The document prepared and signed by Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton and five brother bishops caused predictable micro-attention span uproar from the mainstream media pack, doubtless without them having read it. Now that our controversy-addicted news hounds have moved on, it would serve every considerate Catholic in this country to read its concise pages of vivid, at points almost lyrical, writing.
Far from being a volume of hectoring directives, it impresses with superabundant charity. Equally evident is its vital wisdom in gleaning a profound pastoral opening from the terrible evil of Canada’s legalized medical killing regime. Perhaps most importantly, it does not re-fight the lost battle over introduction of the judicial and legislation process leading to that regime.
It is not a political document. It is a cry of Christian love for Catholics victimized, body and soul, by euthanasia or assisted suicide. “Death by assisted suicide and euthanasia has been made legal in Canada,” it immediately concedes. “These grievous affronts to the dignity of human life from beginning to natural end are never morally justified. The legal permission now granted to these practices does not change the moral law. The teaching of the Church on these matters is clear.”
What the Vademecum opens up to beautifully and powerfully, though, only minimally involves re-teaching canon law. It is overwhelmingly a call to renewed understanding of the tender gifts the Church has to offer us throughout a life “begun in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table confident…that death is not the end nor does it break the bonds of life,” quoting The Order of Christian Funerals.
Repeatedly, it urges “gentleness” and “respect for dignity” and “careful listening” and “patience” to understand the person who is either considering medical aid in dying or has already requested it. It urges attention for opportunities of conversion that will lead to reconsideration. It notes that a request for confession, for example, should be considered a positive sign conversion is desired. It even suggests priests or the lay faithful might undertake penitential fasting and prayer to help effect such a conversion.
Nor, contrary to the typical uninformed reportage, does it put a blanket ban on funerals for all who are self-victimized by euthanasia or assisted suicide. It is highly mindful of the pain families might be experiencing. It asserts plainly the obligation to the burial of the dead as a corporal work of mercy. If the family turns for comfort to the Church “funeral rites could be celebrated” so long as it not a matter of public scandal.
The crucial message is that the Church’s pastoral care finds ultimate expression in the sacraments. On the continuum of Catholic life to Catholic death, these signs of Christ’s presence and God’s love accompany Catholics ever and always. What Catholics must bring with us, it reminds, is disposition to receive the gifts offered, that is a contrite heart and a sign of faith.
It illustrates this synergy in one of the loveliest sentences I’ve read for a long time: “The sick — in their weakness — need bring simply the mustard seed of their faith to the sacrament, and the Lord will help increase it a hundredfold.” Are we not all, each in our way, sick with sin whether we are in the thick of life or slipping beyond the pale of infirmity and age? Does our very life as Catholics not oblige us and enrich us where that “mustard seed of faith” in the sacraments is concerned? It does. It is what makes us a sign of contradiction to the world.
Medical aid in dying, by contrast, is a sign of contradiction to Christ. It denies “the baptismal call of the dying believer to proclaim at all times, especially at the approach of death, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”
Far from being mere guidelines, then, the work of the bishops resounds with that call. Would that it might ring with such clarity and attraction through the whole Canadian Church.
(Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and senior fellow with Cardus.)