For 200 years my religious order has helped the mentally ill. How can we allow euthanasia?

The Belgian headquarters of the Brothers of Charity in Ghent (Getty)

Two years ago the Brothers of Charity, of whom I am superior general, looked back on 200 years of helping the mentally ill. Our beloved founder, the Servant of God Peter Joseph Triest, saw – quite prophetically – that people with mental disorders deserve our unconditional respect. He wanted to take care of them and offer them a new perspective – and to this day, the Brothers of Charity try to follow his example.

So it is deeply painful to see that some in the order seem to be eroding that respect for the inviolability of human life. As has been widely reported, the Brothers of Charity Group in Belgium have said doctors will be allowed to perform euthanasia in their 15 care homes. To my knowledge, this is the first time a Christian organisation has stated that euthanasia is an ordinary medical practice that falls under the physician’s therapeutic freedom.

It goes without saying that I and the rest of the General Administration fully reject this decision and we expect that the board of directors in Belgium will withdraw this decision. We ourselves will make every effort to make this happen. We have of course contacted the Belgian Bishops’ Conference. We have already been asked to comment by the Holy See, who are looking into the matter.

I would like to explain in more detail why the decision is disloyal, outrageous and unacceptable.

First of all, the group’s statement makes no reference to Christ or to Scripture. Instead, it invokes “three fundamental values”: inviolability of life, patient autonomy, and the care relationship. The entire text is premised on the idea that these are all on the same level: inviolability of life, according to the text, is fundamental but not absolute.

Within the current intellectual climate of the West, this approach inevitably makes autonomy the most important value. The inviolability of life merely becomes a consideration, a pious wish, which should always give way to the so-called self-determination of the patient – and to the physician’s sovereign opinion.

The statement has much to say about relational care ethics. But ultimately, the focus continues to be on the euthanasia request, which remains a possible way out – the obvious way out, even, in today’s social and economic context. The document is highly individualistic: there is no question about the impact of a euthanasia request on the patient’s family and wider social circle.

Even non-Christian physicians have already expressed strong opposition to using euthanasia in cases of mental suffering. In mental suffering, man’s existential dimension is affected, which is why psychiatric patients very often ask questions about the meaning of their lives and whether it would still be useful to go on living. This is where psychiatric care and therapy come in, to listen to the patient’s concerns and try to offer a new perspective.

For 200 years the Brothers of Charity, and our staff, have always sought to treat, cure, heal patients in ever better ways. Today, the profession continues to make progress in treating mental illness. Even when there is no total cure, we can always accompany the patient. To use euthanasia as a kind of ultimate therapy would be utterly unworthy of us. It would be as if we were helping a patient who is on the verge of the abyss to take the leap of death, by giving him a little push.

As far as I know, this is the very first time a Christian organisation has classed euthanasia as ordinary medical practice.

When one considers the legal implications, it becomes even more unsettling. The statement seems to class euthanasia as a medical act, which falls under the physician’s remit. But in that case, the institution has no legal right to come between a physician and the patient.

Since Belgium legalised euthanasia, the institutions of the Brothers of Charity have always been safe places. We have simply said that euthanasia is impossible within the walls of our institutions. This policy could now be under threat.

As Brothers of Charity, we are called to take up our prophetic task in the world, and not to be afraid to make our voices heard when we find that the inviolability of human life is not respected. We have done this courageously from the very start of the Congregation.

Therefore we can only hope and pray that this view is abandoned and that the absolute inviolability of life would again be the only option. That is the only thing that fits in with the charism of our Congregation. It is also what our beloved founder, the Servant of God Peter Joseph Triest, lived by and entrusted to us.