Catholics could be denied last rites, funerals if they undergo doctor-assisted suicide: Canadian bishop

Todd Hambleton/Cornwall /Standard-Freeholder/Postmedia NetworkTodd Hambleton/Cornwall /Standard-Freeholder/Postmedia NetworkArchbishop .

Catholics who consider undergoing doctor- must realize the act is a “morally great evil” and could mean they will be denied last rites, says a leading Canadian bishop.

The Church might also refuse to conduct a funeral when families strongly support and champion their loved one’s assisted-death decision, said Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa.

His comments underscore a little-mentioned dilemma that assisted death has presented to the 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 other parts of the last rites, he said.

“The priest would pray with them, but I don’t think he would give the anointing,” said the archbishop. “I think we have to be clear that the Church cannot condone this. It’s clearly contrary to the moral teaching of everybody.”

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.

Their critique of the assisted-death concept — including a statement read in all Toronto-area churches Sunday — has focused on moral and human-rights arguments, along with a call for better palliative-care services.

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But when it comes to religious rituals, the Church needs to avoid inadvertently endorsing the practice, said John Berkman, a professor at Regis College, the University of Toronto’s Jesuit school of theology.

“I’m certainly not going to say that anybody who’s involved in this must not be given a funeral, but I’m certainly not going to say the opposite either,” he said.

“It would be fundamentally wrong for the church to kind of say, ‘What’s a little bit of assisted-suicide or between friends?’ This is serious.”

Other major faiths, including Islam and Judaism, similarly decry suicide to varying degrees and have voiced opposition to the notion of assisted-death.

Catholicism may face particular challenges, though, given the size of its following in — 40 per cent of the population report being members — and the age-old rituals it practices around death and dying.

Committing suicide once precluded a Catholic from being given funeral rites and buried in a Catholic cemetery, the act seen as “self-murder,” as wrong as killing someone else, said Berkman.

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 legalized 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.

It’s a very difficult thing

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.

“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,’” said Berkman. “That would be scandalous.”

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 said, “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.”

Armina Ligaya/National PostArmina Ligaya/National PostCardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, greets parishioners outside of St. Michaelís Cathedral in Toronto.

of Toronto, who has spoken out forcefully recently about the broader issue, said in an interview that he has not given the matter of last rites and funerals much thought, but says Prendergast probably has a point.

“We certainly always want to reach out to people at every stage,” said Collins. “(But) they are consciously choosing to do this. It’s a very difficult thing.”

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.

“If the Church focuses on judging others, then it probably won’t be able to help people at the worst times of their lives,” said Juliet Guichon, a bioethicist at the University of Calgary.

National Post

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