New Zealand Catholic bishops’ statement on euthanasia law can “lead many into sin”

by John Smeaton

From Sunday, 7 November 2021, New Zealand citizens who fulfil certain criteria may request euthanasia on the health service under the newly-enacted End of Life Choice Act 2019.

In two documents[1] published this month on the legislation, New Zealand’s Catholic bishops have called on priests to provide the sacraments to persons who have agreed to euthanasia saying that priests who object in conscience to doing so “should ensure that provision is made for the person to be accompanied by another”.

This appalling requirement imposed on priests by the bishops echoes the one in the End of Life Choice Act whereby health practitioners who conscientiously object to assisted dying must explain to the person in their care how to contact a doctor with no such objection.

Whilst the bishops say that “any cooperation in the act of facilitating or administering an assisted death must be excluded in all cases” their statement insists that:

  • “… it is proper that the Church’s sacraments – encounters with God – are provided to the person who requests them … All ministers are entitled to presume that a person asking for the sacraments does so in good faith …” and
  • “If an individual priest, chaplain, pastoral worker, healthcare professional or caregiver decides that there is a limit to their ability to accompany a person seeking assisted dying, such a decision should be fully respected. At the same time, they should ensure that provision is made for the person to be accompanied by another.”

Family Life International (FLI) New Zealand, a group which defends “life, faith and family”, has told Voice of the Family: “Sadly, the bishops’ pastoral guidelines are lacking depth, and have the potential to lead many into sin”. 

In August 2021, FLI responded to an appeal from the bishops’ conference for “feedback” on the spiritual and pastoral care of those who intend to die by euthanasia or assisted suicide. In a letter to New Zealand’s bishops, FLI wrote: 

“No person should be left with the impression that a member of the clergy, or chaplaincy, approves of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Ensuring the sacraments are reserved only for those who are properly disposed will protect these gifts of healing and unity with Christ from being profaned, and from being seen as something every person has an inherent right to.”

FLI’s response to New Zealand’s bishops refers them to guidelines published by the Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada, Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons & Families Considering or Opting for Death by Assisted Suicide or Euthanasia: A Vademecum for Priests and Parishes (September 2016)

The 2016 guidelines from the Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territory are in sharp contrast with those produced this month by New Zealand’s bishops. Whilst expressing compassion for persons tempted to end their lives by euthanasia and urging pastoral sensitivity on the part of priests, the bishops from Canada explain in detail and in classic Catholic terminology the teaching of the Church on euthanasia, that it is “a grave violation of God’s law” and that a person who has been contemplating euthanasia must be “properly disposed” to receiving the sacraments if that is their wish. Their guidelines state: 

The priest must bear in mind “that he is at once both judge and healer, and that he is constituted by God as a minister of both divine justice and divine mercy, so that he may contribute to the honour of God and the salvation of souls” (Canon 978, §1). This implies the duty to implore the sick person with gentle firmness to turn away from this determination in repentance and trust. If the person, however, remains obstinate, the Anointing cannot be celebrated.”

A Dominican theologian who spoke to Voice of the Family about the New Zealand bishops’ conference pastoral guidelines told us:

“The documents from the New Zealand bishops’ conference are evil. The invocation of Our Lady at the end of one of their documents is blasphemous, and the statement that priests who won’t anoint people who intend to kill themselves must find a colleague who will is particularly vicious.

“There are two fashionable theological errors underlying the bishops’ statement.  One is an idea associated with Karl Rahner, based on his theory of what he called the ‘supernatural existential’, that people are constantly being offered grace by God. For example, the bishops say that we know: ‘God’s grace is at work, day by day, in every person, every place and every circumstance.’  

“This seems intended to give the impression that the bed-side of someone who is planning to commit suicide is a holy place. In fact, it is commonly said by the saints that God withdraws the offer of grace from those who abuse it too long; so St Paul talks about this in Romans 1:28. But the documents make no reference to the justice of God, and in this way they also falsify His mercy. Likewise, there is nothing about mortal sin or hell.

“The other error is similar: it’s the idea that since the coming of Christ, there is no longer a difference between the sacred and the profane. The New Zealand bishops write: ‘The great mystery of the Incarnation – God becoming one of us – transforms all time into something sacred.’

“They also say: ‘The sacraments should only ever be declined in those very rare cases when someone seeks them in bad faith. All ministers are entitled to presume that a person asking for the sacraments does so in good faith.’  

“This is the line adopted in Amoris Laetitia (the post-synodal apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis) that a Christian can be inculpably ignorant of the basic precepts of the natural law [concerning adultery]: but it’s even worse, since it’s supposedly suicide itself which one can think is legitimate, despite being in a state of grace and having the Holy Spirit enlightening one’s mind – which is madness.”

[1] Ministers of Consolation and Hope and Bearers of Consolation and Hope