The Church is at war over assisted suicide, with a Dutch cardinal contradicting a Vatican official who himself disavowed Swiss Bishops’ guidelines on euthanasia.

Driving the news

“A priest must clearly say to those who opt for assisted suicide or [voluntary] euthanasia that both of these acts violate the intrinsic value of the human life, that is a grave sin”, Archbishop of Utrecht Cardinal Willem Eijk told CNA.

“The priest must not be present when euthanasia or assisted suicide are performed”, the cardinal insisted.

“This way, the presence of the priest might suggest that the priest is backing the decision or even that euthanasia or assisted suicide are not morally illicit in some circumstances”.

The intrigue

With his insistence that priests absent themselves in the moment of euthanasia or an assisted suicide, Eijk was directly contradicting the indications offered December 10 by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the President of the Vatican Pontifical Academy for Life.

Paglia said he would “hold the hand” of someone who had chosen assisted suicide, thus arguing for the physical presence of the priest at the moment of an assisted death.

What’s more, Paglia affirmed that that accompaniment of the dying by a doctor’s hand is something he would recommend to all Catholics, priests and laypeople.

“To accompany, to hold the hand of someone who is dying, is something that every faithful must promote as they must promote a culture that opposes assisted suicide”, Paglia said.

With those comments, Paglia disavowed the guidelines contrained in a Swiss Bishops’ December 6 document on “Pastoral behaviour with regard to the practice of assisted suicide”.

In that text, the Swiss Bishops instructed priests not to be physically present in euthanasia situations, since assisted suicide “is a serious attack on the preservation of the life of the human person that must be protected from conception until natural death”.

Commenting directly on the Swiss Bishops’ indications, Paglia said he “would like to remove the ideology from this situation”.

“Let go of the rules. I believe that no one should be abandoned”, Paglia insisted.

Why it matters

A medical doctor by training, Eijk is an expert on the ethics of assisted suicide, having devoted a doctoral dissertation in the 1980s to the Netherland’s euthanasia laws

All that expertise aside, however, in his latest CNA interview Eijk showed how horribly out of touch he is with the majority of Dutch society but also with Dutch Catholics.

In that last group, 91% of the faithful admit they are in favour of euthanasia under certain circumstances.

“The patient’s responsibility is equally grave both in assisted suicide and [voluntary] euthanasia because he has made the initiative to end his life”, Eijk told CNA.

“If a patient asks the priest to administer him the sacraments (confession or anointing of the sick) and plans a funeral before the doctor ends his life upon his request or he commits suicide, the priest cannot do so”, the cardinal added.

That kind of pastoral coldness and lack of compassion is one of the reasons why the Dutch Church is declining at a rapid rate.

Just 6% of Catholics attend Mass regularly in the country, and Eijk himself has warned that, in his diocese of Utrecht alone, 90% of churches could be forced to close just over the next decade.

For the record

Eijk’s comments on euthanasia and assisted suicide are also in certain tension with the attitude of Pope Francis.

Although he consistently condemns induced death, the Pope has also urged “the supreme commandment of responsible closeness” with patients who has chosen to end their lives.

“The anguish associated with conditions that bring us to the threshold of human mortality, and the difficulty of the decision we have to make, may tempt us to step back from the patient”, Francis said, for example, in a 2017 address.

“Yet this is where, more than anything else, we are called to show love and closeness, recognizing the limit that we all share and showing our solidarity.

“It could be said that the categorical imperative is to never abandon the sick”, the Pope added on that occasion.

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