Rites For the Assisted

RNS linked this interview with Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa. While I can appreciate the passion and frustration of a pastor dealing with people who are dying, a few cautions surfaced for me. One was liturgical:

(A person who requests a lethal injection) lacks the proper disposition for the anointing of the sick.

If a person is asking to die, I would think that usually covers the situation of an individual near death. Viaticum might be a better choice than anointing. Most people seeking assistance to commit suicide are quite close to the end of life anyway.

Asking your priest to be present to something that is in direct contradiction to our Catholic values is not fair to the pastor. Of course a pastor will try and dissuade a patient from requesting suicide and will pray with them and their family, but asking him to be present is in effect asking him to condone a serious sin.

I might be less sure about this pronouncement. I can imagine the situation of a person who is, say, of age sixty and is just tired of living. Of course, that might imply such a person has a psychological illness–depression, anxiety, or something along those lines. I wouldn’t want to be involved with such a spectacle, either. But a good pastoral minister would be aware of such a thing developing and possibly assist in heading off the notion of suicide.

I can also imagine that a cancer sufferer wracked with pain might wish for relief, and I would hesitate to say that such an individual is blessed with a clarity of thought. The health insurance system being as unsatisfactory as it has been in this country for decades, it’s not clear to me that a dying person would get the palliative care they need.

In the either case, I might imagine that the presence of a priest or another minister of the church during this time of decision might be of comfort to the family or friends, especially if there is someone present who disagrees with the decision to commit suicide. What does a minister do? Step outside while the lethal drugs take effect? Assess if the person is in her or his right mind and celebrate Viaticum before the act?

Asking to be killed is gravely disordered and is a rejection of the hope that the rite calls for and tries to bring into the situation.

I think a person has to be accustomed to the virtue of hope. I find it to be the most difficult and possibly overlooked of the Big 3. In a culture that values a person as long as she or he can contribute as a productive cog in the machine (and I don’t just mean work) this is a big momentum shift. The Church itself is often culpable in this regard. Our voice doesn’t ring true in some circles.

Perhaps clergy reading this might weigh in on whether they might celebrate Viaticum. Case by case situation? I think this pronouncement from Archbishop Prendergast hits the wrong audience. I feel skeptical on the scare tactics on the sacraments. But maybe this has been in discussion with parish clergy and ministers already. This is what I would do. What about you?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Pastoral Care of the Sick and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Rites For the Assisted

  1. Liam says:

    “I find it [Hope] to be the most difficult and possibly overlooked of the Big 3.”

    Pay attention to this.

  2. FrMichael says:

    Stick around for a suicide? I would try to dissuade him, but in the end if he chooses to go through with it, time to leave.

    Certainly a person with full mental faculties having this intention does NOT have the proper disposition of soul to receive Viaticum. Anointing would be wasted too. Confession would be invalid because of the penitent’s lack of contrition.

    I like the archbishop’s statement very much. I quibble a little bit with his wording, “Asking your priest to be present to something that is in direct contradiction to our Catholic values is not fair to the pastor.” A little too weak. How about, “Asking your priest to be present to watching a person send himself to Hell is absurd.”

    • Jim McCrea says:

      Do you really think that every person who commits suicide is “sending himself to Hell”? You know NOTHING about that has gone one with that person prior to this last act of desperation.

      Oh, yes, I know: “The Church” has said he is. That solves it all, doesn’t it?

  3. FrMichael says:

    “Do you really think that every person who commits suicide is “sending himself to Hell”? You know NOTHING about that has gone one with that person prior to this last act of desperation.”

    No, I don’t happen to think that every person who commits suicide is sending himself to Hell. However, I think the odds are high that a patient with full mental faculties who acts to carry out physician-assisted murder (it’s true name) against a priest’s advice will go to Hell. Thus the need to depart from the scene.

  4. Chris says:

    I’m reminded that the gospel accounts indicate that the 12 apostles also lacked the proper dispositions to receive the sacrament at the last supper. We need to follow Jesus’ own example, not our narrow minded human exclusivity and judgementalism.

    Blessings

    • FrMichael says:

      “… not our narrow minded human exclusivity and judgementalism [sic].” I think this thread has jumped the shark with that comment.

      “Thou shalt not kill” didn’t come from human beings.

      • Todd says:

        6 comments isn’t enough to sink a thread, really. I recognize that such a strict rendering of the commandment would render FrM a hardcore pacifist. Does such a stance extend to a chaplain needing to leave a battlefield?

        As a pastoral minister, I recognize there are no hard and fast rules with regard to the mental awareness of people in life and death situations. I would certainly hope that if a priest discerned the need to remain with family members that his exit from a suicide wouldn’t be perceived as self-serving.

        These situations of assisting a suicide are not easy for anyone involved. To think there is an SOP one can fall back on or use as a shield doesn’t seem to be the best opportunity for real ministry to people in pain.

  5. Liam says:

    It should be noted that the RNS-linked story lacks important context, which are provided in other news stories, including this one from the Catholic Herald in the UK:

    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/02/29/canadian-report-recommends-widening-access-to-assisted-suicide-for-mature-children/

  6. FrMichael says:

    “I would certainly hope that if a priest discerned the need to remain with family members that his exit from a suicide wouldn’t be perceived as self-serving.” If there were family members present opposed to the suicide-murder, I would stay to minister to them.

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