Terminally ill people who end their lives with voluntary euthanasia could be denied the last rites from a Catholic priest now that Queensland has become the fourth state to operate a right-to-die program as from January 1. Uniting Church ministers in the state will also have discretion to refuse absolution to those who choose voluntary assisted dying. This represents the fiercest backlash by churches to the rollout of Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD), with South Australia and NSW due to bring it in later next year and the territories able to follow suit after the axing by federal parliament of a longstanding veto. At that point, the entire population will be covered. Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane and former president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Mark Coleridge said people undertaking VAD would generally not receive the sacrament of Viaticum, Holy Communion for the dying, a key part of the last rites.

Where the person had persistently rejected the church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, the concluding Prayer for the Dead could also be withheld, Archbishop Coleridge said. Asked if Catholics should assume they would not receive Viaticum in the event that they resorted to VAD, he said: “I think that’s a fairly safe thing to say.  “That does not mean that the church can’t offer pastoral care, can’t surround the person and his or her family with prayer. “One of the questions we are looking at is how to manage all of this in the context of a Catholic funeral. “There is no question of rejecting the person for a Catholic funeral but, again, it would take great pastoral sensitivity to decide how this should be handled.” VAD has brought to a head simmering concern among churches, faith-based hospitals and residential aged care providers about a system that allows the terminally ill to end their lives with death-dealing drugs, contrary to a fundamental tenet of Christian belief.

A sleeper issue, access to the sacraments for VAD users has not until now been raised publicly by church leaders. In Victoria and Western Australia, where VAD came into effect in 2019 and 2021 respectively, the churches held fire as they grappled with the complex moral and theological implications of helping people to die. The breakdown of relations between Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor government and the Catholic Church in particular has pulled the issue into the open in Queensland, alongside practical concerns about how the new system will operate. The state’s largest private hospital service, the Catholic aligned Mater Group, has reluctantly accepted that VAD will be conducted on its premises in the “rare” event that an alternative site can’t be found, or the patient is too ill to be moved.

This follows agreement by the Queensland government to cover the accreditation of outside doctors to visit and potentially dose eligible patients. “Mater staff will not provide or participate in VAD services,” chairman of the board Francis Sullivan said. “Under the legislation, if a patient is unable to be transferred from a Mater facility for medical reasons, we will be legally required to allow an external VAD health practitioner to access the facility.” Archbishop Coleridge echoed complaints by Catholic aged care operators Southern Cross Care and Mercy Community Services that the Queensland government had failed to promulgate regulations for the VAD legislation passed in 2021, detailing how the program would operate. Jointly, they provide about 1250 aged-care places across the state.

Mercy Community Services chair Rowena McNally said VAD could be conducted onsite without staff being informed. “For those of us who are managing aged-care facilities the issue is how is this thing going to work?” she said. “Under the act, there is no obligation on a resident or a doctor assisting them to inform us that VAD is going to take place. You know, the family could come in one day and Mum’s dead. She was perfectly fine when they spoke to her yesterday, but now she’s dead. The staff don’t know why, and it could be days before we find out there has been a visitor in our facility.” Southern Cross chairman Francis Price said staff could be jailed for trying to dissuade a resident from taking their own life through VAD. In a stinging attack, Archbishop Coleridge said the Queensland government had been “impervious to genuine discussion”, creating uncertainty about the workability of a program only three weeks away from commencing.

Archbishop Coleridge went on “It was not easy, I have to say, for me as archbishop to have genuine conversations with senior members of the government through all of this,” he said. “There was the sense that they might take your call, but it was kind of just putting up with you and managing a stakeholder, not truly listening.” Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said through a spokesperson that private entity committees representing hospitals, hospices and residential aged-care providers had met quarterly to thrash out any problems. “Facilities involved are encouraged to clearly outline their process for external practitioners visiting for VAD services to ensure they are aware of the facility’s requirements,” the spokesperson said. The Australian Medical Association’s Queensland branch said it had not received any complaints from doctors about a lack of guidance or information.

But state president Maria Boulton warned: “The very nature of voluntary assisted dying means the Queensland government must get the regulatory framework surrounding VAD laws right – there is no room for mistakes or ambiguity.” Archbishop Coleridge said churches were “walking a tightrope” to balance the moral and doctrinal questions against compassion for the dying. On whether a person choosing VAD could be denied the last rites in their entirety, he said: “It is possible, I have to say. I don’t want to start issuing fiats or any sort of statement that would apply to every single case … but I would not exclude it. If someone does decide to go forward with euthanasia or VAD, then it would be very hard to absolve the person from any sin that might be caught up with a thing like that.”

Catholic theologian Tom Elich, of the organisation Liturgy Brisbane, set out a possible course of action for priests and pastoral carers, writing in an influential discussion paper: “The pastor should physically leave the room at the actual moment of euthanasia, not to signify abandonment but to make it clear to all that there is no co-operation or acceptance of the act.” But the minister could return to the patient’s side while the lethal dose took effect, on average 25 minutes. “A decision about the sacraments requires careful discernment, not only of the circumstances, but also of the person’s interior attitude,” he writes. “If the decision is reached that the sacraments are not appropriate, it should never be seen as a punishment, nor as the rigid application of a rule, but a stance in favour of life which in turn affirms God’s love for each of us.”

The Moderator of the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church, Andrew Gunton, said he would continue to push for improved palliative care over VAD. Clergy would have the option to refuse to administer the last rites, broadly in line with the Catholic position. “As a church, we are also committed to offering a compassionate and pastoral response to people and families who choose the path of voluntary assisted dying,” Reverend Gunton said. “We are working with and supporting our ministry agents and chaplains to enable them to do this in a legal, compassionate and ethical way.” But the Anglican Bishop for western Queensland, Cameron Venables, said his sense was the nation’s second largest church would give absolution “less conditionally” to VAD users. “I would not want to critique the Catholic Church landing in that space, but I think we are in a different space,’’ he said.

Archbishop Coleridge said Christians in Australia and the Western world were grappling with the “uncharted territory” of legalising voluntary euthanasia. Even though the churches’ teaching was objective in rejecting VAD, the plight of a terminally ill person enduring physical and mental suffering was deeply subjective. “The workings of the conscience of the individual before God is a much more difficult thing to assess and that’s what he is talking about,” he said, explaining the concept of “interior attitude” cited by Dr Elich as a determinant of whether a VAD user should receive the last rites. “This is where a really good pastor or pastoral carer will be sensitive enough to that element to make a sound assessment. Again, you can’t generalise about everyone. It would vary enormously, motivation and all that stirs in conscience, which is where the individual stands before God. That has to be part of any assessment that is made to what should or shouldn’t be done.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

Print This Post Print This Post

Comments are closed