News stories about issues in medical ethics -- take physician-assisted suicide, for example -- tend to be rather complicated affairs.
Add in ultimate questions about Catholic theology and things get even more complicated. Changing the name of the procedure in question to "medically assisted death" doesn't erase the moral and doctrinal questions involved in all of this.
Thus, editors at The National Post had to know they were headed into tricky territory when working on a recent story that ran with this headline: "Catholics hoping for a funeral after assisted death face different answers from different churches." Read the following carefully -- Catholic readers, especially -- and see if you can spot any problems that start right at the top of this story.
VANCOUVER -- A proper funeral is far more than an end-of-life celebration for practising Catholics, who believe last rites cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven.
But for the faithful questioning whether those final sacraments are available to a loved one who has chosen a medically assisted death, the answer may depend on whom in the church they ask.
See the problem? Have the journalists who worked on this story confused Catholic teachings about funerals with teachings about what are commonly known as the "Last Rites," in which a priest -- whenever possible -- hears a dying person's final Confession and offers absolution? The crucial Catechism reference states:
In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum. Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of "passing over" to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection. ... The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father.
A funeral service may be "final" rites for the deceased, but they are not the Last Rites, in the traditional sense. So, does the funeral service itself "cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven"?
That leads into another question that the National Post story mentions, but never discusses in any detail. What does the Catholic Catechism have to say about suicide and euthanasia? The story notes:
Catholic doctrine is unequivocal in its opposition to any form of suicide, but Canadian bishops have taken different positions on whether churchgoers who choose an assisted death should be absolutely barred from having an official funeral.
The actual Catechism reference states:
Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.
Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.
"Murder" is a crucial word. In other words, we are talking about a "mortal sin," as opposed to a "venial" sin. Dealing with a mortal sin requires repentance, confession and absolution -- as in a penitent going to Confession, now known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
At this point the story heads into -- you knew this was coming -- yet another discussion of whether Pope Francis has moved the church away from the letter of the law, when it comes to doctrines such as these, and into an age of "mercy" in which it isn't all that big a deal when people make choices to end their own lives, or the lives of loved ones.
You know, it's what whole, "Who am I to judge?" thing again.
Sure enough, the National Post team found that all kinds of Catholic experts -- including bishops, apparently -- believe all kinds of different things, when it comes to how to handle the "Francis effect" when dealing with this mortal sin.
So here is the big question: Do bishops allow priests to grant Catholic funerals to people who freely chosen to commit a mortal sin by asking doctors to do medical procedures that end their lives? How likely is it that these believers have chosen to confess this sin, and received absolution for it?
See if you can make sense out of this passage:
Rev. Marc Pelchat, vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Quebec, said the variation among bishops across Canada has less to do with church doctrine on assisted death and more to do with a difference in approach.
Pelchat said bishops in Quebec encourage a more case-by-case treatment for physician-assisted deaths and are reluctant to establish a hard-and-fast rule that ignores individual circumstances. But the church ultimately opposes assisted death and prefers palliative care, he added.
Douglas Farrow, a professor of Christian thought at McGill University in Montreal, said the difference in direction between bishops is no great surprise.
“Some of them are more theologically astute than others and some of them are more faithful to the church’s teaching than others,” Farrow said.
Ah, so what we have here is a clash between Catholic leaders who are more "theologically astute" and those who are "more faithful to the church's teachings." Got that?
Follow this logic and one can only assume that the more a Catholic knows about theology, the more he or she will veer away from the actual theology and doctrines of the Catholic church. Did the reporter ask a follow-up question at that point?
So what is the big idea? If you connect the dots, a "theologically astute" Catholic could argue that granting a person who chose physician-assisted suicide the full rites of a Catholic funeral would "cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven," whether this Catholic confessed this final mortal sin or not.
Knowing that this is complicated territory, I emailed a frequent reader of this blog -- Catholic media pro Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz -- and asked for his take on this National Post story. As you would expect, he pointed to the Catechism, but also added this:
... While the NP author appears to have consulted a wide range of academics (I don't know any of them), it would have been good to consult a canon lawyer such as Ed Peters who wrote this about the whole (Canada) thing, especially when you had people claiming that Church law allows for a wide range of responses to those who deliberately kill themselves.
Finally, I would note that, once again, we have journalists dealing with questions about what Pope Francis would or would not say about an issue of sin, repentance, mercy and absolution without including a single reference to a crucial term in the life, writings and preaching of this pope -- Confession. Why does this keep happening?