Vatican: Pope Orders Belgian Catholic Charity to Cease Offering Euthanasia

Brothers of Charity group have until the end of August to rescind policy that allows doctors to perform euthanasia on mentally ill patients in its 15 psychiatric hospitals.

(photo: Lucía Ballester/CNA)

The Vatican confirmed today that Pope Francis has ordered a Belgian Catholic charity to stop offering euthanasia in its psychiatric hospitals.

In May, the Brothers of Charity group, the charitable arm of the Brothers of Charity religious order in Belgium, announced it would allow doctors to perform euthanasia at its 15 psychiatric hospitals in the country.

Only Belgium and the Netherlands allow doctors to legally kill people with mental health problems.

The Catholic group, whose board is mainly made up of laypeople, said it would permit euthanasia if the patients were in a state of “unbearable suffering” and with the approval of at least three doctors, including one psychiatrist.

The Vatican said today the Pope approved a letter sent earlier this month which gives the charity until the end of August to stop the practice in its 15 hospitals.  It follows a statement from the Vatican press office, asking the country as a whole not to perform euthanasia.

The Pope also ordered the three religious members of the Brothers of Charity who serve on the group’s board to sign a joint letter to their Superior General declaring their adherence to Church teaching.

Brothers who refuse to sign the letter will face punitive action under canon law, while the group itself is expected to face legal action and could have its Catholic status revoked if it does not change its policy.

The Pope’s instruction comes after several attempts to have the group drop its euthanasia policy.

Brother René Stockman, general superior of the Brothers of Charity, stressed in a statement that “life is absolute, which cannot be touched. Life is a gift from God and entails an assignment. And because life is absolute, it is a state worthy of protection.”

Mattias De Vriendt, a spokesman for the Belgian charity, said it had received the Vatican's request but had not yet responded. He confirmed the charity's hospitals had received requests from patients seeking euthanasia recently but could not say whether any procedures had been performed. “We will take our time in the next few weeks to evaluate these letters,” de Vriendt said.

In Aug. 10 comments to Catholic News Agency, Brother Stockman said the group had maintained a firm policy against euthanasia since 2000 and would always try everything possible to alleviate any depression in the patient. If the individual still requested euthanasia, the brothers would transfer them elsewhere.

Despite Brother Stockman’s opposition, the group insisted on implementing their new policy, which came into effect in June. The superior general then appealed to Belgium’s bishops for support. When their opposition was ineffective, he took the case to the Vatican.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith drafted a letter reiterating the Church's position on euthanasia and insisted that the group step back into line with doctrine, but the letter was ignored.

The Congregation for Religious then instructed Brother Stockman to help enforce an ultimatum and gather the group's response by the end of August. The ultimatum was presented to the Pope, who gave it his full support.

Brother Stockman said he is still waiting for the response, but is “quite positive” that the brothers “will conform themselves” as they are religious.

“I know them and they are really under pressure from the whole mentality,” he said. Brother Stockman also said he did not think the state would overrule the Church and force the hospitals to permit euthanasia.

“If the law changes and they say that institutions have to do euthanasia, then the situation becomes totally different,” he said. “Then we have to ask ourselves, can we still continue as a Catholic hospital in a certain environment where we are forced to do euthanasia?”

The vast majority of patients seeking euthanasia in Belgium are terminally ill. The number of people euthanized for psychiatric reasons accounts for only about 3% of Belgium’s yearly 4,000 euthanasia deaths, but there has been a threefold increase in the past decade.

During 2014-2015, psychiatric patients made up 20.8% of the 594 non-terminally ill patients who were given lethal injections.

Medical professionals have increasingly been voicing concern about Belgium’s liberal approach to euthanasia. In December 2015, 65 Belgian mental-health professionals, ethicists and physicians formally called for a ban on euthanasia of the mentally ill.

The American Psychiatric Association has said doctors should not prescribe any methods to people who are not terminally ill to help them die.

Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002.

In 2013, Belgian legislators voted to permit children to be euthanized if they have a terminal illness.

Speaking at the time to the Register, Msgr. Renzo Pegoraro, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said there was a “risk of a slippery slope, and this has now become a concrete reality.”  

“There’s a risk that, step by step, pressure from society would be applied to people who have a problem to ask for euthanasia, subverting the idea that every human life is precious, respectful and guaranteed,” he said.