In November, the contentious legislation that allows euthanasia and assisted suicide to be sought and provided will come into effect throughout New Zealand.
Passed in November 2020, the law permits terminally ill adults, in the name of autonomy, to request that their medical practitioner kills, or provides them with the lethal drugs to kill themselves.
What once would have accurately been described as murder and abetting suicide is now referred to as ‘assisted dying’, sanitizing the reality; cloaking the practices in false compassion.
New Zealand is not alone. A growing number of jurisdictions are legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide. Its growing acceptance in societies poses great moral and pastoral dilemmas for Catholic laity and clergy alike. Secular thinking, coupled with many decades of poor formation, means some Catholics cannot understand why euthanasia and assisted suicide are forbidden. As a result, Bishop’s Conferences and individual clergy throughout the world have had to grapple with the practical reality of ministering to those who are suffering or coming to the end of life, and who are contemplating, or have chosen, to end their life prematurely by euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Earlier this year, NZ Catholic published an article in which Bishop Patrick Dunn intimated the difficulty in discerning the appropriate pastoral approach to the spiritual care of people who intend to die by euthanasia or assisted suicide. In that article, he noted the Bishops Conference was looking for feedback regarding the matter. The letter which follows is Family Life International’s response to this informal request.
Dear Bishops of New Zealand,
We are writing in response to Bishop Dunn’s informal call in an NZ Catholic interview for wider feedback on the pastoral, and more specifically, the spiritual care of people who intend to die by euthanasia or assisted suicide.
A growing number of jurisdictions are legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, posing great moral and pastoral dilemmas for Catholic laity and clergy alike. Bishop’s Conferences and individual clergy throughout the world have had to grapple with the practical reality of ministering to those who are suffering or coming to the end of life, and who are contemplating, or have chosen, to end their life prematurely by euthanasia or assisted suicide. Sadly, it is now New Zealand’s turn.
We know that you will agree that it is vital that all pastoral and spiritual care decisions are made in charity, and with compassion, always upholding the dignity of the person who is suffering, leading them to truth, and drawing them closer to God.
We believe it is impossible for the priest and others of good will who provide pastoral care, to accompany to the very end the person who chooses euthanasia and assisted suicide. To do so would entangle them in the choice, making them complicit in the grave moral evil that is taking place.
Catholic clergy, chaplains, health practitioners, and all those who care for the vulnerable, sick, and dying will need to cautiously navigate the difficulties of balancing pastoral care with ensuring no behaviour on their part gives the appearance of condoning euthanasia and assisted suicide. We believe it is imperative that scandal be avoided; no person should be left with the impression that a member of the clergy, or chaplaincy, approves of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Ensuring the sacraments are reserved only for those who are properly disposed will protect these gifts of healing and unity with Christ from being profaned, and from being seen as something every person has an inherent right to.
Funerals tend to be public, and clergy must be aware that advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide will do all they can to find instances where it appears as if the Church is in support of this method of death. Of particular concern, but not limited to, is the case where it is known that the person had intended to die by euthanasia or assisted suicide. In this situation a public funeral in a Catholic church would give the impression of approval, undoubtedly would be exploited, and in addition, would cause grave scandal among the faithful.
Having read several practical guidelines from Bishops Conferences grappling with this issue, we were impressed with the guidelines provided by the Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada, Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons & Families Considering or Opting for Death by Assisted Suicide or Euthanasia: A Vademecum for Priests and Parishes.
We believe that thorough guidelines such as these provide not only the clergy, but lay people with a clear understanding of what is, and what is not appropriate in any given situation. Practical guidelines read alongside Samaritanus Bonus (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), will ensure that all Catholics who find themselves walking with the suffering can do so with true charity, compassion, and in truth.
We ask that you, the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand provide very clear and thorough guidelines which express and adhere faithfully to all the relevant teachings of the Church and to Canon Law.
New Zealand is about to embark on a road we should not travel. All those who provide pastoral and spiritual care to the sick and dying have an important role in leading to God anyone who is despairing, especially people who are contemplating or intend to die prematurely by euthanasia or assisted suicide. They must uphold the dignity of each person, treating each with charity and compassion. At the same time, clergy and lay persons must avoid causing scandal, and ensure that their behaviour does not in any way appear to condone euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Thank you for your leadership in opposing the End of Life Choice legislation. Please be assured of our prayers for each of you as you work on these very important pastoral and spiritual decisions.
Yours in the service of life,
Colleen Bayer Michelle Kaufman
Founder and Director Communications Director