Over a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel of New Orleans formally moved to end segregation in his archdiocese. He had already taken the unpopular step of admitting two African-American students to Notre Dame seminary, and he was clear about his ultimate goals: “Let there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.”
His moves were met with fierce resistance. Powerful Catholics, like the public at large, were aghast. Archbishop Rummel, however, knew that there was a fundamental truth about the dignity of the human person at stake, one for which all Catholics must stand—or stand outside the faith. Indeed, he pronounced multiple leaders of the resistance to desegregation excommunicated, including the council president of Plaquemines Parish.
It was a great moment for the Catholic Church and, more importantly, for the dignity of the human person.
Fast forward six decades. Psychiatric care centers run by Roman Catholic Brothers of Charity in Belgium have capitulated to their home country’s embrace of euthanasia. Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2003, and since then the outlook for human dignity has become ever more grim. Initially, euthanasia was to be provided only to terminally ill patients experiencing unbearable physical suffering; increasingly, it has been provided to non-terminal patients who experience psychological suffering. For instance, news in 2016 that a Belgian woman had been granted euthanasia because of her particularly depressed state after breaking up with her boyfriend was deeply troubling, even for those of who follow such trends closely.
The Belgian Brothers of Charity, an order founded in 1807 for the care of the elderly and mentally ill, now countenance euthanasia in precisely these situations. They will grant euthanasia requests for mental health reasons, even when a patient is not terminally ill, or even physically ill at all.
To be clear, it does not appear that the Brothers themselves are committing euthanasia, a terrible crime against the dignity of the human person. They allow outside physicians to administer euthanasia to their psychiatric patients, subject to certain regulations. Initially, the Brothers required euthanasia to occur off-site. But in 2016, a Belgian court fined a Catholic nursing home for refusing to allow a lung-cancer patient to be euthanized on its premises—a decision interpreted as meaning that institutions have no standing to intervene in euthanasia cases. Perhaps responding to that decision, and perhaps to other financial and legal pressures, the Belgian Brothers changed their policy in March 2017, and now allow euthanasia to be administered within the walls of their psychiatric care centers.
Pope Francis personally approved a Vatican order commanding the Brothers to stop their care centers from providing euthanasia. Francis, after all, is a harsh critic of the practice, decrying those who “hide behind alleged compassion to justify killing a patient.” Euthanasia, he insists, is “the triumph of selfishness, of that ‘throwaway culture’ that rejects and despises people who do not meet certain standards of health, beauty or usefulness.”
In my own work, I’ve argued that it is diabolical to create a consumerist culture that values people on the basis of these standards and, when faced with the problem of vulnerable people who do not meet the standards, respond by making it easier for such people to kill themselves. This isn’t social justice. This is a capitulation to the very structures of sin those who work for social justice claim to resist.
Earlier this month, the care centers run by the Belgian Brothers made it clear that they will not follow Francis and the Vatican in honoring this central truth about the dignity of the person. Though it appears the general superior of the order is strongly against euthanasia, the board that made the decision is composed mostly of laypeople. The fifteen psychiatric care centers they run claim to be Roman Catholic.
When pressed about Catholic requirements in this area, the chairperson of the board responded by saying, “Jesus also ignored the rules.”
Indeed, but this fact cuts in precisely the opposite direction. Jesus ignored the rules in support of suffering with and for the most vulnerable. True compassion, He taught us, is nonviolent. In light of this teaching, Roman Catholics can be sure that the rules that should be ignored are those established by Belgium, not the Catholic Church.
I can’t speak to the legal complexities pertaining to religious practice in Belgium. But let’s take the Brothers’ board at their word when they say that they are mandated “by law” to allow euthanasia of mentally ill individuals inside their care centers. Then let’s do a thought experiment.
Let’s a imagine a world in which Belgian law not only permits racist discrimination against Muslim immigrants, but mandates that hospitals allow physicians to treat such immigrants in racist ways. How should a Catholic hospital respond?
Because racism is a fundamental attack on the dignity of the human person, an authentically Catholic institution would, it seems to me, do three things:
• work to change the rules, not only for religious freedom, but for the equal dignity of all races and cultures;
• ignore the rules (like Jesus); and
• shut down the institution if it is legally required to violate the fundamental dignity of the human person.
Euthanasia and racism are different, of course. But both are grave attacks on the fundamental dignity of the human person—not least because they do so much damage to already vulnerable populations.
Archbishop Rummel realized that the institutions in his archdiocese could not remain authentically Catholic and practice racial segregation. He was right to point out that those who practiced segregation had placed themselves outside the Church, and in pronouncing their excommunication he simply noted that they had done so. He took this measure, it should be noted, with pastoral hope and prayer that it would serve as a catalyst for repentance and a return to the faith.
Likewise, an institution cannot remain authentically Catholic and practice euthanasia. If a bishop were to note officially and publicly that such institutions had placed themselves outside the Church, he would also be right to do so. And if this comes to pass, we should hope and pray that it will serve as a catalyst for repentance and a return to the faith.
Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and author of Too Expensive to Treat?—Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU.