It’s a story we’ve heard before: Christian-run and -staffed entities receive government funding but refuse to implement public policy. It happened when Catholic hospitals said they would not perform abortions, and when evangelical charities insisted they would not employ people in same-sex partnerships. Even when funding isn’t an issue, what of Catholic pharmacists who will not stock contraceptives, or evangelical law schools such as Trinity Western insist on a covenant that forbids equal marriage?
Canada and much of the western world has often trimmed and twisted its way into compromise around these issues, usually satisfying nobody. The latest example involves guidelines on doctor-assisted death issued by the Catholic Health Association of Ontario, representing 29 Catholic health care providers, recommending that patients not even be allowed to have conversations about assisted dying at their venues.
Association chief executive Ron Noble has said, rather disingenuously, that, “We will ensure the safe transfer of care for individuals to an alternative health care provider who can provide a consult about end-of-life options that are not available at a Catholic health care facility.”
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Catholic hospital leaders themselves made it clear back in July that they will not participate in assisted dying, despite laws passed this year legalizing the practice. But this new statement goes even further, in that it refuses to allow even a conversation about physician-assisted dying to take place.
In the case of doctor-assisted death, Ottawa has effectively said that individual doctors and nurses may refuse to participate, but institutions are obliged to offer the service. At face, this doesn’t seem like a workable situation: while more liberal medical professionals in the Catholic sector are arguing their hospitals should provide the same services as their public counterparts, it’s very unlikely that the Catholic Church itself would ever accept that position.
Surely the only consistent, if challenging, solution is for Catholic hospitals to work out this difference of opinion and, as institutions, fulfil their obligations to provide medical services considered necessary by Canada’s political representatives and legal arbiters. It is not as if doctor-assisted death — or abortion, for that matter — would be central to a Catholic or any other hospital’s work. Compromise is not too much to request.
The reality is that Roman Catholic Church teaching and the opinions of individual Catholics are two entirely different things, and there are certainly many Catholics (including Catholic doctors) who are in favour of the right to die. The problem is, forcing the issue could put their jobs in danger and — as anachronistic as it may sound — also put them at risk of excommunication.
It’s a deeply sensitive but vital area that needs to be resolved. Catholic hospitals, receiving enormous amounts of public money, are in a binding contract to deliver public services, yet refuse to even discuss this delicate but profoundly important subject. Imagine a vulnerable person in a Catholic hospital knowing they have a limited time to live and that most of that time will be spent in daily agony, in spite of medication. Or consider someone with a neurological disease, their muscles and movement wasting away, yet their mind still functioning and aware that one day they will drown within their own body and that there is nothing that can be done.
The idea of forcing such a patient to move another hospital if they even want to inquire about euthanasia is not only impractical, but also, to be candid, cruel. By the nature of the situation, the only people who would want to discuss assisted dying would be the acutely vulnerable and in distress. I see nothing Christian about moving such people — some if not many of them non-Catholic — to a new, unfamiliar health care facility simply to satisfy the religion-formed consciences of a conservative minority.
As a committed Christian I feel very strongly that people of faith have a right, and obligation, to live according to their religion. Nor do I accept any facile nonsense that faith is an entirely private matter: Christians have a duty to oppose injustice or help the marginalized in spite of what any government says or does. But Catholic hospitals in Canada not only receive public funds, they also cater to non-Catholic patients. They do not operate not in some dictatorial culture but in a democratic society where doctor-assisted suicide has not come about through some evil fiat, but after decades of research, consideration and discussion.
This is about church and state, modern and archaic, reasonable and unreasonable. Closing the door on informed discussion does nobody any good — especially the sick.
Author and columnist Michael Coren's new book is Epiphany: A Christian's Change of Heart & Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.