When the Vatican reaffirms traditional teaching, it may or may not be big news. When the Vatican explicitly asserts the infallibility of her traditional teaching in the face of significant challenges both from within the Church and from increasingly hostile quarters in society, it can’t not be big news.
Published on Tuesday of last week, the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Samaritanus bonus – “The Good Samaritan” – on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life – is a clarifying document that reiterates settled teaching with remarkable patience, limpidity, and force.
So, it was a bit of a head-scratcher when the Vatican’s official media liaisons let such an easy wicket get away last week. First, the press conference presenting the document got sidetracked by questions about a recent controversy regarding a popular Irish priest, Fr Tony Flannery, disciplined for his dissent from teaching on homosexuality, same-sex civil unions, and the possibility of women receiving ordination to the priesthood. Those questions were inevitable – the business was in the news after it came out that CDF had demanded Flannery sign a letter submitting to Church teaching in those regards.
That’s all the more reason to come out strongly on message, and it’s not as if the material weren’t there, either.
Especially regarding euthanasia – the grave evil of the practice and the limits within which pastoral care to persons contemplating self-destruction must be conducted – Samaritanus Bonus is utterly unambiguous in its affirmations. “Euthanasia is a crime against human life [emphasis in original],” the document states in its fifth chapter on “The Teaching of the Magisterium” in these matters.
“The moral evaluation of euthanasia, and its consequences does not depend on a balance of principles that the situation and the pain of the patient could, according to some, justify the termination of the sick person,” The Good Samaritan goes on to say. “Euthanasia, The Good Samaritan concludes, “is an intrinsically evil act, in every situation or circumstance.”
The Church’s teaching, moreover, “is a definitively proposed doctrine in which the Church commits her infallibility.” That line appears in a footnote – number 88 – but it’s in there, and the authors of the CDF document had told readers the purpose of the document from the get-go: “[A] a more clear and precise intervention on the part of the Church,” with a view to reaffirming the Gospel “and its expression in the basic doctrinal statements of the Magisterium.”
The teaching is for everyone: medical caregivers and for the sick and dying, especially. It has immediate practical consequences for pastors.
“The pastoral accompaniment of those who expressly ask for euthanasia or assisted suicide today presents a singular moment when a reaffirmation of the teaching of the Church is necessary,” says Samaritanus. “With respect to the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, the confessor must be assured of the presence of the true contrition necessary for the validity of absolution which consists in ‘sorrow of mind and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future’.”
Paragraph 11 of Samaritanus goes on to explain that the person intent on euthanasia “has decided upon a gravely immoral act and willingly persists in this decision,” regardless of subjective disposition. “Such a state involves a manifest absence of the proper disposition for the reception of the Sacraments of Penance, with absolution, and Anointing, with Viaticum.”
Pastors and their associates “should avoid any gesture, such as remaining until the euthanasia is performed, that could be interpreted as approval of this action,” so as to avoid even the appearance of approval or even complicity. “This principle applies in a particular way, but is not limited to, chaplains in the healthcare systems where euthanasia is practiced, for they must not give scandal by behaving in a manner that makes them complicit in the termination of human life.”
Those directly contradict statements from the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who said late last year that he would “hold the hand” of a person in the midst of self-destruction. “I believe that from our perspective, no one is [to be] abandoned, even if we are against assisted suicide, because we don’t want to do death’s dirty work,” Paglia told reporters last December. He was presenting a symposium on end-of-life issues the Academy for Life had sponsored with the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) Initiative of the Qatar Foundation.
Paglia was answering a question regarding a set of guidelines the Swiss bishops had published the week before, which said among other things that pastoral caregivers ought not be present for so-called assisted suicide.
At the same time, “The Church is careful to look deeply for adequate signs of conversion, so that the faithful can reasonably ask for the reception of the sacraments.” Withholding the healing Sacraments is not retributive, but itself a responsible exercise of the Church’s healing ministry. In this, the Church is not unlike the doctor who delays a traumatic and invasive procedure until the patient is strong enough to undergo it. “To delay absolution,” Samaritanus explains, “is a medicinal act of the Church, intended not to condemn, but to lead the sinner to conversion.”
The main criticism of Pope Francis in the early years of his pontificate was that he wanted clarity, especially when he spoke of settled doctrinal matters. It seemed that he desired to stir things up – to unsettle, if not muddy the waters – and we quickly heard from him that it was so. If the prudence of the approach was debatable – waters unsettled will be cloudy, if not muddy – the results were often evident: Catholics came out of the woodwork to explain how the Church really thinks and what the Church really teaches, and people who wouldn’t have cared otherwise perked up and listened.
That mode of doing things certainly had its downside, and could be carried to extremes. Under the leadership of Cardinal Luis Ladaria SJ, the CDF has often acted as a sane and measured counterweight to the ambiguity – strategic, operational, and tactical – that has occasionally come right from the top. Pope Francis, who approved the publication of this latest letter and has approved other notes from CDF – including one on his own idiosyncratic use of established theological terms – is apparently happy to have the institutional assistance.
It is interesting to note that Pope Francis’s own communications outfit did not exactly put the strength of the doctrinal reaffirmation in high relief. An editorial from Andrea Tornielli of Vatican News said, “[N]othing new is presented in Samaritanus bonus. The Church’s teaching has, in fact, repeatedly said no to any form of euthanasia or assisted suicide, and has explained that food and hydration are vital necessities to be guaranteed to the sick person.”
That’s technically true.
“The Letter, therefore, re-proposes now what the most recent Pontificates have taught.” That’s technically true, as well, but the Church’s stance on euthanasia doesn’t come from the teaching of recent popes. They were getting it from the whole Church, throughout her whole history. So, why not lead with that?