The Brothers of Charity, a Belgian religious order, have for most of their 200-year history been utterly uncontroversial: quietly, and often heroically, caring for the sick – especially the mentally ill – in a growing number of countries (today it stands at 30).
But these days healthcare is where secular and Catholic values very often clash, and the Brothers’ current dispute – which has involved the Vatican and a former president of the European Council – symbolises the Church’s awkward place in modern Europe.
The Brothers’ hospitals are run by a board of trustees, only three of whom are actually members of the order. In May, the board blithely announced that euthanasia would be permitted in their hospitals – only, of course, for those in “unbearable suffering” and with appropriate safeguards.
Perhaps they underestimated how much opposition this would raise. The Brothers’ superior general, Brother René Stockman, told the Belgian newspaper De Morgen: “We cannot accept that euthanasia is carried out within the walls of our institutions.” The Belgian bishops said that euthanising the mentally ill “attacks the very foundations of our civilisation”.
At Brother Stockman’s request, the Vatican began investigating, and Pope Francis wrote a cease-and-desist letter to the trustees. But the board declared that it “continues to stand by its vision statement on euthanasia for mental suffering in a non-terminal situation”. One of those trustees, former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, tweeted: “The days of Roma locuta est, causa finita est [‘Rome has spoken, the case is closed’] are long gone.”
The Church is usually at the forefront of battles against euthanasia. What is unusual about the Belgian case is that both sides claim the sanction of Catholic teaching. Van Rompuy himself is a Catholic who likes to go on retreats at a Benedictine abbey and has said that Europe is founded on “fundamental values of Christianity”. For him and his fellow trustees, supporting euthanasia in some cases is perfectly compatible with the Catholic tradition.
Raf De Rycke, chairman of the board, told De Standaard last week: “We believe that we are protecting life in the best possible way.” After all, he said, there were “several Christian-inspired views” one could take of end-of-life care, and it was important to have “dialogue” between them. “If you forbid something, you only need one sentence. Then any ethical consideration and conversation will end,” De Rycke said. “We just want to enter into dialogue with the suffering person. That is, according to us, an evangelically inspired vision. Jesus Christ also put aside the Sabbath and other rules, to be close to the suffering person.”
Brother Stockman’s response is simple: the board’s policy is “totally wrong and against the doctrine of the Church”, because “respect for life” is non-negotiable. But the board’s cautious endorsement of euthanasia is not wholly unprecedented. Last December, the bishops of the Canadian Atlantic Episcopal Assembly issued a document on assisted suicide which refused to condemn the practice outright. The bishops called for “accompaniment” and said that priests should not be rushing to “judgments about people’s responsibility and culpability”. An ambiguous section on the Sacrament of the Sick appeared to suggest that someone could receive the Last Rites even if they were about to be killed by a doctor at their own request.
The Brothers of Charity board has stated some principles for its decision: “Recognition of the exceptional” – the idea that some cases lie outside the rule; “proportional view of ethics” – the belief that rules are necessary but can sometimes be put aside; and “choice of conscience” – not trying to overrule what someone discerns by themselves. These are principles that would affect all Catholic moral teaching, be it on euthanasia, marriage or just war; and as the trustees apply them, they have all been condemned – notably in John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
The standoff, then, has implications far beyond Belgium. It is about how the Church responds to secularisation and to pressures against Catholic moral teaching. Brother Stockman has a meeting at the Vatican on Monday. It is possible that the Brothers of Charity hospitals will be cut off from the Church. But the debate that they have raised is just a skirmish in a much larger conflict.