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Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB: Faithful to God – while still caring for those at the end of life

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A nurse visits a patient at Good Shepherd Hospice in New York in 2021. No Catholic institution will facilitate or assist Voluntary Assisted Dying, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB of Perth has declared in a pastoral letter following its legalisation in WA. Photo: CNS, Gregory Shemitz

Here are some excerpts of the pastoral letter issued by Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB on 23 June

It is well known that the Catholic tradition is firmly opposed to Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD). A recent document from the Vatican, Samaritanus Bonus: on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life, reaffirms the Church’s perennial teaching with respect to the sacredness of human life.

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1. It has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church for the last two thousand years that no-one has the right to end their own life or to deliberately bring about the death of another, with the sole exception of the right of self-defence against an unjust aggressor.

2. This conviction about the sanctity and inviolability of human life is one of the most foundational values by which we as Catholics live. We believe that every human life, from its earliest beginnings at conception to its final moments leading to death, is precious and sacrosanct. No-one has the right to “step in” and bring to an end a life that has begun under God’s providence and will come to its end under God’s providence. We also believe, precisely because life is precious and sacred, that it is to be respected at every moment: when the child is still in its mother’s womb, when it grows to be an infant, then a young child, then an adolescent and an adult.

We believe that whether a person is sick or well, weak or strong, poor or wealthy, in agreement with us or in opposition to us, educated or illiterate, generous or selfish, faithful or faithless, living or dying, that person is to be treated with dignity and respect: everything that can be done to give meaning and hope to every person must be done.
In relation to Voluntary Assisted Dying, the Church’s position rests on its constant interpretation of the fifth commandment … you shall not kill.

3. This is, we believe, a commandment from God, the giver and sustainer of life. It is a law which pre-exists any government or any parliament. Governments have the power, given to them by those who elect them, to determine what rules are expedient in the societies they govern. They do not have any authority to decide what is morally acceptable.

That authority belongs to God, who has written into the nature and structure of human life what is in harmony with God’s creative intention. This position, grounded in our religious faith, does we believe provide a blueprint for a life well-lived and for a society structured so as to ensure the well-being and flourishing of its people.

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB

I reassure all of you, my sisters and brothers in the faith, that here in Western Australia our Catholic institutions are working collaboratively with the health authorities to ensure that Catholic facilities can continue to operate with complete fidelity to our Catholic principles, including our commitment to respect life in all its moments. Our hospitals and aged care facilities will not support, and will not provide or facilitate, Voluntary Assisted Dying.

VAD is not regarded in any of our institutions as “medical care or treatment” and cannot form part of the “provision of care” which is the fundamental obligation our institutions have to all their patients, residents or clients …

[O]ur various institutions will make their policies around VAD clear and unambiguous. This is important, both to provide certainty to those who choose to come to one of our facilities and to provide clarity to those who choose to work in our facilities. I [assure] you that in writing the way I have I have not been blind to the complexity of this matter. Nor am I suggesting that those who support VAD are in any way lacking in compassion. Indeed, for many supporters of VAD, it is their own experience of the death of a loved one which has led them to the position they hold.

But I, too, have experienced the death of loved ones and have sat at the bedside of the dying, including my mother. It can be an agonising experience to sit helplessly watching someone you love die of a painful disease. In the end, it was my faith that sustained me, just as it was the faith and hope of my mother which carried her through those last difficult days.

I, too, have experienced the death of loved ones, and have sat at the bedside of the dying, including my mother. It can be an agonising experience to sit helplessly watching someone you love die of a painful disease …”
Archbishop T Costelloe SDB

Had mum’s death been hastened in any way she would have been deprived of knowing of the safe delivery of her one and only grandchild. She died half an hour after I whispered in her ear that the baby had been safely born. I remain profoundly grateful for that …

I invite you all to join with me in prayer for those whose life experience has brought them to a point where accessing VAD seems the only option open to them; for those who will be called to uphold in our institutions the beauty and hope of the Catholic understanding of the dignity of life; and for our Catholic community, that we can continue to create and foster communities of faith, of hope, of mutual support and fidelity, and of love and compassion.

This is our best response to the challenge which lies ahead of us.

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