The lay-led Brothers of Charity province in Belgium will continue allowing euthanasia in its psychiatric hospitals despite a Vatican ruling that it can no longer call itself Catholic.
Responding to the decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), it accused the global order’s superior general of misusing a dispute over euthanasia to pursue a wider debate about using the province’s assets to support projects elsewhere in the world.
Raf De Rycke, the lay chairman of the order’s Belgian province, predicted serious disputes over ownership of its 12 psychiatric hospitals but felt sure the order could not claim the Belgian province’s property.
“We do not see the need to adjust our practical operations as a result of this letter as we are convinced that we are acting correctly,” the Belgian province based in Ghent said in its statement.
The dispute between Ghent and Rome, where the Belgian-born superior general Brother René Stockman is based, highlighted clashing views of the end of life and competing ideas about what a dwindling religious order should do.
It also illustrated persistent differences between secularised populations in Belgium and the Netherlands, which both legalised euthanasia in 2002, and global doctrinal views in Rome.
The Brothers in Belgium decided in 2017 to allow euthanasia in their psychiatric hospitals, an important element in the country’s health system. It said this respected the autonomy of patients who want euthanasia. It also sidestepped possible court cases for denying them a legal act.
Stockman, who was the Belgian province’s head of health care and then its provincial before becoming world-wide superior general in 2000, protested from Rome and launched talks that led to the CDF decision on 30 March.
While Stockman defended Catholic doctrine on euthanasia, the province argued this was a bid to divert funds from Belgium, where the order was founded in 1807 to help psychiatric patients and now runs more than 75 hospitals, clinics and schools.
“The value of life is fundamental, but not absolute,” De Rycke told the daily De Standaard, arguing even believers can see life as a gift from God that has become too hard to bear and need the Brothers’ support. “I see no arguments in the Vatican’s condemnation to revise our view. It is completely in line with Christian thinking.”
De Rycke said the province had received no requests for euthanasia after deciding to allow it. The province says it has higher standards for the procedure than state hospitals and has let about 20 cases requested earlier to go ahead so far.
The Belgian bishops’ conference has mostly kept out of the debate.
A lawyer for Stockman and his order said the province had overstepped its Catholic mission and was now “spreading disinformation”. It should now pay for premises the order built and let the order use the funds as it sees best.
“The Catholic Church … may be nearing the exit in the West, but that is certainly not the case globally,” Fernand Keuleneer wrote. “It should be able to finance initiatives [globally] with goods that belong to its ecclesiastical assets.”
The dispute was “essentially about … whether a religious congregation still has a mission,” he argued, adding that it predated the 2017 euthanasia decision.
The Belgian province “has apparently lost sight of the order’s mission and become part of a care bureaucracy” despite the good work many employees do, he said.