The Bishops of Switzerland have instructed priests and pastoral workers not to be physically present at the moment of an assisted suicide.

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The Swiss episcopate released December 6 a 30-page document on “Pastoral behaviour with regard to the practice of assisted suicide”.

In that guide, the prelates instructed pastoral caregivers that although a growing number of people consider euthanasia an “acceptable solution when confronted with suffering and death”, it is a practice that the Church considers “radically against the Gospel message”.

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”, the Swiss Bishops said.

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Although the Church is implacably opposed to euthanasia, the Swiss Bishops recognised that terminally-ill patients determined to end their life often request the company of a priest or lay pastoral worker in their final moments, even if that request is not always accompanied by a desire to receive the Last Rites.

The prelates acknowledged that Church teaching and simple human compassion are thereby often in conflict in euthanasia situations.

The Bishops therefore set out a series of guidelines on what Church representatives are to do especially during the delay between the administration of death-inducing drugs and the time of the actual cessation of life.

“There arises a difficult question regarding accompaniment during these long minutes of agony”, the Swiss Bishops recognised, before asking:

“Can we leave a person to their loneliness during this time?”

Why it matters

“The general orientation, entailing utmost discernment, would imply accompanying people who have decided to commit suicide,as much as possible”, the Swiss Bishops counselled.

But the prelates said that accompaniment of the suffering person must not extend to physically being in the room when the lethal drugs are given.

The Bishops defended that that absence of Church representatives does not mean “abandoning” the euthanasia patient.

Instead, they argued that physically withdrawal is necessary to make clear that the Church always defends life, that the Church cannot be seen to be offering “assistance or cooperation” to the euthanasia patient, and that “helplessly” witnessing an assisted suicide can leave psychological scars on observers that can last for years.

For the record

Beyond the practical orientations around euthanasia for priests and other Church workers, the Swiss Bishops also insisted in their document on the importance of the physical and spiritual care of terminally-ill patients.

While the sacraments must always be considered “sacraments of life and for life” and never for death, the Bishops said, there are steps Church workers can and should take before the moment of the assisted death.

“Experience shows that the suicide request often conceals an unspoken desire, which must be discerned and deepened”, the prelates warned.

The Bishops added they take the desire for assisted suicide seriously, especially given the rise in demand for the practice in Switzerland in recent years.

They explained, however, that the Church’s hope is always that the wish to end one’s life can be turned around through the accompaniment of the sick person by family, friends, the healthcare system and the Church.

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