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Belgian Brothers of Charity reject Vatican order to stop euthanizing patients

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Catholic News Service

Belgium’s Brothers of Charity Group, which runs 15 centers for psychiatric patients, has rejected a Vatican order to stop offering euthanasia.

In a Sept. 12 statement, the organization said it had not been given a chance to explain its “vision statement and argumentation.”

Activists take part in an anti-euthanasia protest Feb. 11, 2014, in Brussels. Assisted suicide and euthanasia were legalized in traditionally Catholic Belgium in 2002 A group of psychiatric care centers run by a Catholic religious order in Belgium is rejecting a Vatican order to stop euthanizing “nonterminal” mentally ill patients on its premises. (CNS photo/Julien Warnand, EPA)

It added that it “always took into account shifts and evolutions within society,” and “emphatically believed” its euthanasia program was consistent with the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

“In our facilities, we deal with patients’ requests for euthanasia for mental suffering in a nonterminal situation with the utmost caution,” said the organization, whose board members include Herman Van Rompuy, a former European Council president and former Belgian prime minister.

“We take unbearable and hopeless suffering and patients’ requests for euthanasia seriously. On the other hand, we want to protect life and ensure euthanasia is performed only if there is no more possibility of providing a reasonable treatment perspective to the patient,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, a Sept. 12 statement from Brother Rene Stockman, superior general of the Brothers of Charity in Rome, said he “deplores the fact that there is no willingness to negotiate” the text of the vision statement on the part of the Belgian organization.

“He does not understand that a board of directors does not want to take into account experts from the field that have expressed clear objections to the text,” the statement said.

An initial deadline of the end of August to settle the disagreement was delayed until Sept. 11, the statement explained, to allow further negotiations to take place.

But it said that the scheduled talks were “shot down” because Professor Rik Torfs, a former rector of Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven called into mediate the dispute, “could no longer put his trust in the Brothers of Charity organization in Belgium.”

The statement said: “The superior general remains open to dialogue, provided that this dialogue is about the content of the vision text, and thus whether or not to apply euthanasia within the walls of the institutions of the Brothers of Charity, and not about a ‘modus vivendi’ (agreement allowing conflicting parties to coexist until a final settlement is reached).

“He will however resubmit the current situation to the competent authorities in the Vatican before taking further action,” it said.

The Belgian church’s Cathobel news agency said Sept. 12 the Brothers of Charity Group lay chairman, Raf De Rycke, a former economics professor, had agreed euthanasia requests would now be examined “with greater circumspection than previously,” but conceded that the order’s hospitals were not yet ready to accept more restrictive guidelines.

The agency added that at least three organization members had not declared their attitude to the Sept. 12 announcement, despite “claims of unanimity.”

In August, Brother Rene Stockman told Catholic News Service that Pope Francis gave his personal approval to a Vatican demand that the Brothers of Charity reverse its policy by the end of August. He said brothers who serve on the board of the Brothers of Charity Group must each sign a joint letter to their superior general declaring that they “fully support the vision of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, which has always confirmed that human life must be respected and protected in absolute terms, from the moment of conception till its natural end.”

Brother Stockman told CNS that if the group refused to bow to the ultimatum, “then we will take juridical steps in order to force them to amend the text (of the new policy) and, if that is not possible, then we have to start the procedure to exclude the hospitals from the Brothers of Charity family and take away their Catholic identity.”

He said if any of the brothers refused to sign the letter upholding Catholic teaching against euthanasia, “then also we will start the correct procedure foreseen in canon law.”

Geert Lesarge, press secretary of the Brussels-based Belgian bishops’ conference, criticized the decision and reiterated support for the Vatican Sept. 13.

He told Catholic News Service that attempts by Torfs to mediate the dispute had failed. He said church leaders were ready to debate “matters of principle,” but not “medical practices at specific hospitals.”

Assisted suicide and euthanasia were legalized in traditionally Catholic Belgium in 2002, a year after the neighboring Netherlands, and euthanasia deaths are increasing by 27 percent annually, according to Health Ministry data.

At least a dozen patients in the Brothers of Charity care are believed to have requested euthanasia over the past year, with two transferred elsewhere to receive deadly injections.

The Brothers of Charity Group is considered the most important provider of mental health care services in the Flanders region of Belgium, where they serve 5,000 patients a year.

Besides Belgium and the Netherlands, euthanasia and assisted suicide are also legal in Luxembourg and deemed “nonpunishable” in Switzerland. Poll data suggest most Europeans favor euthanasia laws if backed with safeguards.

     Contributing to this story was Simon Caldwell in Manchester, England.

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Pope tells Belgian religious order to stop offering euthanasia to patients

By

Catholic News Service

Pope Francis has given a Belgian religious order until the end of August to stop offering euthanasia to psychiatric patients.

Activists take part in an anti-euthanasia protest in 2014, in Brussels. Pope Francis has ordered the Brothers of Charity, who run psychiatric care centers in Belgium, to stop offering euthanasia to their patients. (CNS photo/Julien Warnand, EPA)

Activists take part in an anti-euthanasia protest in 2014, in Brussels. Pope Francis has ordered the Brothers of Charity, who run psychiatric care centers in Belgium, to stop offering euthanasia to their patients. (CNS photo/Julien Warnand, EPA)

Brother Rene Stockman, superior general of the order, said the pope gave his personal approval to a Vatican demand that the Brothers of Charity, which runs 15 centers for psychiatric patients across Belgium, must reverse its policy by the end of August.

Brothers who serve on the board of the Brothers of Charity Group, the organization that runs the centers, also must each sign a joint letter to their superior general declaring that they “fully support the vision of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, which has always confirmed that human life must be respected and protected in absolute terms, from the moment of conception till its natural end.”

Brothers who refuse to sign will face sanctions under canon law, while the group can expect to face legal action and even expulsion from the church if it fails to change its policy.

The group, he added, must no longer consider euthanasia as a solution to human suffering under any circumstances.

The order, issued at the beginning of August, follows repeated requests for the group to drop its new policy of permitting doctors to perform the euthanasia of “nonterminal” mentally ill patients on its premises.

It also follows a joint investigation by the Vatican’s congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Brother Stockman, who had opposed the group’s euthanasia policy, said the ultimatum was devised by the two congregations and has the support of the pope.

“The Holy Father was formally informed about it and was also informed about the steps to be taken,” he said in an Aug. 8 email.

The ultimatum, he said, meant the group’s policies must be underpinned by a belief that “repect for human life is absolute.”

Brother Stockman said that if the group refused to bow to the ultimatum “then we will take juridical steps in order to force them to amend the text (of the new policy) and, if that is not possible, then we have to start the procedure to exclude the hospitals from the Brothers of Charity family and take away their Catholic identity.”

He said if any of the brothers refused to sign the letter upholding Catholic teaching against euthanasia, “then also we will start the correct procedure foreseen in canon law.”

The Belgian bishops and the nuncio to Belgium have been informed about the ultimatum, he added.

Brother Stockman, a psychiatric care specialist, had turned to the Vatican in the spring after the Brothers of Charity group rejected a formal request from him to reverse the new policy.

The group also snubbed the Belgian bishops by formally implementing its euthanasia policy in June, just weeks after the bishops declared they would not accept euthanasia in Catholic institutions.

The group has also ignored a statement of church teaching forbidding euthanasia. The statement, written and signed by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, former head of the doctrinal congregation, was sent to the Brothers of Charity Group members. A copy of the document has been obtained Catholic News Service.

Father Peter Joseph Triest, whose cause for beatification was opened in 2001, founded the Brothers of Charity in Ghent, Belgium, in 1807. Their charism is to serve the elderly and mentally ill.

Today, the group is considered the most important provider of mental health care services in the Flanders region of Belgium, where they serve 5,000 patients a year.

About 12 psychiatric patients in the care of the Brothers are believed to have asked for euthanasia over the past year, with two transferred elsewhere to receive the injections to end their lives.

The group first announced its euthanasia policy in March, saying it wished to harmonize the practices of the centers with the Belgian law on euthanasia passed in 2003, the year after the Netherlands became the first country to permit the practice since Nazi Germany.

Technically, euthanasia in Belgium remains an offense, with the law protecting doctors from prosecution only if they abide by specific criteria, but increasingly lethal injections are given to the disabled and mentally ill. Since 2014 “emancipated children” have also qualified for euthanasia.

The group’s change in policy came about a year after a private Catholic rest home in Diest, Belgium, was fined $6,600 for refusing the euthanasia of a 74-year-old woman suffering from lung cancer.

Catholic News Service has approached the Brothers of Charity Group for a comment.

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