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Pastoral document may allow those opting for assisted dying sacraments

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Atlantic bishops’ assisted-suicide document may impact conscience rights say some observers
By Deborah Gyapong
Catholic Canadian News

Photo Caption: Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, and Larry Worthen of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada appeared earlier in 2016 before the joint-Parliamentary Committee on Physician-assisted Dying (PADM) on behalf of the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience.

Critics of the Atlantic bishops’ new pastoral document on assisted dying say it could open the way in some cases to reception of the sacraments for those who decide to end their lives.

The Atlantic Episcopal Assembly (AEA) document stresses compassionate accompaniment for those contemplating euthanasia or assisted suicide, but it may ultimately weaken conscience rights for Catholic health-care workers and Catholic institutions, say some observers.

“I think it’s pretty clear that people claiming religion or conscience exemptions require  . . . the support of their religious institution,” said Douglas Farrow, a professor of Christian Thought at McGill University. “Catholics have been in an advantageous position” because they have a Magisterium that gives “authoritative responses to particular moral questions.”

On the other hand, “a statement like this, which hedges itself . . . with qualifications and compromises, obviously makes it much more difficult for Catholics on the front line in medicine and other professions that are involved in the euthanasia question or problem,” Farrow said.

“It’s much more difficult for Catholics in these professions to claim that the Church has a clear stance on the matter.”

What goes for Catholic practitioners goes also for Catholic institutions,” Farrow said. “When the bishops do not speak clearly, it makes it more difficult for these institutions and for the individuals who work either in those institutions or in some public institution.”

Hugh Scher, a constitutional lawyer who is legal counsel for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said individual rights of conscientious objection will likely not be impacted by such a document, but those of Catholic institutions could be.

“The right to freedom of religion is constructed and has been interpreted to be an individual right,” said Scher. “The content of that right is determined not by religious tenets set down from on high, but rather from individual beliefs and practices rooted in the religion.”

The document may also affect policies at public institutions, such as colleges of physicians,” said Scher. Provinces and the federal government have deferred to the various colleges governing the health professions to determine the rules on conscientious objection and matters such as effective referral.

An even bigger problem is the widespread support for assisted suicide, including among Mass-going Catholics, says Larry Worthen, a spokesman for the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience. The Archdiocese of Vancouver is a member of the coalition.

In 2014, just before the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s law against assisted suicide, an Angus Reid found 70 per cent of Catholics attending Mass once in the last month supported assisted suicide, said Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) of Canada and a Catholic deacon in the Halifax-Yarmouth Archdiocese

Statements from episcopal conferences are important and bishops across Canada have been consistently supportive of conscience rights, said Worthen, but “the most important thing that has to be dealt with is the results of that survey.”

Many Catholics have “huge misunderstandings on how their faith should apply to this particular issue,” said Worthen. The matter “should be the number one pastoral priority because it shows the misunderstanding of the relevance of the commandments of God; and it shows a lack of concern about the vulnerable.”

He pointed out that disability rights organizations are solidly opposed to assisted suicide. “We’ve been talking about social justice with our faithful for years, and yet this teaching doesn’t seem to be catching on.”

Worthen’s biggest concern is the “huge disconnect” between what the Church teaches and the lay faithful’s ethics. “If a Catholic thinks (assisted suicide) is right, and goes ahead and does it, in my view, they are putting their salvation at risk.”


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