Assisted suicide and the Anglican Communion

This week the international Anglican Communion, which traces its origins to the Church of England, faced new divisions as the retired Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey came out in favor of assisted suicide. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, immediately responded, saying that a proposed law in the British Parliament to legalize the practice of doctors giving poison to patients so that they might end their lives is “mistaken and dangerous.”

Later in the week Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, came out in favor of Carey’s proposal, citing the example of how the late South African President Nelson Mandela was kept alive for a long period of time. 

Welby warned in The Times of London: “I know of health professionals who are already concerned by the ways in which their clients have suggestions ‘to go to Switzerland’ [so as to be euthanasized there] whispered in their ears by relatives weary of caring for them and exasperated by seeing their inheritances dwindle through care costs.”

Pope Francis has often complained about the “throw-away” culture that Archbishop Welby was referencing, when he spoke of sick people feeling the pressure to go to countries where they could legally commit suicide with the help of a doctor (who would be breaking the Hippocratic Oath). 

Speaking to the San Egidio Community in Rome on June 15, the Holy Father said, “We throw away the elderly, behind which are attitudes of hidden euthanasia, a form of euthanasia. They aren’t needed, and what isn’t needed gets thrown away. What doesn’t produce is discarded.”

Back on February 28, the pope addressed a similar message to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. “The old, too, are discarded, they tend to discard them, and in some countries of Latin America there is hidden euthanasia, hidden euthanasia! Because social services pay only up to a certain point, and no more, so the poor old people make do as they can. I remember visiting a retirement home for the elderly in Buenos Aires, which belonged to the state. The beds were all occupied; so they were putting mattresses on the floor, and the elderly just lay there. A country cannot buy a bed? This is indicative of something else, is it not? They are like waste material. Soiled sheets, with every sort of filth; without a napkin and the poor old people were eating there, they were wiping their mouths with the sheet. I saw this with my own eyes, no one told me about it. They are treated like trash; and this worries us.” What the Holy Father said at this encounter reminds us that it is not enough to ban assisted suicide — we always need to reach out and help the sick and all people in need, to let them know that we value and love them, putting that love into concrete action.

Back in 1999 there was a conference sponsored by the Vatican in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for which the future pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., offered Mass.  This “Third Meeting Politicians and Lawmakers of America” issued the Buenos Aires Declaration, which can be read on the Vatican website (something which is normally only done for things which have the Vatican’s blessing, at least implicitly). In the declaration, these Catholic thinkers wrote, “The family, as the cradle of human life, is also the most appropriate place to take care of the sick and to accompany them in the process of their illness until death. Some propose a ‘death with dignity’ and with this argument falsely pretend to justify and defend euthanasia for those with serious illnesses. It is necessary to have a proper understanding of ‘human dignity,’ a fundamental principle in bioethics that is based upon the truth about man and an anthropology which recognizes the eminent value of the human person. 

The concept of ‘death with dignity’ needs constant revisions if it is not to become empty and conventional, especially when faced with the Utilitarian cost/benefit analysis used to decide who shall or will not benefit from health resources. If dignity is replaced by utility, how can life have intrinsic value? The distorted use of the concept of ‘dignity’ hides the deformation of the value of life and of the person. The true right to die with dignity supposes the acceptance of dying with the dignity proper to man: with nobility, acceptance, serenity, that is to say, ‘holding the office of life until the end’ (Cicero, “The Dream of Escipion,” III, 7). The sick person, given the care they need and the responsible love manifested by their families, in hospitals and clinics, dies with the dignity of someone loved by God, by their family and all those who recognize the dignity of the person” (St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 88).

Today (Friday) we celebrate the memorial of St. Camillus de Lellis (we celebrate him on July 18 in the U.S. due to July 14 being the memorial of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a homegrown saint). On Sunday Pope Francis reminded the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that this week we celebrate the 400th anniversary of St. Camillus’ death. “I invite the Camillan family to be a sign of the Lord Jesus Who, as the Good Samaritan, bends over the wounds of body and spirit of suffering humanity, pouring the oil of consolation and the wine of hope.” Our Anglican brothers and sisters, like so many other people in our world, are deeply sorrowful, seeing the suffering of people they know. Out of a misplaced compassion, they advocate for assisted suicide. They, like all of us, need the consolation and the hope that can only come from accepting Jesus’ invitation: “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Sometimes that cross is living with an illness for a long period of time; sometimes that cross is caring for someone else in that situation. As Christians, we are called to be like the Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalene and the Apostle John at the foot of the cross, helping our brothers and sisters with our loving presence. May God help us to do so.

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