Editorial: Belgian OK to euthanasia – where a faithless brand ‘Catholic’ goes to die

Betty pictured in 2006 at the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home in Fairmont, Minnesota, USA. Photo: Justin Sorensen, cc 2.0

The mentally ill wear their own crown of thorns in this life because they are so misunderstood and rejected by almost everyone. In Belgium, their lot has just become much worse. In a shock move which will reverberate through Catholic healthcare institutions and the wider Church around the world, the Board of Management controlling 15 psychiatric hospitals established by and governed in the name of a Catholic religious order in Belgium has announced that it will commence offering euthanasia for the non-terminally ill.

Speaking in customary Management Speak, the Board announced this week that it had ‘adjusted’ its view on euthanasia. A complete u-turn is the truer description of the new policy. But one of the most interesting aspects of this particular case is the question of what will follow from the Board’s announcement? At the time of writing, this is not yet clear. The amazing news was reported in Australia by the Sydney-based Mercatornet, which managed to land an interview with the Superior of the religious order who founded the hospitals in question.

The hospitals were established by the Brothers of Charity and collectively care for an estimated 5000 psychiatric beds – a large proportion of the total number available for psychiatric patients in Belgium. However, in essence, the move means that officially-Catholic healthcare institutions in Belgium have now begun to become involved in the killing of people – in this case the mentally ill, the depressed and those who simply do not want to live for whatever reason seems important to them.

It should be pointed out that the announcement came as a shock to the Brothers of Charity who are no longer effectively running the institutions they opened in previous decades when they had sufficient vocations to administer them. The Brothers are totally opposed to the new policy. But like many other cases around the world (and including here in Australia) hospitals and educational bodies once established by Catholic religious orders are now run by largely lay boards of management who are commissioned to govern them, usually in a loosely-defined ‘ethos’ or spirit of the founding religious body.

How loosely those terms can be defined is now plain. The problem here is that once founding religious orders disappear due to lack of vocations in a merely nominally-Christian or post-Christian society, the professionally competent but usually philosophically and morally naive and theologically simplistic lay boards left in control of Catholic institutions will pursue whatever policies happen to be fashionable in their society – regardless of the faith or belief of the Catholic Church and the religious bodies which established them. Another aspect of the problem is that, in practice, the highly profitable and prestigious nature of the work undertaken by such institutions soon eclipses applied Christianity. In the process, anything – literally – becomes permissible.

It remains to be seen what legal and governance options are open to the Brothers of Charity and the Catholic Church. Perhaps, if no other means are available, a formal and final divestment of any association with the new thanatoriums will be the only realistic option left. In effect, however, what has come into practice in Belgium is killing in the name of the Christian God, for whom the killing of the innocent is always evil. If you are lonely and clinically depressed, if you have a history of sexual abuse, if you are unattractive in the eyes of others, if you are not wanted, we really can’t be bothered helping you, is the new rule. But for now, Catholic agencies should perhaps think about protecting their Christian legacy – either that, or begin planning their final exit from what they once regarded as vital works of their missions.