Their statement, issued Nov. 27, resembles the model adopted by Quebec bishops but stands in contrast to that of the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
In September the Alberta and NWT bishops released guidelines that said people who are “obstinate” and reject Church teaching on assisted death cannot receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, although a Catholic funeral Mass may be celebrated in some situations.
The one area where the bishops agree is that a priority must always be given to offering pastoral care to people contemplating an assisted death.
In their letter, the 10 bishops of the Atlantic Episcopal Assembly stress accompaniment and the tradition of viewing the Church as Mother when it comes to the reception of the sacraments.
“The Sacrament of Penance is for the forgiveness of past sins, not the ones that have yet to be committed, and yet the Catechism reminds us that by ways known to God alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance,” the letter states.
It says “the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is for strengthening and accompanying someone in a vulnerable and suffering state.” Regarding Holy Communion, it says “as one approaches the end of this life (receiving Communion) can assist a person in growing in their union with Christ.”
Those words contrast with the Alberta and NWT document which calls a request for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia a “grave matter” which, if followed through, leaves the deceased in an “objective state of sin, which is gravely disordered.”
The western bishops, however, concede that in some cases those facing euthanasia may not be “aware euthanasia is a grave sin” and their freedom may be “impaired” through “depression, drugs or pressure from others.”
Edmundston, N.B., Bishop Claude Champagne, past president of the Atlantic Episcopal Assembly, said the Alberta and NWT bishops’ pastoral letter, released prior to the annual plenary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, does not express the vision of all Canada’s bishops. The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario have yet to release guidelines on the matter.
The Atlantic bishops opted for the Quebec model, which stressed pastoral care instead of doctrine to ensure Catholics will feel welcomed, Champagne said.
“Our concern is pastoral accompaniment,” said Champagne. “Pope Francis is our model.
“We try not to condemn or to judge, but try to approach people to express the Catholic vision, but at the same time we try to journey with the people.”
He noted how Pope Francis in The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia) affirms the Catholic vision while recognizing “there are people who are not yet there.”
“We will welcome them, try to understand and journey with them,” he said.
In their letter, the Atlantic bishops emphasize that the goal of pastoral care is to communicate Christ’s compassion, healing love and mercy.
“Furthermore, we must take into account the suffering person’s emotional, family and faith context when responding to their specific requests for the reception of the Sacrament of Penance and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the reception of Holy Communion and the celebration of a Christian Funeral.”