Ottawa bishop backs Alberta euthanasia guidelines: Priests may need to deny sacraments

Ottawa bishop backs Alberta euthanasia guidelines: Priests may need to deny sacraments

Lianne Laurence

OTTAWA, June 2, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Ottawa’s archbishop has endorsed guidelines by the Alberta and Northwest Territories bishops that detail when priests may grant or deny the sacraments and church funeral rites to Catholics seeking or killed by euthanasia.

Archbishop Terrence Prendergast praised the Alberta guidelines in a May 12 letter as an “effective tool helping us to be both compassionate and faithful in addressing this grave threat to the dignity and value of human life.”

Catholic pastoral response to Canada’s euthanasia regime has fragmented along regional lines ever since Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide in June 2016 with Bill C-14.

That bill was the Liberal response to the Supreme Court’s February 2015 Carter decision that struck down the law banning euthanasia as unconstitutional but gave Parliament time to craft a new law.

Prendergast has endorsed the conservative response by the Alberta bishops, which stands in contrast to the liberal stance of the Atlantic, and to some extent, the Quebec bishops.

The Alberta document “helps us to respond with a pastoral care that expresses the Church’s deep concern for the salvation of souls and safeguards the dignity of the sacraments and the nature of her funeral rites,” wrote Prendergast.

The Alberta and NWT bishops released their 34-page Vademecum for Priests and Parishes on September 14, 2016.

It stressed “pastoral accompaniment” but insisted priests were obliged in mercy and justice to be clear to euthanasia seekers they would be committing an objectively gravely sinful act.

The document provoked a media storm over its assertion that in order to avoid scandal, priests might have to deny a Catholic burial to persons publicly known to have sought euthanasia.

In the face of the media storm, Quebec Cardinal Gerald Lacroix was clear he had no intention of following the Alberta bishops’ lead.

“I don’t plan specific directives aimed at refusing this support or refusing access to the anointing of the sick and the celebration of funerals,” Lacroix wrote in a September 29 Facebook post.

“The Catholic Church accompanies people in every step of their life. We do that in dialogue with every person and every family that wishes to be accompanied,” added the cardinal.

Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine likewise stated he wouldn’t ask priests to refuse funerals to Catholics known to have committed assisted suicide or had sought euthanasia, according to a Crux report.

This was followed by 10 Atlantic bishops releasing a three-page letter in December 2016 that cited Pope Francis exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, emphasized accompaniment but glossed over sacramental discipline and the moral gravity of euthanasia.

“Our concern is pastoral accompaniment. Pope Francis is our model,” Bishop Claude Champagne of Edmondton, New Brunswick, told the Catholic Register at the time.

The Alberta guidelines do not “express the vision of all Canada’s bishops,” Champagne added.

“As people of faith, and ministers of God’s grace, we are called to entrust everyone, whatever their decisions may be, to the mercy of God,” the Atlantic bishops wrote in A Pastoral Reflection on Medical Assistance in Dying.

“To one and all we wish to say that the pastoral care of souls cannot be reduced to norms for the reception of the sacraments or the celebration of funeral rites.”

The Atlantic bishops’ letter was skewered by critics, with one accusing the prelates of becoming “chaplains of the culture of death.”

By contrast, the Alberta and Northwest Territories bishops’ Vademecum calls for pastoral accompaniment of those Catholics arranging for assisted suicide or euthanasia but warns against “passivity before such a decision even in the face of seeming serenity.”

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are gravely sinful acts, and those who choose to be voluntarily euthanized die in an “objective state of sin, which is gravely disordered,” the Alberta bishops wrote.

The “spiritual peril” facing those Catholics “requires the pastor of souls to accompany them with every effort and in fervent prayer,” they noted.

“The priest must first engage such persons with compassion, being careful to listen attentively and receptively to them.”

But priests have a duty to explain the the teachings of the Church and to call the person to repentance.

“Indeed, it is fitting that the priest inform the penitent that he will be praying constantly for their turning away from such a sin,” wrote the Alberta bishops.

The Vademecum frequently recommends prayer and fasting by priests and laity in order to “stir even the most intransigent of persons to repentance and conversion.”

The document notes some Catholics might not be “aware euthanasia is a grave sin” and their freedom could be “impaired” through “depression, drugs or pressure from others.”

It urges priests to grant the Sacrament of Reconciliation when possible.

“If the penitent, having been made aware of the gravity of the situation, is open to learning the Church’s teaching on this issue, and open to reconsidering the decision, the priest can absolve,” the Alberta bishops write.

“There is at least the beginning of contrition, a willingness to reconsider and thus possibly rectify their situation.”

Absolution would have to be deferred, however, if a penitent has “officially requested physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia” and is therefore in an “objective state of sin,” having “incited and socially arranged for someone to kill them.”

Similarly, the priest would have to deny the Sacrament of the Sick if the person requesting it remained “obstinate” in his or her decision to be euthanized.

Moreover, there may be cases where a priest is obliged to refuse a Catholic funeral, they write.

“If the Church were to refuse a funeral to someone, it is not to punish the person but to recognize his or her decision – a decision that has brought him or her to an action that is contrary to the Christian faith, that is somehow notorious and public, and would do harm to the Christian community and the larger culture.”

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