VATICAN CITY —  A priest must say clearly to a person opting for assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia that he is committing a grave sin, a Dutch cardinal told CNA this week.

For the same reason, a priest cannot be present when voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide is performed. This might imply that the priest has no problems with the decision or even that "these morally illicit acts are not such in some circumstances according to the teaching of the Church," Cardinal Willelm Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht and an expert on euthanasia issues, told CNA.

A medical doctor before his vocation, Cardinal Eijk dedicated his doctorate dissertation in the mid-1980s to the euthanasia laws. He leads a flock located in one of the countries with the most liberal euthanasia bill in the world.

Cardinal Eijk explained to CNA that "a priest must clearly say to those who opt for assisted suicide or [voluntary] euthanasia that both of these acts violate the intrinsic value of the human life, that is a grave sin."

The cardinal did not deny the possibility of spiritual accompaniment. Still, Cardinal Eijk stressed that "the priest must not be present when euthanasia or assisted suicide are performed. This way, the presence of the priest might suggest that the priest is backing the decision or even that euthanasia or assisted suicide are not morally illicit in some circumstances."

Cardinal Eijk made a distinction between voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. He said that "with the assisted suicide, it is the patient who takes the drugs the doctor intentionally prescribed to him to commit suicide. Then there is voluntary euthanasia, when the doctor himself gives the drugs to end the patient's life after the patient’s request. However, the responsibilities of the patient and the doctor are the same in both cases."

In detail, Cardinal Eijk says that "the patient’s responsibility is equally grave both in assisted suicide and [voluntary] euthanasia because he has made the initiative to end his life, and this is the same both if he puts an end to his life or if a doctor does it."

Physicians are equally responsible in both cases, too, the cardinal said.

Performing euthanasia, the doctor "directly violates the value of his life, that is an intrinsic value. Helping in assisted suicide, the doctor cooperates with the patient's will, and this means he shares the patient's intention. For this reason, even mere cooperation is an intrinsically evil act, as grave as if the doctor personally ended the life of the patient."

Cardinal Eijk conceded that "assisted suicide is perhaps less psychologically heavy for the doctor. However, there is not a significant moral difference between the two things".

Cardinal Eijk also addressed the issue of an eventual funeral for people who opted for assisted suicide or euthanasia.

"If a patient asks the priest to administer him the sacraments (confession or anointing of the sick) and plans a funeral before the doctor ends his life upon his request or he commits suicide, the priest cannot do so," Eijk said.

He added that there are three reasons for this prohibition.

The first one is that "a person can receive the sacraments only when he is in a good disposition, and this is not the case when a person wants to oppose the order of creation, violating the intrinsic value of his life."

The second reason is that the person "who receives the sacraments puts his life in the merciful hands of God. However, who wants to personally end his life wants to take his life in his hands."

The third reason is that "if the priest administers the sacraments or plans a funeral in these cases, the priest is guilty of a scandal, since his actions might suggest that suicide or euthanasia are permitted in certain circumstances."

Cardinal Eijk also explained that a priest can celebrate the funeral of a person who died by assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia in only some circumstances, though suicide is always illicit.

"Since ancient times, the priests accepted to celebrate funerals of people who committed suicide or asked for euthanasia in cases of depression of any other psychiatric diseases. In these cases, because of their disease, the freedom of the people is diminished, and so ending the life cannot be considered a mortal sin," Cardinal Eijk sais.

 He adds that the priest must "prudently judge whether he is in front of a case of diminished freedom. If so, he can celebrate the funeral."

To combat the pro-euthanasia trend, the Church must "announce that God made the human being in his image in his totality, soul, and body. The Second Vatican Council constitution Gaudium et Spes described the human being as 'a unity of soul and body.' This means that the body is an essential dimension of the human being and is part of the intrinsic value of the human being. So, it is not licit to sacrifice human life to end the pain."

The cardinal also added that palliative care is a positive response, and the Church often recommends to ask for palliative care, while "there are many Christian or religious groups that provide palliative care in specialized centers."

Cardinal Eijk also said that to combat the West’s pro-euthanasia trend, the Church "must do something against loneliness. The parishes are often welcoming communities where people has social bonds and take care the one with the other. In the hyper-individualistic contemporary society, human beings are often alone. There is a huge solitude in our Western society."

The Church "spurs to form communities not to leave people alone. A person who lives in solitude, lacking the attention and the care from the others, is less able to bear the pain," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Eijk added that the Church "announces a Christian spirituality and a lived faith. This implies that you can also join to the suffering Christ and bear the pain with him. So, we are never alone."