Brother René Stockman: Why I am fighting euthanasia in our order’s hospitals

Pope Francis greets Brother Rene Stockman, superior general of the Brothers of Charity (CNS)

In 2002, Belgium legalised euthanasia in the name of “dignity”. The Brothers of Charity, of which I am superior general, has always stood for another idea of dignity. Our founder, Peter Joseph Triest, had a special love for the mentally ill – who at that time were often treated as animals rather than human beings. He wanted to release them from their shackles and give them life. That is the goal of our congregation.

So it is deeply concerning, and even embarrassing, to see what is happening in the organisation which runs our order’s hospitals. As has been widely reported, the trustees of our board – who have power over the hospitals – have recently decided to approve euthanasia in Brothers of Charity facilities. As superior general, I have protested against this; so have the Vatican. But earlier this month the board stood by their decision. They even said that euthanasia was a kind of merciful assistance, and was in line with Catholic doctrine. This deserves a full response.

Firstly, it is worth asking what expertise the board of trustees has in the matter of mental health. The board is made up of jurists and economists, without a single expert in the field. Some of them, with all due respect for their person, have never had first-hand experience with a psychiatric patient, let alone cared for one or treated one.

Their position is influenced, instead, by a value which the West seems to consider the highest “good”: absolute self-determination. They believe that this self-determination can sometimes override respect for life. But the Catholic position is different: it sees respect for life as inviolable.

The board believe that the “sensus fidelium” of the faithful in Flanders would support their vision statement. But this “sensus fidelium” should be in agreement with the Church’s magisterium, whose position is clear. As St John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae: “Euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.” This has been reaffirmed by the Belgian bishops and the Vatican. The board’s refusal to listen looks like pride, arrogance, and ideologisation at the expense of the lives of those most in need of care.

They say that euthanasia can be an answer to the hopelessness in which psychiatric patients can find themselves. But is hopelessness not inherent in psychiatry, which, as a symptom, must be taken very seriously and for which all the means available in treatment and care must be used? And can it be that euthanasia is considered as the ultimate therapy when all other forms of therapy fail and when a person is then simply regarded as no longer benefitting from treatment? Should there not be more investments in new therapies, care models, and medication for these patients and in the development of palliative psychiatry? For all these reasons, experts in the field are very cautious about connecting hopelessness with euthanasia.

The board believe that the Catholic position is “antiquated” and can only be held by those who “live far removed from reality”. They are sadly mistaken. Let us call a spade a spade: euthanasia is killing a fellow human being, even if it happens with the utmost due care. How in the name of God is this supposed to be compatible with our charism of charity, the charism of life?

Several well-meaning observers have asked me whether we could hold an internal dialogue with the board. As it happens, we have tried for more than two years, even bringing in a well-known mediator, but every time we were confronted with the statement that it was no longer possible to discuss the board’s decision – we could only hope to find a “modus vivendi”. We remain open to the real dialogue: discussing whether or not euthanasia is performed within the facilities of the Brothers of Charity in Belgium. And yes, I still consider them facilities of the Brothers of Charity.

One board member has said that the time of “Roma locuta; causa finita” is “long gone”. The Pope, the Vatican, and the General Administration of the Brothers of Charity do not take this matter lightly. It is their responsibility, and ours, to ensure that the designation “Catholic”’ is not being eroded or misused, primarily because of the protection of the weakest in our society. As a congregation, it is our special task to ensure that our charism continues to be based on true charity.

Embarrassment is what I have felt over the last few weeks. Ahead of my meeting with Vatican officials next week, I am still hoping that the Brothers of Charity can return to the great tradition of care which has defined us for over 200 years.