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The parishes of San Salvator in Den Bosch and Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in Liempde are some 20 kilometers apart, but when it comes to parish councils, they could be neighbours. Both have been in the news lately, with stories of disregard of Catholic teaching and a frank misunderstanding of authority, both theirs and others’.
In both parishes, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts has been working to resolve things, but with little result as far as the parish councils are concerned. In San Salvator, the parish council is now on the lookout for an alternate location to continue their fake Masses and Protestant church services. The parish church belongs to the diocese, after all, and if the parish no longer considers itself part of that diocese, it is only sensible that they can no longer pretend that are properly Catholic by using Catholic buildings and furnishings.
In Liempde, three of the seven parish council members have quit after Father Norbert van der Sluis (pictured)was not transferred to another parish. The council wanted that transfer after Fr. van der Sluis did not allow a funeral Mass for a man who died through euthanasia.
And this is the basic problem, both at San Salvator and in Liempde: parish councils overstepping their bounds. It’s a matter of understanding exactly what a parish council is for. It is not a democratic representation of the faithful, and neither does is decide on Catholic teachings and ‘policies’. A parish council exists to assist the parish priest in running a parish, with the pastoral and educational duties remaining those of the priest.
It is a matter of fact that the Catholic Church has a hierarchy; not a hierarchy for the sake of power, but for the sake of the faith. Our bishops and priests are our shepherds, they lead us towards God and teach us how to live our faith. Priests are called to these responsibilities and receive the Spirit to take them on through ordination. Their pastoral work does not happen in a vacuum, but within the context of parish and diocese, and ultimately the world Church. A parish council assists the priests in taking care of the worldly affairs of a faith community. For example, they take care of the finances, of maintenance of the buildings used by the parish, of scheduling programs and events, and keeping a proper record of the things that are done. The parish priest remains ultimately responsible for all that, though, but he can delegate. What he can’t delegate are such things as the celebration of the sacraments, prayer and education (although laity may assist in these).
Parish council members can’t take these things solely on themselves, even if they are without a priest for a certain time. They certainly can’t pretend to be able to overrule decisions taken by the priest in these matters, nor can they refuse the appointment of a priest, even if he’s the allegedly ‘very orthodox’ auxiliary bishop.
These things are not new. The same responsibilities of priest and parish council exist since the 1960s, so the council members of San Salvator and Beheading of St. John have no excuse to be unaware of them, let along of the faith of the Church, which has one or two things to say about the need for priests.
One day before Bishop Rob Mutsaerts is to meet with the parish council and parishioners of Liempde, to discuss their actions regarding Father Norbert van der Sluis, the diocesan website features an article from the auxiliary bishop.
In it, Msgr. Mutsaerts repeats much of the 2005 text from the bishops regarding euthanasia and pastoral care. These points are, I think, well worth repeating, since few people seem to be aware of them. The bishop also goes beyond that, and states that Fr. van der Sluis “judged and acted correctly” in not allowing a Church funeral for a man who died because of freely chosen euthanasia.
The closing paragraph of the article, which you can read in my translation here, is gained to dispel the claims of people who were keen to call the Church loveless and judgemental (claims which still keep appearing in newspapers and other media):
[T]he Church judges moral actions. That is her duty. She judges this in accordance with the Bible. The Church never judges a person. At all times, she leaves that to God’s mercy. Every pastoral action is aimed at the salvation of souls. That is why it is the duty of the Church to underline God’s love, so that man would entrust himself to God’s love. It would be loveless if the Church would support ways that do not lead people to God.
…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.