The Brothers of Charity order in Belgium has declined to bow to Vatican pressure to bar euthanasia in its psychiatric hospitals and asked for more time for dialogue about its view that helping someone to die is compatible with Catholic doctrine.
Raf De Rycke, head of the province’s board of directors, told a news conference on Tuesday that the order’s leadership had not been able to resolve this dispute since the Vatican gave it a month to revoke a decision to allow euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium.
He said the Belgian province made the decision last March with respect for life in mind and not only thinking of patient autonomy. “This view was developed with the best possible care in mind,” he said.
It was ready to maintain “dialogue and consultation” with the Vatican, which gave it until Monday 11 September to revoke the decision. The three brothers on the 14-member board faced possible expulsion from the order if they did not comply.
Brother René Stockman, the order’s Rome-based global head, told the Flemish church news service Kerknet that a planned consultation had already failed and he would be ready for dialogue only “if it’s about barring euthanasia, and not about finding a modus vivendi”.
Stockman, a Belgian, said he would discuss the issue again with Vatican authorities in late September.
Axel Liégeois, ethicist for the Belgian chapter, said the Vatican approached the issue strictly on deontological terms. “But there is another widely accepted tradition within the Church, namely to approach ethical challenges proportionally,” he said. “On the basis of that and other considerations, we dare to say that our vision is Catholic.”
He said the order’s plan for allowing euthanasia would be stricter than what the law required.
With 15 psychiatric hospitals and other services, the Brothers of Charity are an important element in the Belgian health system and have several influential lay supporters. Its board, dominated by lay people like its chairman De Rycke, could continue operating the hospitals even if they lost their Catholic connection.
The Brothers were founded in Belgium in 1807 as the Hospital Brothers of Saint Vincent.
Stockman said last month he was confident the brothers on the board would follow “the Magisterium of the Church” but was not sure about the lay members.
One of them, former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, reacted to the Vatican ultimatum last month with a tweet saying: "The time of 'Roma locuta, causa finita' is long past".
Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002 and the initially strict restrictions on it have since been loosened to allow it even for people not in the terminal stage of illness.
De Rycke said the decision to allow euthanasia in the order’s hospitals “was necessary in order to take our patients seriously when they express a wish to die. You can’t enter into a discussion about the end of life if you say right away what the outcome must be.”
Stockman said the decision relativised the Church’s absolute respect for life and showed Belgium was so secularised that “certain points of Church doctrine are unjustly considered almost outmoded".
"It's almost fashionable today to take leave of one's life with a glass of champagne in one's hand," he told the Belgian daily 'De Tijd'.
PICTURE: Pope Francis greets Brother Rene Stockman, superior general of the Brothers of Charity, at the end of a 2016 meeting of the Union of Superiors General at the Vatican. Pope Francis has given the Brothers of Charity, which runs 15 centres for psychiatric patients across Belgium, until the end of August to stop offering euthanasia to psychiatric patients