Terminally ill patients who invoke Colorado’s new law permitting physician-assisted suicide will, of course, need a place to carry out the act. And their loved ones likely will want a funeral.
To which the Catholic Church responds: Don’t expect much help from us.
Not only have two of the state’s largest hospital systems, both Catholic-affiliated, opted out of the aid-in-dying law, but as Denverite’s Erica Meltzer reported last week, the Archdiocese of Denver now has declared its intention not to perform funeral masses for those who use the law. The archdiocese only will allow Christian burial for church members who take their lives under the law.
Both positions — based on church doctrine that holds suicide under almost any circumstances is a mortal sin — have considerable practical consequences. The two Catholic hospital groups — Centura Health and SCL Health — along with the secular HealthOne Colorado, which also has declined to facilitate the new law, account for about a third of the state’s hospitals.
They cite a clause in the law, passed by voters last fall, that allows doctors and providers to opt-out of writing a prescription for life-ending medication. It means patients won’t be allowed to administer life-ending drugs, and presumably their providers won’t be able to prescribe them, at those hospitals. And that’s not counting however many physicians might invoke the law’s “conscience clause” on their own. So, for better or worse — depending on your view of the law — it limits patients’ options.
The ban on church funeral masses could be instrumental in dissuading members of Colorado’s substantial Catholic population— BeliefNet.com pegs it at 23 percent — from using the law.
The Archdiocese laid out its position as part of an FAQ on physician-assisted suicide and the sacraments posted this week to the Denver Catholic website. The concern is that people might not realize the depth of the Church’s opposition if people who take their own lives are accorded a funeral Mass.
“Due to the significant risk of a funeral Mass leading people to think the Church accepts PAS (physician-assisted suicide), the bishops of Colorado have decided to only allow Christian burial for those who have committed PAS,” the FAQ states. “Funeral Masses, liturgies of the word and paraliturgies are not permitted. Some days after the burial, loved ones are encouraged to have Masses said for the repose of the soul of the deceased.”
As you might anticipate, none of this is crystal-clear. Meltzer notes the church’s stance isn’t necessarily absolute; its position on suicide has become more nuanced over time. As for the hospital systems that are refusing to participate, additional legal interpretations as well as legislation clarifying the matter may lie ahead. The advocates of the new law dispute the hospitals’ reading of their ability opt out.
What does seem clear at this point is that implementation of yet another statewide ballot initiative is turning out to be complicated. Certainly, more so than might have been anticipated by the nearly two-thirds of voters who endorsed the measure.