High stakes for Canada’s Bishops in euthanasia row
While having dinner recently with my former producer, Bernie Lucht, the Montreal Jewish intellectual and onetime head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship intellectual affairs programme, Ideas, he looked across the table at me and asked plaintively why the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was being so callous with the dying.
Bernie had confused the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories with the national episcopal conference. Easy enough to do. What bothered him was the seeming disjunction between Pope Francis’ call for mercy and non-judgmental attitudes toward the marginalised and the position taken by the bishops.
In their 34-page document, Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons and Families Considering or Opting for Death by Assisted Suicide or Euthanasia, the Alberta and Northwest Territories bishops made it clear that their clergy should not engage in the “truly scandalous” behaviour of granting a request for funeral rites or the sacraments by people who have, for whatever reason, chosen to die by physician-assisted protocols.
Physician-assisted dying is now a legal right in Canada following the passage of Bill C-14 in June of this year. As I have outlined in an article in New York’s Commonweal magazine following Royal Assent for the Bill: “Although benign euphemisms were deployed regularly in an effort to make the legislation more palatable to a nervous public, Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, was refreshingly blunt in its editorial position when it observed prior to the bill’s convoluted passing through both chambers that ‘once the new law is adopted, we will be a country whose legislation allows the state to kill its citizens, pure and simple.
People often warn against slippery slopes, but this is no slope. This is a precipice from which there is no return.’”
To be clear, The Globe and Mail was not opposed to the legislation per se as it recognised that Parliament was responding to polls that indicated that the Canadian public was in favour of some form of doctor-induced death with rigorous constraints put in place.
But, not unreasonably and predictably, the Catholic bishops were opposed to the legislation as they considered it “an affront to human dignity, an erosion of human solidarity, and a danger to all vulnerable persons”.
But once the bill was passed and became the law of the land, the Canadian episcopate moved to ensure that Catholic health care facilities were protected from providing services that contradicted their mandate.
To date, they have been successful in achieving that but the Alberta bishops document may have ignited unnecessary controversy, prompting the considerable lobby opposed to exemptions for religiously-affiliated and publicly-funded health care institutions to move toward litigation seeking to revoke that exemption and could well end up in the Supreme Court.
Senior Quebec prelates, like the country’s Primate, Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec City, and Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, have dissociated themselves from their Western brothers by insisting that their priests will provide funerals for those who choose the now legal medically-assisted dying option and will “accompany people in every step of their life”. By electing a pastoral over a canonical approach, the Quebec clerics have aligned more closely with the Franciscan papacy.
The last time the national episcopate was in very public disagreement was in the early 1980s when a social justice document highly critical of Canada’s fiscal policies and commitment to ‘trickle down economics’ was, in turn, repudiated by then Cardinal Archbishop of Toronto, Gerald Emmett Carter, a close friend of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and several of his Cabinet.
This time the stakes are higher.
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