Catholic Hospital Group Grants Euthanasia to Mentally Ill, Defying Vatican

A chain of Catholic psychiatric hospitals in Belgium is granting euthanasia to non-terminal patients, defying the Vatican and deepening a challenge to the church’s commitment to a constant moral code.

The board of the Brothers of Charity, Belgium’s largest single provider of psychiatric care, said the decision no longer belongs to Rome. Truly Christian values, the board argued in September, should privilege a “person’s choice of conscience” over a “strict ethic of rules.”

The policy change is highly symbolic, said Didier Pollefeyt, a theologian and vice rector of the Catholic University of Leuven.

“The Brothers of Charity have been seen as a beacon of hope and resistance” to euthanasia, he said. “Now that the most Catholic institution gives up resistance, it looks like the most normal thing in the world.”

Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002, the first country with a majority Catholic population to do so. Belgian bishops opposed the legislation, in line with the church’s catechism, which states that causing the death of the handicapped, sick or dying to eliminate their suffering is murder.

But many Catholic health-care institutions soon gave way. Within two years, more than 80% of the Catholic hospitals and nursing homes in Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flanders region permitted euthanasia, and more than 40% permitted it for non-terminal patients, according to a study by the Catholic University of Leuven.

Vatican statements on the matter were “no longer generally accepted” by Catholic institutions as the basis for ethics policies, the study noted.

Marc Desmet, a palliative care specialist who is also a Catholic priest, frequently counsels patients who are considering euthanasia. “I do not say what they have to decide,” he said.

Dr. Desmet often attends euthanizations where he works, at Jessa Hospital in Hasselt, Belgium. They occur there about once a month in an institution with about 1,000 beds, he said.

Another Belgian priest, the Rev. Gabriel Ringlet, is author of a popular book on “spiritual accompaniment to euthanasia,” and has encouraged people to develop their own unofficial rituals for the practice.

In this context, Belgium’s branch of the Brothers of Charity, an international congregation, was one of the last Catholic holdouts. The organization, which was founded in Belgium in 1807, now runs 15 psychiatric hospitals there, with around 5,000 beds.

In 2002, a majority of the hospital chain’s board of directors were also consecrated brothers who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. After legalization, if patients at a Brothers of Charity hospital demanded euthanasia, official policy was to transfer them to other institutions.

By this year there were only three consecrated brothers on the 15-member board, and in March it voted to grant euthanasia to patients, issuing an ethical rationale and a procedure for evaluating euthanasia requests. The board declined to comment about the decision for this article.

Belgium’s euthanasia rate has risen steeply to 2022 cases in 2015 from 235 cases in 2003, according to official statistics. The majority of the cases in 2015, about 67%, were patients with terminal cancer, but about 15% of cases were patients with non-terminal illnesses, including ocular and digestive ailments. Psychiatric patients accounted for about 3% of the cases in 2015, though a few of those had terminal illnesses.

Legal changes elsewhere have left the church struggling to reconcile its moral teachings with the need to minister to Catholics who embrace contrary practices.

“It is a new problem,” said Msgr. Renzo Pegoraro, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, which champions the church’s bioethical teachings, including opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

For clerics weighing whether to deny the sacraments, “There are two extremes, on one hand approval, on the other a rigid position with no support for people,” he said. “We have to understand what we may do while avoiding the two extremes.”

In the U.S., few bishops in jurisdictions that permit assisted suicide have issued guidelines. One exception is the bishops of Colorado, who said priests must deny the sacraments and church funerals in cases of physician-assisted suicide.

In Canada, which legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide in 2016, Catholic bishops have issued divergent guidelines, with some leaving decisions to the discretion of priests.

The Vatican responded to the decision by the Brothers of Charity with a public statement that Pope Francis wanted the hospital chain to reverse policy, and letters from the offices for doctrine and religious orders.

Pope Francis has been clear in his opposition to euthanasia. In July, after a British court sided with doctors who argued that life support should be withdrawn from a gravely ill infant, Charlie Gard, so that he could die with dignity, the pope publicly supported the baby’s parents as they sought further treatment.

Brother René Stockman, world-wide head of the Rome-based Brothers of Charity and a prominent campaigner against euthanasia, warned the Belgian hospital chain in July that it would lose the right to claim a Catholic identity if it didn’t abandon its euthanasia policy.

That could mean losing buildings that belong to the religious order, he told the Journal. He said the Vatican has invited board members to Rome to explain their decision, but has offered no compromise on euthanasia.

The hospital chain in Belgium appears unmoved by Rome’s entreaties. One prominent board member, former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, tweeted in August: “The time of ‘Rome has spoken, the case is closed’ is long past.”

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