Physician-assisted suicide is legal in five states and Washington, D.C., and supporters of the practice say they have plans to push for legalization in a dozen more states. The number of Americans who ask doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication is relatively small, but support for the practice is growing. End-of-life issues have garnered attention north of the border, as well. Last year, Canadian lawmakers legalized euthanasia, a practice that differs slightly from physician-assisted suicide in that doctors administer the drugs rather than simply prescribe them. The law allows individuals whose deaths are “reasonably foreseeable” to request lethal doses of medication to end their lives early, though some lawmakers want to expand the law to include those who are suffering but who are not near death.
With Canadians now free to request euthanasia, some Catholic bishops there are grappling with a difficult question: Should those who end their lives with the assistance of medication be given a Catholic funeral?
Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, the archbishop of Quebec, where euthanasia has been legal since 2014, told America that it is difficult to know why a patient chose to end his or her life early. As a result, the church should err on the side of mercy when it comes to funerals. He said that many elderly people are made to feel burdensome, are afraid to be alone in their final days or are nervous about experiencing pain. Increasingly, he said, society tells them that an early death is preferable.
“Culturally, they’re bombarded with this [message] all the time,” he said. “So who are we to judge why they are like this?” he asked, referring to patients who decide they want to take advantage of what proponents have dubbed “medical aid in dying.”
“We do the best we can and leave the rest to the Lord. If the Lord accuses us of being too merciful, well, I’ll take it,” he said.
But not all bishops in Canada are on the same page when it comes to how the church should proceed for people who end their lives with the assistance of doctors.
Last fall, six bishops from western and northern Canada signed a statement that suggested some individuals who use euthanasia would not be eligible for a Catholic burial, especially if that person was a high-profile figure. The document notes that the church offers funerals for those who commit suicide, as pastors “are not able to judge the reason the person has taken that decision or the disposition of their heart.”
But when it comes to physician-assisted suicide, the bishops write, there are sometimes more clues about the intentions of the deceased. “In such cases, it may not be possible to celebrate a Christian funeral,” the statement reads. “If the Church were to refuse a funeral to someone, it is not to punish the person but to recognize his or her decision—a decision that has brought him or her to an action that is contrary to the Christian faith, that is somehow notorious and public, and would do harm to the Christian community and the larger culture,” it continues.
A few months later, bishops in Canada’s eastern provincesreleased their own statement suggesting that the question of funerals was too complex for written guidelines and proposing that each case be dealt with individually.
“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,” the statement reads. “The fruit of such a pastoral encounter will shed light on complex pastoral situations and will indicate the most proper action to be taken including whether or not the celebration of sacraments is appropriate.”
Cardinal Lacroix seems to come down somewhere in the middle, suggesting that people who opt for euthanasia could still be eligible for a Catholic funeral, so long as they and their loved ones are not promoting the practice or using the funeral to make a statement about the law.
Plus the family might not support a loved one’s decision to end his or her life.
“Do you think they need consolation? Of course,” he said. “We accompany everybody.”
Still, he suggested that there are cases where a Catholic funeral would not be prudent.
“The only time we will say no—it hasn’t happened yet but it could happen as far as I’m concerned—is if somebody says: ‘I’m getting euthanasia, and I’m going to have a [Catholic] funeral. I deserve this, and at my funeral, those who are going to speak are going to say, We’re promoting this,’” he said. “No, no this isn’t a show.”
Cardinal Lacroix recalled two episodes in which pastors were asked to minister to patients considering euthanasia. In one, a frail woman dying of cancer had decided to end her life early. The hospital chaplain, a Catholic priest, asked her why, and she explained that she feared being a burden to her busy children, now with families of their own. He suggested that she talk to them about her concerns, and when she did, they were shocked and convinced her to change her mind. “Accompaniment,” he said. “The priest didn’t do it. But he helped her make the decision. He didn’t tell her: ‘What! You can’t do that! That’s immoral!’ He helped her think.”
In another instance, Cardinal Lacroix said, he visited a dying woman at the request of a friend. The woman had planned her death, which would include a final meal with her family before doctors administered the drugs. He recalled listening to the patient talk about her life and her family, but she was determined that she did not want to suffer at the end. She went through with the practice, and in her obituary, the cardinal said, the woman thanked lawmakers for legalizing euthanasia. In that case, had the woman asked for a Catholic funeral, he said it probably would have been inappropriate to grant her request.
“We accompanied her, we accompanied her family,” he said. “That’s what we can do. We can harp and harp, and say, ‘This is bad, this is bad,’ and it is and we do in some ways.” But he prefers a more proactive approach, and to that end, he has supported a program that will train hundreds of volunteers to spend time with those in their final days, so that people are not alone when it is time to die.
“That’s what we do. We accompany life, in real situations. We propose the best we can offer, which is what the church teaches,” Cardinal Lacroix continued. “The rest is not in our hands.”