Doctrine, compassion, vengeance and money have combined to create the perfect storm for a row over euthanasia in Belgian hospitals.

– Brothers of Charity clinics defend “pastoral sensitivity”, “utmost respect for life” after Vatican rules against them

The Brothers of Charity order shot into the headlines last month after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ruled that the psychiatric clinics the congregation runs in Belgium were no longer to be considered Catholic.

That Vatican verdict came about because of the 2017 decision by the lay-run Brothers of Charity organisation that runs the hospitals on behalf of the order to provide for the euthanasia of some patients.

In its ruling, the CDF said that for the Church “euthanasia remains an inadmissible act, even in extreme cases”, since “Catholic teaching affirms the sacred value of human life” and the “importance of caring for and accompanying the sick and disabled”.

But in comments to La Croix May 15, president of the Belgian Brothers of Charity organisation Raf De Rycke said the Vatican decision was just one “point of view” that could, moreover, evolve over time.

On the “complex question” of assisted death, “we believe that we are acting with the utmost respect for life”, De Rycke insisted, adding that in the organisation “we remain convinced that our vision of euthanasia has a pastoral sensitivity that is fully in line with Christian personalism”.

– Accusations of a “broader and long-standing conflict”

But De Rycke isn’t just blaming the Vatican for being inflexible on euthanasia; he’s also accusing Rome-based Brothers of Charity superior general René Stockman of “misusing” the assisted dying issue “within a broader and long-standing conflict” between the order and the organisation over the use of assets.

De Rycke and his organisation believe that Stockman and his order want to divert organisation assets and profits to Africa and Asia, where the order is experiencing a boom in vocations but a lack of funds, unlike in Belgium where that problem is reversed.

Speaking to La Croix, De Rycke also let slip his suspicion that the problem might be personal.

De Rycke worked closely with Stockman during the latter’s tenure as head of the Brothers of Charity organisation’s psychiatric care department in the 1990s, and later when Stockman was Belgian provincial of the order between 1994 and 2000.

During that latter period, La Croix said Stockman gained the enmity of his fellow religious for being a “conservative” on euthanasia in a country which is among the most liberal in the world on assisted dying.

Stockman, however, rejected the accusation that he’s making it personal, telling La Croix “this is all about euthanasia”.

– Bishops stay out for the moment over what’s shaping up as an important test case

Between the Brothers of Charity order’s refusal to dialogue on the subject of euthanasia and the Brothers of Charity organisation’s refusal to relinquish the ownership of the hospitals – which it says belong to the Belgian province, not to the central order – it’s now likely the controversy over the clinics will be decided by the courts.

There’s also the issue of the ‘Brothers of Charity’ name, which the order is determined to win back after the Vatican ruling but which De Rycke said the organisation has “the right to use”.

The row is important, since other Catholic groups are considering it a test case in a country in which rights to conscientious objections over euthanasia are restricted to individuals, not to organisations.

But despite all that’s at stake, the Belgian Bishops, for their part, are keeping out of the fray at the moment, limiting themselves in a May 6 statement to calling for “a prolonged dialogue between all those involved” on what they added was “an excruciating and complex affair, in which different types of topics and different lines of responsibility meet”.

More stories on Novena on the Church and euthanasia:

Belgian hospitals defiant after Vatican strips them of ‘Catholic’ label over euthanasia

Church goes to war over assisted suicide: Dutch cardinal contradicts Vatican official

Vatican archbishop encourages faithful to physically “accompany” dying by assisted suicide

Swiss Bishops instruct priests not to be physically present at moment of assisted suicide

91% of Dutch Catholics in favour of euthanasia


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.