It’s an appalling document. In a pastoral letter, ten Catholic Bishops of the Canadian Atlantic Episcopal Assembly shirk their responsibilities as teachers of the faith. The issue is doctor-assisted suicide, which is now legal in Canada.
Readers can’t know to what degree the document’s apparent rubber-stamping of the culture of death was intended by its authors, or to what degree it simply follows from sloppy thinking and careless rhetoric. But the bishops’ failure to condemn suicide in plain terms is unmistakable. What’s more, the bishops adopt the circumlocutions of the Canadian government, which instituted the new suicide regime, along with the antinomian clichés of the current pontificate. One is left with the strong impression that the bishops do not merely wish to avoid condemning the practice of doctor-assisted suicide. They want the Church to accommodate herself, smoothing over any conflicts between Catholic teaching and the culture of death.
The bishops adopt the euphemism “medical assistance in dying,” pronouncing it “a highly complex and intensely emotional issue which profoundly affects us all.” It’s so complex, indeed, that we’re to practice “the art of accompaniment” that Pope Francis recommends, which means “prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit,” and not “judgments about people’s responsibility and culpability.” Suicide? Who am I to judge?
The worst aspect of this document, however, comes in the way the bishops tacitly sanction a grotesque misuse of the sacraments. They observe that a priest administers the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick “for strengthening and accompanying someone in a vulnerable and suffering state.” Earlier in the document, the bishops have been keen to stipulate that a person asking for a doctor to end his life is not to be judged culpable, but instead “accompanied” as someone who is “suffering.” The implication is straightforward, even if not explicitly stated: It is permissible, perhaps even desirable, for a priest to anoint a Catholic who is about to receive a deliberate, self-willed, death-dealing dose of medication.
The document praises the power of Holy Communion “to assist a person in growing in their union with Christ,” and especially Viaticum or final communion, which “has a power of particular significance and importance as the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection.” Again, the logic of “accompaniment” and the spirit of nonjudgmentalism clear the way for the priest to provide final communion that helps “prepare” a Catholic for suicide. The same, of course, goes for funeral rites. Suicide is not an impediment.
In order to make sure they’re read rightly, the bishops sum up their sacramental theology: “To one and all we wish to say that the pastoral care of souls cannot be reduced to norms for the reception of the sacraments or the celebration of funeral rites.” Which is to say, Catholic moral teaching supplies guidelines, not rules.
This way of thinking is encouraged by Pope Francis’s habitual antinomianism, which treats canon law, sacramental norms, and theological principles as impediments to God’s love. Francis says many things, of course, but bishops are getting the message. The “gospel” is mercy without judgment, grace without truth, and church without form.
Francis’s signature phrases and the emphases of his pontificate prepare the way for the grotesque possibility, realized in this document, that bishops of the Church and servants of Christ will become cheerful, “pastoral” chaplains of the culture of death. “Persons and their families, who may be considering euthanasia or assisted suicide and who request the ministry of the Church need to be accompanied with dialogue and compassionate, prayerful support.” These bishops are convinced that they can bring people the gospel of life in some mysterious, inner way, even as their words and actions tell the world that the choice of death should occasion “dialogue,” not a clear statement of moral truth.
Shame on the bishops of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Shame on this pontificate. As I’ve written in the past, sidelining the objectivity of truth encourages the triumph of bourgeois religion, a generic do-good sentimentality characterized by only one stricture—which is that the conduct of the well-off, well-educated, and well-intentioned residents of the rich world of the West is not to be judged in any definitive way. People like us make mistakes, of course. But our issues are “highly complex” and “intensely emotional,” and we mean well. We can be complicit with “structures of injustice,” and even play roles in an “economy that kills.” But we never sin.
It’s ironic that this supposedly revolutionary pope should be such a reassuring champion of the therapeutic culture of the West. Though perhaps it’s not ironic. The rhetoric of revolution has long served wonderfully to transform sin, judgment, and redemption into injustice, consciousness-raising, and social change.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.