On November 27th of this year, the Atlantic Episcopal Assembly comprised of the ten bishops of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland published a letter entitled 'A Pastoral Reflection on Medical Assistance in Dying'. It can be read in its entirety at this link.
There have been a number of reactions to this letter. Rod Dreher of American Conservative called his post Tenderness Leads to the Gas Chamber.
Father Raymond de Souza wrote a response that advised the clergy to follow the guidelines of the bishops of Alberta and the North West Territories instead of the bishops of eastern Canada.
RR Reno editor of First Things wrote a scathing article and called it Chaplains of Death.
There have been others as well, none of which are endorsing the Atlantic bishops' pastoral letter.
I have been mulling this over for a while. My first reaction, as always, is a knee-jerk reaction to strike out and do something big and brash. I have over the years learned to temper myself somewhat; at least now I wait a few days before putting anything in print.
But I still think there are some things to be said.
I have written several times to my bishop, Archbishop Mancini of the Halifax diocese, and have never received a response. Perhaps he has too many letters and emails to respond to; perhaps he chooses not to. Whatever the reason, I think he needs to say something this time because the waters have been muddied and the direction for the clergy of the Atlantic provinces is unclear, that is simply not right or fair to them.
As everyone else has said, the bishops have seemed to leave the door open to giving the last rites to someone who has decided to be euthanised or who is opting for assisted suicide. They certainly have not been definitive in either a yes or no, and that is the main problem with this letter. It copies the vague language of Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia (or whoever wrote that infamous footnote on Communion for the divorced and remarried).
The letter uses the word 'accompany' several times. The clergy and the laity too, I guess, are to 'accompany' the sick person as they journey toward their earthly end, but the bishops do not say what this accompaniment should be. Do we visit the sick and bring them comfort, do we spend time with them as they face the fear and depression that seems to be such a large part of dying, or are we to allow them to receive the Sacraments of confession and communion, even though they have not repented of their sin of choosing to end their life?
But then the word 'sin' never appears in the letter. It would seem that it doesn't exist any longer.
As one of the comments on LSN put it in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
The pastoral letter does indeed seem to equate accompanying someone who is dying with accepting whatever decision they choose at the end of their life, either to end that life themselves or to leave it in the hands of God. The letter does not state that one is wrong and the other is right.
In this, the bishops have simply decided to comply with the relativist ethics of the secular world. They do not seem to want to disturb anyone with a statement that might seem harsh or judgmental. But surely, when they signed up for the priesthood, they should have known that they were doing something that went against the current, that they were in fact taking a stand for what Christ taught which ends up in conflict with the world. Are they simply trying to avoid such conflict?
All the objectors to the letter have spelled this out quite clearly. It is illogical to give someone absolution in advance for a sin, but this is what is implied in the bishops' letter. That the circumstances could lessen the culpability of one who ends their life and that they can therefore receive the sacraments in good faith - why does this even need to be argued? It is simply illogical.
If you receive Communion in bad faith, you have committed another graver sin. Period. There have to be some lines drawn here; previous statements from bishops and from the Magisterium of the Church didn't have a problem with this, but this generation or this demographic of bishops seems to have difficulty with saying that there is right and wrong.
There are a couple of other things that bother me about this letter. The first one that jumped out at me is at the very beginning of the letter.
We perceive her (the Church) as a mother who lovingly accompanies us throughout life, and who especially wishes to support and guide us when we are faced with difficult situations and decisions.
As a mother who 'faced difficult situations and decisions' with one of her children, I would beg to differ with the bishops here. Being a mother who accompanies her child and loves that child, does not mean agreeing with that child's decisions or supporting those decisions. Remember the old adage about 'tough love'? It is out of favour now, perhaps most readers don't even know the phrase. It meant telling the truth in love to one's child. You could still love them and listen to them, but you did not condone their decisions or try to mitigate the consequences of their decisions for them. My husband and I did this with our oldest child, and years later she thanked us for that. She said her decision at that time was one of the worst decisions of her life, and she regretted it. I can't say that our stance was a cause of her change of heart and mind in this situation, but we would not have helped her one whit if we had condoned and supported her in what she was doing then.
So no, Your Grace, your perception of what it is to be a mother is flawed, deeply flawed. A silent, nodding, assenting, loving mother is an incomplete picture of what a mother is called to be. A mother deeply wishes the absolute best for her child, and that may mean acting in a way that others will see as unkind or cruel. You cannot sacrifice the truth for love, love without truth falls short. And it is the child who is short-changed in having the truth withheld from them.
Another problem I have with this letter is the misuse of Scripture. It may not be that serious, but it could be an indication of a bigger problem. I leave you to decide.
Pope Francis calls us to practice this 'art of accompaniment', removing our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (Ex 3:5)I haven't noticed that this bothered any of the other critics of this pastoral letter. But surely this is a quote that has been abused. This is the real text of Exodus 3:5:
Do not come any closer, God said. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.The ground is holy because God is there, it is not holy because 'the other' is there. Scripture never uses the words 'the sacred ground of the other'. This is a phrase that has been coined from elsewhere; it is not Scriptural. Surely the bishops should have got one right.
Do you remember in high school math class when the teacher pointed out that if you draw two lines beside each other, but the lines are not truly parallel, one is off by one degree? When you have drawn those lines any distance, it will become very clear that they are getting farther and farther apart. You may have intended to draw the second line parallel to the first, but by being off by just one degree, your second line ends up miles away from the first if you go any distance.
The same is true with this letter of the bishops of Atlantic Canada. They are off by one degree, perhaps more than one, from the truth of Scripture and from the teachings of the Catholic Church. And in the end, they are so far removed from the truth that they are no longer recognizable as Catholic. In fact, they are no different from the secular world that advocates compassion without judgment to the peril of souls.