Catholics could be denied last rites and funerals if they undergo doctor-assisted suicide according to Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, above.
According to this report, the Church might also refuse to conduct a funeral if families strongly support and champion their loved one’s assisted-death decision.
Prendergast said that Catholics who consider undergoing doctor-assisted suicide must realise the act is a “morally great evil”.
His comments underscore a little-mentioned dilemma that assisted death has presented to the religion of 13 million Canadians.
Not only is the concept an ethical abomination in the Church’s eyes, but raises awkward theological questions for gravely ill Catholic patients and the clergy who tend to them.
A priest or hospital chaplain asked to attend to a patient planning assisted death should treat it as a “teaching moment,” and try to discourage the act, said Prendergast.
But if the patient persists, the priest could well decline to perform the sacrament of anointing of the sick – and performing other parts of the last rites, he said.
The priest would pray with them, but I don’t think he would give the anointing. I think we have to be clear that the Church cannot condone this.
As for funerals, one would probably occur in many cases of assisted-death if it’s important to family members — and they’re not out to make a point about the practice, said the Prendergast.
But, he added:
If the family was all gung-ho in favour of this, and they think there’s nothing wrong with this and they want the Church to confirm this by having a big funeral, the priest would have some concerns.
Prendergast and other Catholic authorities stress that clergy should still provide whatever comfort and spiritual care they can to the very ill, even if that parishioner wants a doctor to help them die early.
Committing suicide once precluded a Catholic from being given funeral rites and buried in a Catholic cemetery. The act was regarded as “self-murder”, as wrong as killing someone else.
But the hard line on the rites of death for suicides was abandoned in the last century, the thinking being that people take their own lives because of mental illness that is beyond their control.
Physician-assisted death as legalised by the Supreme Court of Canada is a different matter, however, since by definition patients are supposed to be of sound mind to request a lethal injection.
Last rites comprise three parts: confession, if the patient is able; the sacrament of the anointing of the sick – where the priest daubs blessed oil on the patient’s forehead and says a special prayer; and “viaticum”, or a final communion, if the person is able to swallow the wine and wafer.
Said John Berkman, a professor at Regis College, the University of Toronto’s Jesuit school of theology:
I certainly think that absolutely no priest should give (the viaticum) to somebody who has told them ‘I’m about to give consent to be killed’. That would be scandalous.
One supporter of the Supreme Court’s assisted-death ruling, on the other hand, said talk of possibly denying last rites or funerals will just ensure that suffering or grieving Catholics go elsewhere for comfort.
Said Juliet Guichon, a bioethicist at the University of Calgary:
If the Church focuses on judging others, then it probably won’t be able to help people at the worst times of their lives.
Hat tip: Peter Sykes