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Vatican summons Belgian order to Rome over euthanasia policy

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The Vatican is planning to summon members of a Belgian nursing order to Rome to explain why they are refusing to ditch a policy which allows doctors to kill psychiatric patients in Church-run homes.

Senior Vatican officials want to hear in person why board members of the Organisation of the Brothers of Charity insist on allowing the euthanasia of non-terminally ill patients in the face of a top-level order to reverse the policy.

With the backing of Pope Francis, the Vatican has demanded that the organisation drops the policy because it is starkly at odds with the teaching of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of human life.

But two weeks ago, the organisation publicly rejected an ultimatum to conform to the wishes of the Vatican with one board member, Herman van Rompuy, a former president of the European Council, proclaiming on Twitter that “the time of ‘Roma locuta causa finita’ is long past”.

Brother René Stockman, the superior general of the Brothers of Charity who vigorously opposes the pro-euthanasia policy, told the Catholic Herald that the invitation to the Vatican represented the organisation’s last chance to conform to the wishes of the Church.

“The Organisation of the Brothers of Charity shall be invited by the Vatican to come and explain the taken decision, after which a final decision shall be taken,” he said.

“With this is given to the Organisation of the Brothers of Charity in Belgium an ultimate chance to set themselves in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church.”

The Vatican, he said, is not willing to compromise on its own position and that it will in no way amend “its initial request in line with the doctrine of the Church to respect the life in all conditions absolutely”.

The Vatican had initially demanded that the Brothers of Charity, which runs 15 centres for psychiatric patients across Belgium, had to reverse its policy, adopted in the spring, by the end of August.

Brothers who serve on the board must also each sign a joint letter to their superior general declaring that they “fully support the vision of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church which has always confirmed that human life must be respected and protected in absolute terms from the moment of conception till its natural end”.

Brothers who refuse to sign will face sanctions under Canon Law, while the group can expect to face legal action and even expulsion from the Church if it fails to change its policy.

Brother Stockman, a psychiatric care specialist, had turned to the Vatican in the spring after the group rejected a formal request from him to reverse the new policy.

The group also snubbed the Belgian bishops by formally implementing its euthanasia policy in June – just weeks after the bishops declared they will not accept euthanasia in Catholic institutions.

The group has also ignored a statement of Church teaching forbidding euthanasia written and signed by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, formerly the Prefect of the CDF, which was sent to members.

The Brothers of Charity was founded in 1807 in Ghent, Belgium, by Fr Peter Joseph Triest, whose cause for beatification was opened in 2001, with a charism especially to serve the elderly and the mentally ill.

The group is today considered the most important provider of mental health care services in the Flanders region of Belgium, serving 5,000 patients a year.

About 12 psychiatric patients in the care of the Brothers of Charity are believed to have asked for euthanasia over the past year, with two transferred elsewhere to receive the injections to end their lives.

The group first announced its euthanasia policy in March, saying it wished to harmonize the practices of the centres with the Belgian law on euthanasia that was passed in 2003, the year after the Netherlands became the first country to permit the practice since Nazi Germany.

Technically, euthanasia in Belgium remains an offence, with the law protecting doctors from prosecution only if they abide by specific criteria, but increasingly lethal injections are given to the disabled, people with dementia and mentally ill. Since 2014 “emancipated children” have also qualified for euthanasia.

The group’s change in policy came about a year after a private Catholic rest home in Diest, Belgium, was fined $6,600 for refusing the euthanasia of a 74-year-old woman suffering from lung cancer.