The Vatican on Tuesday reiterated the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia, which it called “intrinsically evil” acts, “in every situation or circumstance.”
The Vatican’s condemnation did not break new ground, but came as legislation in favor of allowing the ending of lives to relieve suffering has been in discussion or been adopted by a growing number of governments around the world, including in traditionally Catholic countries.
“Euthanasia is a crime,” stated the document, written by the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with Pope Francis’ explicit endorsement. The document accuses lawmakers who approve legislation allowing euthanasia or assisted suicide of being “accomplices of a grave sin that others will execute.”
In Europe, euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, and is being debated in Spain and Portugal. Switzerland allows physician-assisted suicide in some cases, and Italy and France allow terminally ill patients to stop treatment in some cases.
In Italy, the country’s top court ruled last year that assisted suicide should not be considered illegal in some circumstances.
New Zealand is expected to hold a referendum on the issue next month.
The document includes specific instructions to Catholic hospitals and health care workers, calling on them to “abstain from plainly immoral conduct,” including referrals to other hospitals for patients requesting euthanasia.
The letter criticizes the use of medical end-of-life protocols such as “do not resuscitate”orders. At a televised news conference at the Vatican Tuesday, Gabriella Gambino, one of the deputies of the Vatican department for the family and lay people, said the protocols “bind doctors to the absolute self-determination of patients,” deforming the relationship between patient and doctor, and create “cultural confusion in the discernment between good and evil.”
Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the head of the congregation that drafted the document said at the same presentation that the document — which he described as having a distinctly pastoral bent — had been gestating since 2018.
“Even though church teaching is clear” and expressed in various documents, he said, a reiteration of the church’s fundamental opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide was “opportune and necessary,” at a time when international civil legislation has become “increasingly permissive” when it comes to these issues.
The new document repeatedly cites the past writings by the church on end-of-life issues. But it also highlights what Francis has called a “throwaway culture” seeking easy solutions to alleviate suffering instead of supporting families and health care workers looking after people with terminal illnesses.
The letter also specifies that patients planning to end their lives cannot be granted access to the sacraments, including both confession and anointing of the sick. One Italian association that favors euthanasia laws described that as a threat to “scare the terminally ill,” who might be contemplating such a decision.
The letter “violates the laws of the Italian state and denies patients the right to self-determination,” wrote Marco Cappato, a right-to-die activist on the website of the Luca Coscioni Association, a Rome-based association that has been fighting to change Italian legislation.
The Vatican is complicit in the violence done to terminally ill persons forced to choose “between a condition of intolerable suffering and the risk of clandestine euthanasia,” he wrote.
The document is titled “Samaritanus bonus” (the good Samaritan): “On the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life.” Though issued on Tuesday, the Vatican letter was approved by the pope in June, and published internally on July 14, the feast day of St. Camillus de Lellis, the patron saint of the sick, hospitals, nurses and physicians.
“Incurable cannot mean that care” has come to an end, states the letter, which calls for a “wider notion of care” for terminally ill people. Citing Pope John Paul II, the letter urges health workers “to cure if possible, always to care,” until the very end of life.
In countries where euthanasia is legal, the documents calls for health care professionals to be allowed to opt out.
“Governments must acknowledge the right to conscientious objection in the medical and health care field, where the principles of the natural moral law are involved and especially where in the service to life the voice of conscience is daily invoked,” it said.
In keeping with past writings, the document also makes clear that a terminally ill patient can choose not to pursue “treatments that provide only a precarious or painful extension of life.”
In 2017, Francis told participants at a medical conference in the Vatican that while euthanasia or assisted suicide was not permitted, stopping treatment for terminally ill people could in some cases be “morally licit” and “acknowledges the limitations of our mortality, once it becomes clear that opposition to it is futile.”