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Archbishop Paglia’s grave error

Archbishop Paglia (CNS)

The only true accompaniment comes not in order to cooperate in sin, but in order to save us from it

Accompaniment has been a watchword of the pontificate of Pope Francis. It’s a word which normally means that musical part which gives harmonic support to a melody. While an accompaniment can be simple or complex, its main job is to support the central performance— to elevate and perfect it. In this sense, it’s a beautiful metaphor for pastoral presence in the midst of people’s lives.

Yet the term can be abused.

This past Tuesday, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life was asked at a two-day symposium on palliative care whether a priest could be present during a physician-assisted suicide. Paglia was quick to answer that he would be willing to be pastorally present during the suicide, and that he’d hold the person’s hand because “The Lord never abandons anyone.”

Archbishop Paglia insisted that being pastorally present does not imply support for the practice. Rather than thinking about it as a contradiction, or a mixed message, Paglia said that “to accompany, to hold the hand of someone who was dying” is the “great duty of every believer.”

The question of accompaniment arose because the Swiss bishops had recently issued directives which said exactly the opposite concerning pastoral care in cases of assisted suicide. The Swiss bishops explicitly stated that while pastoral caregivers should be actively present in palliative care, they should never be present during an assisted suicide as this would lend tacit support for an intrinsically evil act.

Paglia rejected the counsel of the bishop’s directives stating “Let go of the rules. I believe that no one should be abandoned.” While he insisted that it is a “cruel society” which justifies euthanasia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life reiterated that opposition to euthanasia does not mean opposition to accompaniment.

I completely understand the pastoral desire to accompany someone even in their most difficult moments. Yet accompaniment must retain its harmonic meaning. Accompaniment must follow the logic of charity and truth — otherwise it will be but a “resounding gong” or a “clanging cymbal” as the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians.

Authentic accompaniment is the presence of true charity. It does not stand by while someone kills him or herself in despair. Can a priest be present at an assisted suicide? Not to hold a hand they can’t. Not to materially cooperate in an intrinsically evil act — a priest cannot, must not accompany people into gravely sinful acts.

Proper priestly accompaniment must be in harmony with truth, for only then can a priest bring true charity to a suffering person. This is not about “rules” as Archbishop Paglia seems to think. It is about the fitness between words and actions. A priest is not properly accompanying anyone if what he does contradicts what he says, or vice versa. No one thinks that a priest’s presence during an abortion or a same-sex wedding is a “counter-sign” — precisely because people rightly take priestly presence as a tacit blessing of the act itself. The same goes for physician-assisted suicide.

Fr. Thomas Petri,O.P., Professor of Moral Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. offered a much better response to the question of whether a priest can accompany someone choosing self-destruction as their soul’s final act.

“I will not hold your hand or accompany you while you hang yourself. I will not stand by while you shoot yourself. On the contrary, I vow to Almighty God I will do everything in my power to prevent you from committing suicide even if it’s legal for you to do so.”

That is true accompaniment — in harmony with truth and love. That is a priest who stands for human dignity. Rather than coyly repudiate a culture of death by tenderly holding its hand, true accompaniment preaches Christ crucified.

It is true what Archbishop Paglia says: the Lord never abandons anyone in this present life. Jesus Christ truly is God with us! God made flesh! God present in time. But God’s presence is not sentimental acceptance of our sins. God does not become flesh in order to confirm us, but rather to confront us with that eternal reality which alone can heal.

Flannery O’Connor once observed that in a faithless age “tenderness” gets cut off from the person of Jesus Christ who is the source of all tenderness. She wrote “when tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” Her point is not that tenderness leads to the gas chamber. O’Connor’s point is much like Fr. Petri’s point. The only true accompaniment, the only real tenderness, comes alongside not to cooperate in our sin, but to save us from it.