July 3, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – The Catholic bishops of Belgium have published official guidelines for end-of-life pastoral care under the form of a 24-page Declaration made public on June 12. In a country where euthanasia has been legal since 2002, the Catholic attitude toward death and the dying certainly needs to be underscored, and specific problems need to be addressed. From this point of view and others, the episcopal falls short of expectations.
The brochure is available online here, in Dutch, under the title Your Hand in My Hand.
The pastoral guidelines have a twofold objective: to take into account the growing individualism and isolation of Belgian society, creating a great need for work with the dying, and to respond to the broad acceptance of euthanasia in the country.
On the one hand, the bishops of Belgium are reminding their flock and pastors that a dying person, who is fragile for that very reason, needs the proximity as well as the material, psychological and spiritual aid of family, friends, neighbors and pastoral workers, from priests to parish volunteers.
On the other, they aim to broadcast a message of “unconditional love” that leads them to ask pastors to remain “close” to the dying person, even when euthanasia has been asked for and access to the procedure has been granted, and even unto accompanying the victim up to the very end.
Commentators in the Belgian press have underscored that according to the directives, “rituals and prayers” such as the “Unction of the sick,” or Extreme Unction, and the receiving of the Viaticum – Holy Communion given when death is imminent – can be offered to people who are living their last hours before euthanasia.
The guidelines are not quite that explicit, speaking more of the duty to stay “close” to a dying person, even when euthanasia is going to take place. They state that “you can pray for that person and, if it is possible, pray together with that person” in that situation. “However great our human powerlessness, we always entrust our fellow man to Him who is the source of all life and whose mercy knows no bounds,” the bishops write.
They do not speak of the value of prayer – or the absence of it – when a suicidal act has been decided upon and is going to place.
Pastoral care givers in particular have already interpreted the bishops’ guidelines to mean that there is no fundamental difference in the approach to a dying person who has chosen euthanasia and one who has not, even though the guidelines do remind care givers that euthanasia is contrary to the Commandment: “Thou shalt not murder.”
In its opening paragraphs, Your hand in My Hand feebly states: “We respect the laws that are voted for in a state of law. Yet it is our right and duty in a pluralistic, democratic society freely to express our opinion as Christians and to make our critical voice heard on fundamental issues relating to life and death.” The bishops thereby recall that numerous documents have been issued regarding euthanasia.
But they also speak out against “unreasonable obstinacy” in treatment, the very words used by the powers that be to justify Vincent Lambert's “right” to die in France. The concept is ambiguous, to say the least.
The bishops’ guidelines contain many sociological and psychological passages, but very little about an assessment of one’s own life at the supreme hour of death, indirect allusions to an examination of conscience, and confession of one's faults, and nothing at all about particular judgment of the soul at death and the Last Judgment, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
Now if pastoral care means anything at all, it consists in giving immortal human souls the opportunity to receive the necessary help, in particular through the sacraments, to die in a state of grace and thus to be saved by repenting their sins (another absent word) and accepting the mercy of God.
References to God's mercy are rightly very prevalent in the document, but it is presented as a mercy without requirements on the part of the dying person, and the word and clear notion of repentance are conspicuous by their absence.
Here’s an example:
“Saying goodbye to life involves many facets: being able to let go, to take stock of your life, to experience the need for reconciliation and healing. Christian-inspired pastoral care can contribute to this, especially when life questions are involved. This can provide space for taking a look back at one’s life. What may come to light here are experiences of sense and nonsense, sources of power that give hope, sustaining relationships and the question of God. The pastor will especially try to work to connect the dying person to others, and when the person is open to it, also to God. It is sometimes difficult to correct and adjust skewed, ensnaring visions of God in the dying or in those who surround them. But it is especially important that the pastor himself acts and speaks from the awareness that God wants to be close to the suffering and dying one, that He is the ally of the fragile, even though in the experience He often remains an unfathomable Mystery.”
The document relates – but does not equate – the anguished calls for death of which the Bible speaks (Jeremiah, Moses, Jonah, Tobit … ) and the death wish of those who ask for euthanasia. The idea is to show that God can hear our anguish and help us to overcome it, and that the euthanasia wish should be “taken seriously,” in particular in order to help and heal the person who is asking for it: “The pastor (…) can give them resilience, which can keep them going on in life … Maybe the pastor himself can unexpectedly be such a healing angel, a messenger of God” such as those who in the Old Testament come to help those who cry out to God, the bishops wrote.
Affirming that many euthanasia requests are essentially calls for help or for the recognition of seriousness of a person's condition, the guidelines note that many of them are not followed by effective termination of life.
The guidelines state:
“The choice of a pastor and of the pastoral service not to stop providing guidance to people with an euthanasia request is in line with the conviction that you should abandon no one, and so doing expresses and embodies the fact that God never abandons anyone, no matter what happens. This does not in any way imply an endorsement of anything. For the pastor this can be a very difficult field of tension. Practical experiences of pastoral managers show that they are able to play a very important role in interpreting and clarifying the situation of the euthanasia request. Throughout this clarification process, that is completely confidential, non-judgmental and shows respect for the author of the question, it happens that that person does go forward to an effective termination of life, even though the whole procedure has been gone through. The pastor is often the one who makes the connections throughout this process, acting as a sounding board for family and friends, doctors and health care providers.”
So part of the objective at least is to dissuade people from obtaining effective euthanasia, but the insistence on being “non-judgmental,” so characteristic of our times, leaves many questions unanswered and especially does not exhort Catholic pastors that suicide is, before anything else, a mortal sin through which God does not abandon man, but man – lest he repent – “abandons” God and closes himself to God's mercy.
The document continues:
“It happens that a person finally decides to be euthanized. Even then, the pastor remains close to this person. Even if one does not agree with a person's decision, it does not in any way mean one should leave the person in question to his own lot. Also then you remain close to him or her. You can pray for this person and, if possible, pray together with this person, too.”
How far does this go? The guidelines are not absolutely clear, and they also speak of the personal difficulties pastors will encounter in these “delicate” situations, wondering whether they “acted right” or whether they “compromised with something they themselves or the Church community they represent does not approve in principle.”
“The self-care of a pastor is also of great importance here,” the guidelines state.
But they sorely lack clear words on grave and even damning issues, and in that sense, they are surely not “charitable” toward confused Catholics and even confused priests or pastoral workers who have a right to hear of the judgment of God as well as of His mercy.