Something very strange is happening in Belgium, and not for the first time. The Vatican has ordered the Brothers of Charity to stop providing euthanasia for the people it cares for, and the Brothers of Charity have refused to do so. In a statement put out in Flemish, French and English, the Brothers claim that their practice is in keeping with Catholic teaching.
This claim is utterly outrageous. The Catholic Church teaches and has always taught that one cannot secure a perceived good through doing an intrinsically evil act. The killing of an innocent human being is an intrinsically evil act. It can never be justified.
Equally outrageous is the claim that the Brothers of Charity know more about moral theology than does the Vatican. Let us remember that here the Vatican is not just a bunch of people in Rome, but the mouthpiece for the bi-millennial Christian tradition. The Brothers are not just disagreeing with the Vatican and telling them that they know better: they are saying the same to St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas and every Catholic theologian of the past you have ever heard of.
Someone called Herman van Rompuy rather let this out of the bag when he said that “The time of ‘Roma locuta causa finita’ is long past”. In other words, Mr van Rompuy rejects the authority of the Catholic Church in this and presumably other matters too. Well, we knew that. Anyone who supports euthanasia and enables euthanasia is ipso facto not a Catholic. Mr van Rompuy has declared his independence from the Catholic Church. I do hope he is refused Holy Communion if he has the chutzpah to turn up at the altar of his local or any other Catholic Church.
This, of course, leads us to the very important question: just who are the Brothers of Charity? Well, they are a religious order and they seem to have the characteristics of most Catholic orders these days, as a tour of their website shows. But what is easy to miss is that the Order, and the vast organisation of the same name that exists in Belgium, are rather different. “Altogether, there are 30,000 people who receive care or education through the Brothers of Charity, who have 12,000 employees and staff members in Belgium,” we read. The Belgian operation is presumably under the nominal authority of the religious order, but the lay people who run it (like Mr van Rompuy) are refusing to take their orders from the religious Brothers. This explains why the Superior of the Brothers, Brother René Stockman has taken exception to the position of the organisation and replied to their outrageous statement here. He says exactly what you would expect a Catholic to say, as far as I can see.
So the story here, and it is important to stress this, is not a religious order administering euthanasia, which would be shocking, but the only marginally less shocking phenomenon of a Catholic-in-name organisation, founded by a religious order, doing so. What we see here is what sometimes happens in other types of institutions: a Catholic foundation, placed under lay control, gradually losing its Catholic ethos.
So what happens now? My hope is that the Vatican will act swiftly to break the link between the order and the organisation that uses its name and that it will forbid the organisation to use the word Catholic in any of its literature. However, none of that will be easy. There is also the chance that the Church authorities will try to sack the lay leadership of the organisation, and re-Catholicise it, by imposing a new management team.
Whatever happens, it is going to be messy, and lawyers, both canon lawyers and civil ones, are bound to get involved. It will be a protracted business, sadly. But it has to be confronted. There is too much at stake. Mr van Rompuy and his associates have thrown down the gauntlet to Rome; Rome will have to respond further.