Dutch cardinal: It would be a ‘scandal’ for a priest to be present at an assisted suicide
December 17, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) -- Days after the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life stated that a Catholic priest could remain at the bedside of a person committing assisted suicide in order to “hold their hand” and “accompany” them, Dutch Cardinal Willem Eijk told Catholic News Agency (CNA) that this was not permissible because of the “scandal” involved.
Cardinal Eijk was responding out of concern that Archbishop Paglia's statement might lead people to believe in certain circumstances assisted suicide or euthanasia are not “morally illicit” according to the teaching of the Church.
Cardinal Eijk, who is the Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, recalled that the first duty of the priest in such a circumstance is to tell the person who is considering taking his own life that such an act is “a grave sin.”
His statements were picked up earlier Tuesday by the Dutch Christian-orientated daily Nederlands Dagblad, which underscored the difference of opinion between Eijk and Archbishop Paglia while reminding that Cardinal Eijk is himself a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
As a sign of the Netherlands’ deep involvement in euthanasia and assisted suicide – it has the oldest and one of the most liberal laws in the world on the matter – reader comments in the Dutch media have been very hostile to date, ranging from the idea that a priest can also be present when the death penalty is executed to accusations of narrow-mindedness, hardness and lack of respect for human dignity.
It is true that Cardinal Eijk, in an interview with LifeSite last May, underscored that the majority of Dutch citizens no longer believe in a personal God: “The generation of those who are now grandparents has already received relatively little faith education,” he remarked.
Eijk has expert knowledge of medical and ethical issues, having completed his medical studies before becoming a seminarian in 1979. As a future priest, he studied medical ethics at the Royal University of Leiden and obtained his doctorate after presenting a thesis on euthanasia. He also received a degree in philosophy from the Pontifical University of the Angelicum in Rome. In addition, Eijk is a specialist in moral theology and has taught that subject in seminaries in the Netherlands.
In his interview with CNA, Cardinal Eijk made clear that “a priest must clearly say to those who opt for assisted suicide or euthanasia that both of these acts violate the intrinsic value of the human life, that is a grave sin.” This would be part of the spiritual accompaniment that can be given to all, but without creating any ambiguity about the act of euthanasia or assisted suicide itself.
The Cardinal recalled that in assisted suicide, it is the patient himself “who takes the drugs the doctor intentionally prescribed to him to commit suicide,” while in “voluntary euthanasia,” “the doctor himself gives the drugs to end the patient’s life after the patient’s request.” He made clear that there is no “significant moral difference” between the two acts. “The responsibilities of the patient and the doctor are the same in both cases,” he said. In each instance, it is the patient who takes “the initiative to end his life, and this is the same both of he puts an end to his life or if a doctor does it.”
In both instances, he added, physicians are equally responsible regarding the patient’s life. In euthanasia, the doctor “directly violates the value of his life, that is an intrinsic value. Helping in assisted suicide, the doctor cooperates with the patient’s will, and this means he shares the patient’s intention. For this reason, even mere cooperation is an intrinsically evil act, as grave as if the doctor personally ended the life of the patient,” Cardinal Eijk told CNA.
“Assisted suicide is perhaps less psychologically heavy for the doctor. However, there is not a significant moral difference between the two things,” he told Andrea Gagliarducci of CNA during the interview that took place in Rome.
Asked about the possibility of giving a Catholic funeral or the last rites to people who plan to end their lives through euthanasia, Cardinal Eijk said, “The priest cannot do so.”
He clarified that there are three reasons for this. The first is the obvious lack of “good disposition” to receive the sacrament. “This is not the case when a person wants to oppose the order of creation, violating the intrinsic value of his life,” the cardinal said.
He added that the second reason is the person “who receives the sacraments puts his life in the merciful hands of God. However, who wants to personally end his life wants to take his life in his hands.”
Third, “if the priest administers the sacraments or plans a funeral in these cases, the priest is guilty of a scandal, since his actions might suggest that suicide or euthanasia are permitted in certain circumstances,” he told CNA. It is only when a priest prudently judges that a person who committed suicide took the decision in a state of “diminished freedom” that he can actually “celebrate the funeral” of that person.
“Since ancient times, the priests accepted to celebrate funerals of people who committed suicide or asked for euthanasia in cases of depression of any other psychiatric diseases. In these cases, because of their disease, the freedom of the people is diminished, and so ending the life cannot be considered a mortal sin," Cardinal Eijk said.
The mention of mortal sin has become a rarity: It was completely absent, for instance, from Archbishop Paglia’s remarks, although it is certainly a great charity to warn people who are considering taking their own life or having it taken by the doctor risk eternal damnation.
There are several responses to the present pro-euthanasia trend, said Cardinal Eijk. The first response is doctrinal: The Church must “announce that God made the human being in his image in his totality, soul, and body. The Second Vatican Council constitution Gaudium et Spes described the human being as "a unity of soul and body. This means that the body is an essential dimension of the human being and is part of the intrinsic value of the human being. So it is not licit to sacrifice human life to end the pain,” he said.
On the personal and social plane, Cardinal Eijk remarked that palliative care is an answer to the suffering of patients that the Church must also “do something against loneliness,” the “huge solitude” that leaves people who lack the attention and care from others “less able to bear the pain.”
He also recalled the spiritual meaning of suffering. The Church “announces a Christian spirituality and a lived faith. This implies that you can also join to the suffering Christ and bear the pain with him. So, we are never alone,” said Cardinal Eijk, indirectly drawing attention to the fact that in secularized Western countries, the meaning of illness, pain and death have been forgotten.
His remarks contrast greatly with Archbishop Paglia’s declarations. At a symposium on palliative care, Paglia responded to a recent statement by the Swiss bishops recalling that assisted suicide, which is legal in their country, is “radically against the Gospel message.”
He said he did not believe that “anyone should ever be abandoned.” Paglia added, “We are against assisted suicide because we do not want to do the dirty work of death and because we are all well aware that, for believers, life goes on. To accompany and hold the hand of those who are dying” is therefore the “great task” of every believer, he said, along with fighting the culture of assisted suicide, which represents “a great defeat for society.”
Paglia also said that the issue of the accompaniment of a person undergoing assisted suicide “goes beyond laws:” “I don’t want to give a rule to contradict and so on. I would like to remove ideology from the situations forever and for everyone. For me, those who take their own lives manifest the failure of the whole of society, but not of God. And God never abandons anyone.”
This approach completely ignores the question of sin, the possibility of hell and the chance to obtain forgiveness through confession, which however supposes the firm intention of no longer sinning.
While Cardinal Eijk is very clear on all these issues, Catholic bishops in neighboring Belgium appear to be hiding behind confusing statements. Their official guidelines for end-of-life pastoral care published last June require pastors to remain “close” to the dying person even when the euthanasia has been asked for and is about to be performed.
Although the document itself is not clear about offering the Unction of the sick or the Viaticum – Holy Communion given when death is imminent – the Belgian press immediately understood it to mean that the last sacraments can be given before a chosen death and pastoral care givers immediately went public with the idea 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 did recall that euthanasia is contrary to the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
In Canada, the Catholic bishops of Atlantic Canada quoted Pope Francis and his idea of pastoral accompaniment in November 2016 in deciding to give priests latitude to decide whether to give euthanasia seekers the sacraments before they are killed. “Our concern is pastoral accompaniment. Pope Francis is our model,” said Bishop Claude Champagne of Edmunston, New Brunswick, at the time.
“We must not make judgments about people’s responsibility and culpability,” he said.
With such statements, moral theology becomes largely useless. And the aim of pastoral care, which is to help human beings to reach eternal bliss with God, is reduced to a horizontal task aiming to help them feel good while not being told about the conditions of salvation.