A priest never walks alone

…or acts alone, for that matter. With that I mean to say that the actions of a priest should always be considered within the larger framework of the Church. Of course, priests have responsibilities for which they themselves are accountable, but they perform their work as shepherds of God’s people as men ordained to do so through Christ Himself. They are not managers of a CEO, democratic representatives of a parish (they are sent to parishes, not chosen from among its members), but shepherds tasked to lead the faithful closer to God.

In the last week of my absence, a parish priest from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Father Norbert van der Sluis, has made headlines because he refused to offer a funeral Mass for a man who died because of euthanasia. The parish council demanded apologies from him, which he refuses to give. And I think he is right in not budging to the demands, which come from a seriously warped understanding of what a priest is and how he functions within the parish and Church.

One of the duties of a priest is to teach. He does so through catechesis and conversations, but also through his actions. In situations which are at odds with Catholic teaching, such as cases of euthanasia, a priest must clearly and charitably (the latter being just as important as the former) advance Catholic teaching. It seems that Father van der Sluis is doing just that, however hard it must be in the onslaught of media attack and phone calls from angry parishioners.

Of course, this whole affair is not about the man whose life was ended through euthanasia. May he rest in peace and  forever live in the light of God. Instead, this is about the grave sin of murder, about the fifth commandment.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes paragraphs 2276 to 2279 to the topic of euthanasia. In short: euthanasia, the active killing of a person with the intent of doing so, is morally unacceptable. It is murder. The acceptance of inevitable death, by not giving disproportionate treatment – treatment that aims to keep someone alive through all kinds of extraordinary means -, is acceptable. In the latter case, death is not the intended outcome, but the relief of suffering is.

This teaching of the Church flows from the unrestricted respect for the sanctity of life that we uphold. All Catholics – all Christians – have a duty to uphold this. Failure to do so has consequences.

In 2005, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference publish a guide about the pastoral care regarding requests for euthanasia. In it, the bishops describe several situations which may arise.

1: Request for a funeral Mass before euthanasia or assisted suicide is committed

A difficulty arises when a person makes it known that he or she will soon have their life ended on their own request, and wishes to make funeral arrangements. Such a request will be impossible to honour, since it could imply agreement with euthanasia or assisted suicide.

2: Request for a funeral Mass after euthanasia or assisted suicide has been committed

When it is revealed, after a person’s death, that he or she died through euthanasia or assisted suicide […] offering a Church funeral may hide the Christian witness about the sanctity of life. The risk of public scandal then exists, since the impression could arise that the Church agrees with euthanasia or suicide. In the aforementioned situation, assisting in providing a Church funeral is not suited, unless there is a grave reason which may not be shared due to the seal of confession.

3: Without knowledge or permission

Logically, the situation is different when the ending of a life has taken place without knowledge or without permission of the person involved.

4: Incomplete responsibility

A request for euthanasia or assistance in committing suicide may be due to the fear of death overwhelming a person. In that case there is only a partially voluntary choice, in which the person involved does not have full responsibility.

5: Traditional practices of allowing a Church funeral in cases of suicide with incomplete responsibility

Traditionally a Church funeral has been granted to people who took their own lives in a certain state of mind, this not in contradiction to the prohibition on a Church funeral for those who committed suicide. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. the Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives. [2282-2283].

The majority of people committing suicide act in a situation in which they do not have full access to normal use of reason, and are therefore not fully responsible for their act.

6: Not allowing a Church funeral in cases of a request for euthanasia with normal use of reason

For people who, because of a physical condition, request euthanasia of medical assistance with suicide, the situation is different. Because they, as a rule,have full access to normal use of reason, unless this is inhibited by medication, another consideration is applicable here. In essence, they are responsible for their request. There is for them the option of a humane death in agreement with the teachings of the Church by using satisfactory palliative care.

7. Question of a Church funeral in case of request for euthanasia in restricted freedom

Suffering from a serious, incurable, physical illness may have an influence on the psyche. Even if judgement itself is still intact, it may happen that people choose euthanasia or medical assistance with suicide, because the are captured by fear or stress. These can be factors which restrict inner freedom and therefore decrease the responsibility of those involved. If there are indications that the choice for euthanasia or assistance with suicide has not been made in full freedom, a Church funeral may be allowed, based on a prudent consideration of all factors involved – if necessary in consultation with ordinarius loci.

Regarding these instruction, the only conclusion seems to be that Father van der Sluis acted fully within his rights as a priest. The only thing that may be brought against him, and this is wholly hypothetical, is that the decision not to allow a Church funeral in this case, was made in haste. But there is no proof of that. Father van der Sluis says that he informed the family of the deceased person about the Church’s teachings regarding euthanasia and palliative care.

It is sad to see that a priest who acts fully within his rights and according to his duties – not by his own rules, but according to those he represents – is branded an ultra-conservative. Father van der Sluis deserves full support. It is not a nice decision to have to take, anyone will agree with that, but it is even worse to hide the teachings of the Church – teachings that protect the sanctity of life – in order to keep things quiet and easy.

In the meantime, the parish council of Fr. van der Sluis’ parish has declared that they no longer want to continue working with him. It is almost as if they think that the priest works for them.

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