OTTAWA, Ontario — The bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories have issued pastoral guidelines for clergy dealing with Catholics who are considering euthanasia or assisted suicide, which is now legal in Canada.
The 32-page document, written for priests and parishes, gives guidance on when people in such situations are eligible to receive certain sacraments or a Catholic funeral. It includes references to canon law and pastoral guidance for special circumstances.
The document specifically addresses the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick.
“In our day a priest may encounter a penitent who has officially requested physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia,” the document says. “The penitent has not yet been killed, nor has he/she committed suicide, but he or she has initiated the process, which is already a grave matter.
“If the penitent does not rescind this request, he or she will be killed,” the bishops write. “They are in this objective state of sin, which is gravely disordered. They have incited and officially arranged for someone to kill them.”
The document restates the three things that must be present for a mortal sin, but notes that a person might not be aware that euthanasia is a grave sin. Their freedom may be impaired through “depression, drugs, or pressure from others,” it says.
“If the penitent, having been made aware of the gravity of the situation, is open to learning the church’s teaching on this issue, and open to reconsidering the decision, the priest can absolve,” it says. “There is at least the beginning of contrition, a willingness to reconsider and thus possibly rectify their situation.”
“If they are not open at least to prayerfully considering the rescinding of their request — now that they know it is a grave sin — they would be choosing to do something gravely wrong, that is to say, deciding to remain in a situation of sin rather than seek to amend their life,” the bishops write.
“In this case, the minister would need to delay absolution to a later time when the person may be properly disposed.”
The anointing of the sick usually follows reconciliation or confession, the bishops write, but it can be given to an unconscious person. It presumes repentance. Those who refuse to repent, who are not contrite, are not “properly disposed” to receive the sacrament.
“The request for euthanasia or assisted suicide is in direct contradiction to the baptismal call of the dying believer to proclaim at all times, especially at the approach of death, that ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,'” the bishops write. The priest is encouraged to “implore the sick person with gentle firmness to turn away from this determination in repentance and trust.”
“If the person, however, remains obstinate, the anointing cannot be celebrated,” the bishops say.
“In the case of a person who is contemplating a request for medical assistance in committing suicide or for euthanasia, but has not yet determined to do so, the grace of the sacrament of anointing is not to be denied,” the bishops say. “This is a precious opportunity in the life of a person to encounter Jesus Christ, who is both teacher and healer.”
When it comes to funerals, the bishops ask Catholics to hold two truths in balance.
“First, all ecclesiastical funerals are offered for sinners. The church, as a generous mother, is eager to intercede for her children even when they have wandered,” the bishops say. Second, the church requires “funeral celebrations to be real signs of faith and to be respectful of the conscience and decisions of those who have died.”
The document lists the categories of sinners who are not eligible to receive Catholic funeral rites unless there was some sign of repentance before death. Those who die by euthanasia or assisted suicide call for additional considerations, the bishops say.
“The church does, in fact, celebrate Christian funerals for those who have been found after the fact to have committed suicide,” they write. “We are not able to judge the reason the person has taken that decision or the disposition of their heart.”
“The case of assisted suicide or euthanasia, however, is a situation where more can sometimes be known of the disposition of the person and the freedom of the chronically ill man or woman, particularly if it is high-profile or notorious,” they write.
“In such cases, it may not be possible to celebrate a Christian funeral. If the church were to refuse a funeral to someone, it is not to punish the person but to recognize his or her decision — a decision that has brought him or her to an action that is contrary to the Christian faith, that is somehow notorious and public, and would do harm to the Christian community and the larger culture.”
The bishops advise considering the family. “As they face the death of a loved one, family members need the prayer and support of the church.
“Perhaps the family did not will the assisted suicide or euthanasia of their loved one and is looking to the church for the assistance and comfort of her intercession for mercy,” they write. “In such a situation, provided there would not be cause for public scandal, the funeral rites could be celebrated.”
“It must always be remembered that the burial of the dead is among the corporal works of mercy. Therefore, even when the official funeral rites of the church must be denied, a Liturgy of the Word at the funeral home or simple prayers at the graveside might be proposed.”
“Perhaps a memorial mass for the repose of the deceased’s soul could be celebrated at a later date. This is a matter of the priest’s good pastoral judgment,” the bishops write. “How to offer care and support to a family in the wake of these tragic events remains something that we must always bear in mind, whether we celebrate a funeral or not.”