted suicide or euthanasia of their loved one, and is looking to the church for the assistance and comfort of her intercession for mercy. In such a situation, provided there would not be cause for public scandal, the funeral rites could be celebrated.”
In other words, pastors have to carefully discern the situation of both the deceased and the family to determine whether or not a funeral would be a public scandal. Only one situation, that of a family and friends using the funeral as a celebration of the choice to die by assisted suicide, is seen as automatically a matter of public scandal.
Finally, the bishops conclude this section of their document by noting that whether a funeral is possible or not, the church remains committed to the pastoral care of families and the burial of the deceased. The last paragraph is worth quoting in full.
“It must always be remembered that the burial of the dead is among the corporal works of mercy. Therefore, even when the official funeral rites of the church must be denied, a liturgy of the Word at the funeral home or simple prayers at the graveside might be proposed. Perhaps a memorial mass for the repose of the deceased's soul could be celebrated at a later date. This is a matter of the priest's good pastoral judgment. How to offer care and support to a family in the wake of these tragic events remains something that we must always bear in mind, whether we celebrate a funeral or not.”
The bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories have not denied Catholic funerals in all cases of assisted suicide, nor have they instructed priests to pastorally abandon the families of those who have died in this way. They have carefully noted that certain limited circumstances may make a Catholic funeral impossible and left wide room for the discernment of pastors both as to when funerals must be denied and what other pastoral measures might be taken in such cases.
In this, as in all such cases, I strongly recommend reading the document itself. It can be found at: http://caedm.ca/Portals/0/documents/family_life/2016-09-14_SacramentalPracticeinSituationsofEuthanasia.pdf. Section IV. The Celebration of Christian Funerals is comprised of paragraphs 18-22.
Salkeld is archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina. He serves the Canadian bishops on the national Roman Catholic - Evangelical Dialogue.