Bishops’ Attitude To Assisted Death Un-Christian

It’s not surprising that the Archbishops of Alberta and the Northern Territories would take a stand against assisted death, as outlined in Bill C-14, passed by the Canadian House of Commons in June of this year. In so doing, they are upholding Catholic doctrine that life exists from conception to natural death.


Left-side panel from the front of Peter of Verona’s grave in the Cappella Portinari chapel, Sant’Eustorgio church, Milan. (Photo by G.dallorto, Own work, via Wikimedia Commons)

To announce, however, as some clerics have, that they will deny the sacrament of the sick as well as Catholic funeral liturgies to those whose assisted deaths are made public, while allowing those who avail themselves of doctor-assisted death in a more secretive manner to have their funerals celebrated in their parish churches, makes a mockery of what Catholics believe to be their right to follow their conscience when it comes to moral decisions.

“Freedom of Conscience is the right of each human person to act in conscience and in freedom so as to personally make moral decisions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church – No. 1782).

Does this apply only when one is being denied the right to obey Catholic doctrine? One presumes not. The Supreme Court of Canada has, of course, decided that Canadians have a right to die, indicating that “the sanctity of life includes the passing into death” and outlining the circumstances under which those suffering from incurable diseases and for whom death has become “reasonably foreseeable” may apply for assisted death.


Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

The above-mentioned archbishops seem to have reached their decision on assisted death following discussions at the September meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Although, as a group, they issued no guidelines on the issue and not all bishops have taken a similar stand—Cardinal Gerald LaCroix of Quebec has indicated he has no intention of following the practices outlined by his brother bishops in Alberta and the Northern Territories—the CCCB continues to use “suicide” and “euthanasia” to describe assisted death so that Catholics realize the Church considers it a mortal sin.

Logo of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

Logo of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (By Ng556 [Own work] [CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons)

As is so typical in these instances of bishops creating policy, it will actually fall to parish priests to decide who gets funeral rites, just as it now falls to them to decide whether divorced Catholics who remarry without having their first marriages annulled may take communion. In theory, the October 2015 Synod on the Family left that decision to the bishops too, but in reality, it is the parish priests who decide. (And it’s not an easy decision, considering the kind of guidance some bishops provide—one went so far as to indicate that such couples may receive communion as long as they lived as brother and sister within their marriage. Hardly a way to win friends and influence people.)

A special speaker at the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting was Willem Cardinal Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, where assisted death or, as he prefers to call it, “euthanasia,” has been legal since 2002. Using the term “euthanasia” to describe what is permitted by Bill C-14 is misleading, given that the definition of “euthanasia” is the “intentional killing of someone with or without his or her consent.”

The Dutch Cardinal prescribes palliative care for persons suffering due to imminent or reasonably imminent death explaining, correctly, that such care can “reduce the suffering of those with incurable diseases to bearable proportions and help them discover or rediscover the dignity of their lives by being given loving professional care directed at the ‘whole person’ and delivered by the palliative care team.” The reality, of course, is that while, in the early stages of palliative care, the patient might “discover or rediscover the dignity of their lives,” the possibility of “continuing their lives despite their circumstances” has to be viewed as a fairly short-term option.


Palliative Care

People familiar with palliative care truly appreciate its value—hardly a day goes by without an obituary in the local paper offering sincere thanks to the palliative care team that has made the death of a loved one more bearable for the deceased as well as for the family. News in July of this year that Dr. Bob Martel, a provider of in-hospital and in-home palliative care in the Strait-Richmond area, was retiring from full-time palliative care work was received with regret.


Sunflowers (symbol of Nova Scotia Hospice Palliative Care). Photo by By 3268zauber (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Martel, there are “many gaps in service when it comes to end of life care” because of which there are fewer home-care palliative deaths in his area than in any other jurisdiction in the province. Palliative care, especially the type recommended by Cardinal Eijk, is simply not available to all who need it in Canada, a problem Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has promised will be a priority for the Liberal government.

The Catholic Women’s League of Canada, which held its annual national convention in Halifax in August, passed a resolution urging the government to amend the Canada Health Act “to identify palliative care as an insured health service covered under the Canada Health Act” and “to develop a national strategy for uniform standards and delivery of palliative care as defined by the World Health Organization.” It also asks the 10 CWL provincial councils to urge their provincial/territorial governments “to provide palliative care as an insured service covered under their provincial/territorial health act as deemed prudent/necessary.”

Interestingly enough, Oregon, Washington and Vermont, where assisted death was first permitted, lead the United States in access to palliative care and, as Cardinal Ejik indicated in his message to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Netherlands, since the 1990s, has also increased the availability of palliative care, which he says has decreased the number of people seeking assisted death.

The fact remains, however, that at a certain point, a patient whose sickness is considered incurable and for whom further treatment would prove futile, moves into the palliative care unit to die comfortably. Although death is neither hastened nor postponed, at some point, the medication required to keep the patient pain-free combined with the advance of the underlying disease renders such persons unaware of anything that is happening around them or to them, and death comes quietly and peacefully.

But what if the patient whose death has become “reasonably foreseeable” asks for assistance in dying? Can this conversation not be conducted in a manner that recognizes the dignity of the patient and his or her right to face death in this manner? If the patient happens to be of the Catholic faith, would the team now be obliged to call in the parish priest to explain that the church would not allow the patient to receive the sacrament of the sick and further, that unless assisted death were carried out under cover of darkness, the same church would not permit a church funeral?


Bill C-14

Supreme Court of Canada building

Supreme Court of Canada building

Unfortunately, until all Canadian dioceses issue statements regarding their stands on these matters, palliative care patients reside in Limbo. (Remember that?) It’s also a fact that not all palliative care facilities—although many are publicly funded—intend to offer assisted death as an option. It’s early days, however, and “the federal government intends to work with all provinces to ensure that all health care institutions provide medically assisted dying.”

The idea of patients who avail themselves of assisted death being denied Christian burial has come as a bolt out of the blue to many, both those who support Bill C-14 and those who do not. In fact, such a decision seems un-Christian in every sense of the word.

The hyperbole surrounding Bill C-14, including how it will encourage suicide, especially among young people, ignores the fact that the bill deals with those faced with imminent death from an incurable disease and outlines very strict guidelines even in such cases. The notion that doctors and other medical practitioners will be forced to participate in assisted death is another myth, since Bill C-14 clearly states otherwise.

We are often told that as a society we will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable of our citizens, and if we truly believe that, we must allow those who are sound of mind and wish to die quietly and painlessly surrounded by family and/or friends to do so. And the church that claims to represent a merciful and loving God should be an integral part of that.



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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