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Right to Life?

According to Ecclesiastes [3:1-8] there is a season for all things; including a time to be born and a time to die. The Catechism teaches us that God created man to participate in His own blessed life. This ‘life’ is a gift to be proclaimed; a fundamental component of the natural law. For those visiting Belgium in the past months, the political vista is somewhat different. Played out in the public media is a dispute which one would not have thought possible: a catholic healthcare provider advocating the right to end one’s own life.

Belgium, like Switzerland and the Netherlands, has made legal provision for ‘assisted dying’. In this respect, it is no different than certain States in the US. Invariably, secular legal culture engages with the issue of ‘assisted dying’ (i.e. euthanasia) by an analysis of concepts such as competence, legal capacity, defining eligibility criteria and ensuring that the resultant regime is insulated against abuse (e.g. Baxter v Montana 224 p 2d 1211 2009).

Such cases are frequently advanced by those seeking euthanasia and supported by clinicians seeking to protect themselves from the prospect of criminal sanction. The case of Pretty v UK ECtHR [2002] rejected the notion that the right to terminate life recognised in Art 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, extended to a right to assisted death; choosing to leave such matters as an issue for domestic legislation.

In sharp contrast, the “Belgian Brothers of Charity” is a public juridic person; enjoying recognition in accordance with Book 1 of the Code of Canon Law 1983. It provides care to a total of 5000 patients, over 15 different locations. Despite its declared apostolate, it has expressed its support for and commitment to assisted dying.

When challenged by the Holy See, it has resisted criticism asserting that it continues to afford precedence to the inviolability of life. Pope Benedict XVI formerly wrote extensively (like his predecessor St John Paul II) on what they both termed: “the culture of death”. Has the time come for the hierarchy of the Church to affirm its own teachings, affirming them with appropriate deployment of penal sanctions under the Code of Canon Law?

Can such an institution be permitted to enjoy the status of a public juridic person enjoying the classification as ‘Catholic’? As was noted in the opening paragraphs of Humane Vitae” “3. This new state of things gives rise to new questions.”

As secular society continues to wrestle with difficulties of identifying a cohesive ‘rights-theory’, we are exposed to a society in which individuals increasingly advocate a notion of “rights” detached from responsibility or conscience. The Church is under a duty to challenge such attitudes and holding to account those organisations which seek to marshal such ideologies from within.


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