Bishops Respond to 'Urgent Threat' of Assisted Suicide

Policy statement will be voted on at spring assemby.

BISHOPS IN BALTIMORE. Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pray before the start of the second day of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 16.
BISHOPS IN BALTIMORE. Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pray before the start of the second day of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 16. (photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

BALTIMORE (CNS) — By a nearly unanimous vote, the U.S. bishops agreed to the preparation of a brief policy statement on assisted suicide, which they will debate and vote on at their spring assembly in June.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, outlined the “increasingly urgent threat” posed by the wider use of assisted suicide in the United States. He spoke Nov. 16 at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.

Although for many years Oregon was the only state where assisted suicide was permitted, “the situation has changed in recent years, and very much for the worse,” the cardinal said.

He described the proponents of assisted suicide — led by the group Compassion & Choices, formerly called the Hemlock Society — as “more organized, better funded and more sophisticated” than ever before.

Both bishops from Montana — Bishop George Leo Thomas of Helena and Bishop Michael Warfel of Great Falls and Billings — rose to speak in favor of the proposed statement. Assisted suicide has been legal in Montana since 2008, following a court decision that said to ban it violated the state constitution.

Proponents of assisted suicide “make it appear as if it is the compassionate way to go,” said Bishop Warfel, adding that those who oppose it need more tools and resources to combat that attitude.

Cardinal DiNardo said he had also heard from Bishop Salvatore Matano of Burlington, Vt., in support of such a policy statement. Some legislators have been working to pass a law permitting assisted suicide in Vermont; its proponents include the state’s governor-elect, Peter Shumlin.

Some bishops asked whether the policy statement might be approved before June, but Cardinal DiNardo said it must come before all the bishops to carry the “full weight” of the conference.

The vote to draft such a statement was 218-1. It will come before the bishops at their June 13-15 spring assembly in Seattle, where assisted suicide has been legal since 2008.

The vote was the final public action by the bishops before they went into executive session for the remainder of their Nov. 15-18 meeting.

Earlier in the day, they approved by a 221-3 vote, with one abstention, a revision of their “guidelines for the provisions of sustenance to bishops emeriti.” There was no discussion, and the only amendment to the document was to clarify that it applied not only to retired heads of dioceses but to retired coadjutor or auxiliary bishops as well.

The document, drawn up by the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, notes that although it is designed to give “some degree of uniformity” to policies across the country, dioceses “should take upon themselves the responsibility to interpret and implement these guidelines, taking into account the local economy.”

The guidelines, which take effect Jan. 1, set a minimum stipend of $1,900 a month for retired bishops and say they also should be provided with “appropriate” housing and board, use of a private chapel and housekeeping assistance, health and welfare benefits, an office, a car and insurance and travel expenses to various episcopal meetings and events.

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