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Vatican strips ‘Catholic’ label from Brothers of Charity Belgian hospitals for refusing to stop euthanasia

The religious order also is expected to cut ties with 12 psychiatric centers that were considered Catholic institutions.
Tue May 5, 2020 - 7:06 pm EST
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May 5, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The Vatican's doctrinal congregation has ordered about a dozen psychiatric hospitals in Belgium belonging to the Brothers of Charity to drop the name “Catholic” after the institutions defended allowing patients to be euthanized. 

The order from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith follows three years of fruitless talks between Rome and the mostly non-religious governors’ board of the institution that has consistently refused to modify its guidelines allowing legal euthanasia for the mentally ill. The congregation of the Brothers of Charity is also expected to sever all existing links with its network of psychiatric hospitals in Belgium.

News emerged Monday of a letter sent March 30 by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, announcing the decision that the Vatican no longer considers the 12 centers to be Catholic, with immediate effect.

The Belgian Christian weekly Tertio published a few quotes from the letter that refers to the decision on the part of the congregation. “The psychiatric centres of the organisation will no longer be considered as Catholic institutions. Ties between the centers and the congregation of the Brothers of Charity shall be severed,” said the letter.

The CDF wrote that “Catholic teaching affirms the sacred value of human life,” the “importance of caring for and accompanying the sick and disabled,” as well as “the Christian value of suffering, the moral unacceptability of euthanasia” and “the impossibility of introducing this practice in Catholic hospitals, not even in extreme cases, as well as of collaborating in this regard with civil institutions,” according to Catholic News Agency.

The letter also deplored that the March 2017 guidelines do not contain “any reference to God, the Scriptures or the Christian vision of man.”

Cardinal Ladaria is described as having said he took the decision “with great sadness.”

From the start of this affair, Brother René Stockman – also a member of the John Paul II Academy for Life and Family – exercised his responsibility as head of the Congregation of the Brothers of Charity in Rome. It was he who, months after the Belgian branch of the congregation discreetly distributed the pro-euthanasia guidelines to all directors and medical practitioners working in its facilities, brought the matter to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in August 2017.

The guidelines stated the following: “If certain care requirements are met, the doctor and the patient can choose the place where the euthanasia will be performed taking into account the context, including the impact on fellow patients. Whereas until now it was expected that the physician would always refer the patient to another place for this, this expectation no longer applies when the due requirements are respected and applied.”

Brother Stockman immediately acted behind the scenes to reverse this new policy that was adopted, according to its proponents, for “personalistic” reasons.

But neither the Congregations’ central authority nor the CDF was successful in obtaining a return to observance of Catholic doctrine and the general prohibition of killing the innocent.

Mediation efforts set up at the initiative of the Vatican, undertaken by the auxiliary Bishop of Amsterdam, Jan Hendriks, were also ineffective.

A previous mediation attempt involving a Belgian canon law professor, Rik Torfs, was no more successful. In September 2017, he determined that the rift between Rome and the Belgian brothers was too large. It was “not a case of one or two euthanasia decisions per year,” he said, but of the “important philosophic opening regarding the need to protect life.”

According to the Belgian Brothers of Charity, protection of life can in some cases give way to patient autonomy and a proper care relationship. At the time, Raf De Rycke, president of the governing board of the Brothers of Charity in Belgium, said, “When you forbid something, you only need one sentence. That puts a stop to every ethical consideration and to every conversation. We on the contrary want to enter in dialogue with the suffering person. According to us, that is a vision inspired by the Gospel. Jesus Christ also put the Sabbath and other rules aside in order to be near to the suffering person. More than one Christian inspired vision is possible.”

But Jesus did not put aside rest on the seventh day, which is a positive commandment that needs to take the exigencies of justice and charity into account, nor the absolute prohibition of idol worshipping, murder, adultery, stealing or lying.

Faced with clear judgment from Rome, De Rycke “regretted” the decision but clearly stuck to the same idea. He told vrt.be

“The Vatican’s letter concentrates on an ideological issue. In ecclesiastical doctrine we only look at the action, while we rather look at the situation in context, ethically. By the way, we do not allow euthanasia just like that, we weigh up all kinds of values. We differ in vision, and as a result our institutions have been retroactively deprived of the designation ‘Catholic,’ since the end of ‘March,’” he confirmed, adding he had “every respect for that.”

In the meantime, the Brothers of Charity and its managing corporation, including a majority of lay members, had flatly refused to fall in with the CDF’s request: “affirm in writing and in an unequivocal way their adherence to the principles of the sacredness of human life and the unacceptability of euthanasia, and, as a consequence, the absolute refusal to carry it out in the institutions they depend on.”

De Rycke said he had less understanding for Brother Stockman who has underscored that the buildings in which the psychiatric hospitals operate belong to the Congregation, and therefore to the church itself in canon law. De Rycke added that the Belgian Brothers of Charity have no intention of hiring or buying those buildings because there has been a de facto alienation over the years.

“It is a very, very painful situation, yes, we are sorry that the Superior General in Rome should be aiming his arrows at us. Especially when you realize what the organization has already meant for the community. Also, he is creating a dangerous precedent. Give me the name of only one hospital in our country where euthanasia is not yet available. Should we deprive them all of the adjective ‘Catholic’?” he stated.

“It is a pity that a touchy and complex subject such as euthanasia should be misused in a wider and long-running conflict between the general head of the congregation and our region,” he said.

But ultimately, the Belgian Brothers of Charity were given three years in which to decide to respect Catholic doctrine. They chose not to do so.

Brother Stockman commented on the situation in a statement quoted by nieuwsblad.de: “The loss of the Catholic identity of our psychiatric centers in Belgium is a painful situation for the congregation. But at the same time the congregation can do no other than remain faithful to its charisma of caritas, and this cannot be reconciled with the practice of euthanasia on psychiatric patients. It is with a heavy heart that the congregation must let go of its psychiatric centers in Belgium. The question here is not that of the umpteenth letter about the euthanasia theme, but the definitive answer of the Vatican. It follows that there will have to be agreements, among others regarding under what conditions the buildings will be able to be used from now on.”

He also recalled that the Brothers of Charity “were among the pioneers in the field of mental health care” in Belgium.

The rift between the congregation and its Belgian branch has deepened since the beginning of this affair.

In July 2018, the general chapter of the group stressed that the Brothers of Charity believe “in sacredness and absolute respect for every human life, from conception to natural death,” reported Catholic News Agency. “The general chapter requires that each brother, associate member and others associated with the mission of the congregation adhere to the doctrine of the Catholic Church on ethical issues.”

On March 23, one week before the CDF issued its firm letter, the Belgian Brothers of Charity, together with the psychiatric center of the Catholic University of Louvain’s several shelters for “safe living,” opened a new unit in the university town where patients can freely “walk in” to talk about their death wish, either alone or with their loved ones.

Named Reakiro (Esperanto for “recovery”), the project prides itself on giving information in a “warm” and homely environment, to accompany people “in their quest between life and death, between the unbearableness of suffering and the possibility of hope and healing.” Everyone is welcome, and while the practical follow-up of a euthanasia request does not take place in Reakiro, open dialogue is offered as in a “safe place” with the objective of helping people who want euthanasia to find that maybe something more can be done, but always “with respect for the ultimate choice of the guest.”


  belgium euthanasia, brothers of charity, catholic, congregation for the defense of the faith cdf, luis ladaria ferrer, psychiatric hospitals, reakiro, rene stockman, vatican

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