Q&A with Fr John Flader: Attending assisted suicide

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Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring

“Dear Father, I read recently that a Vatican Archbishop said he would hold the hand of a person dying by assisted suicide and later I saw criticism of the Archbishop’s position. I am confused and would be grateful for clarification of what can be done in these cases.”

This is an issue which is very close to home. With more states legislating assisted suicide in this country, it is only a matter of time before priests will have to decide what to do when a Catholic family approaches them about a family member who has chosen to end his life in this way.

The matter hit the news when Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in a press conference on 10 December 2019 was asked to comment on guidelines issued by the Swiss bishops that directed that pastoral caregivers should not be present during a person’s death by assisted suicide.

He responded: “Let go of the rules. I believe that no one should be abandoned. To accompany, to hold the hand of someone who is dying, is something that every believer must promote as they must promote a culture that opposes assisted suicide.”

A clearer, more consistent comment on the issue was given later by Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

He told Catholic News Agency CNA that “a priest must clearly say to those who opt for assisted suicide or euthanasia that both of these acts violate the intrinsic value of human life, that is a grave sin.”

This echoes the Catechism’s teaching that suicide is “gravely contrary to the just love of self” (CCC 2281).

Thus if a priest or any other Catholic is approached by a person considering assisted suicide, even if the person is in great pain, they should encourage the person to entrust himself to the mercy of God, obtain good palliative care to lessen the pain, and not risk his eternal salvation by committing the grave sin of ending his life.

As the Catechism says, “We are stewards, not owners of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (CCC 2280).

Cardinal Eijk went on to say that a priest cannot be present when assisted suicide is carried out as this would imply that the priest saw nothing wrong with the decision, which is gravely sinful.

This too, echoes the Catechism, which teaches: “Voluntary cooperation in suicide is contrary to the moral law” (CCC 2282).

Nurses provide care to a patient in the palliative care unit of a hospital near Paris. Photo: CNS photo/Philippe Wojazer, Reuters
Nurses provide care to a patient in the palliative care unit of a hospital near Paris. Photo: CNS photo/Philippe Wojazer, Reuters

The mere presence of a priest who does nothing to stop a person taking a drug to end his life is a form of voluntary cooperation by implicit consent, which can encourage the person to go through with the suicide.

As regards whether the priest can administer the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick before the person takes the drug to end his life Cardinal Eijk made clear that he cannot.

The sacraments can only be administered to persons with the proper dispositions and here the person is clearly not sorry, since he is freely and knowingly choosing to end his own life, thereby committing a grave sin.

Although the Cardinal did not say so, the priest could certainly go to the home of the person and try to dissuade him from committing suicide.

Also, if the priest were called to the home after the person had taken the drugs and was still alive, he could certainly go and try to elicit some expression of repentance, in which case he could give the sacraments.

And he could stay there and even hold the hand of the person, praying that he would have the grace to repent before rendering up his soul.

As regards celebrating the funeral, great care must be taken. In the case of assisted suicide the person will often be more in his right mind, and therefore more responsible before God, than a person suffering from severe depression who ends his life by suicide.

Celebrating the funeral in that case could imply that the priest sees nothing wrong with what the person has done.

But since the Church now acknowledges that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC 2283), and since it is always possible that the person may have been given a light from God at the last moment to repent, the priest could often give the person the benefit of the doubt and celebrate the funeral.

It would be important then to make clear to those present the Church’s opposition to assisted suicide but at the same time to ask them to pray for the eternal salvation of the person’s soul.