An Italian archbishop made headlines on Wednesday when he said he’d be willing to hold the hand of a person committing suicide. Responding to recent directives from the Swiss bishops prohibiting priests from being present during assisted suicides, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia said, “Let go of the rules. I believe that no one should be abandoned.”
Paglia is not some random prelate. He is the president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, appointed to that post in 2016 by Pope Francis, who also named him grand chancellor of the reconstituted John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. Nor is he a stranger to controversy, having raised more than a few eyebrows in 2007 for commissioning a mural for his diocesan cathedral that contains apparently homoerotic and other prurient images.
In part because of his profile, Catholic social media leaped into action, with some people asserting that even to sit beside a person committing suicide was to be a party to an immoral act, while others argued that if a person is going to kill himself regardless, why should he not have the comfort of a priest?
How should we evaluate this question?
I think we can rule out moral cooperation. Sitting with and holding the hand of someone committing suicide does not, on its own, cooperate either formally or materially with that act. If a priest does not in any way assist in its commission and does not signal his approval, he is not morally culpable for the evil. And if he doesn’t reasonably possess the power to stop the evil, neither is he guilty of omission.
That said, for reasons that are broader than the strict calculus of moral cooperation but no less important, I think following Archbishop Paglia’s lead could cause disastrous harm.
First, because it can set back the Church’s witness against the Culture of Death.
Here I recall a popular ‘80s TV show, set in a high school, that depicted a girl accompanying her sister to get an abortion despite her own moral objections. Hollywood being what it is, the ending left no doubt that the sister’s capitulation proved the superficiality of pro-life conviction. Her academic opposition to abortion had no chance when faced with the “real world” of a girl’s life circumstances.
It’s not hard to imagine a movie or TV show featuring an orthodox but soft-hearted priest who likewise opposes assisted suicide with his mouth but ends up going along with it, in order to produce the same effect. All your cold doctrines go out the window when real people are involved. And the effect would be the same offscreen, too. Our witness against this great evil would be drained of its sincerity and thus its force.
How bad could the Church think assisted suicide really is, people will justifiably ask, if a priest sits by silently while it happens?
Second, the example of high-profile Church leaders like Paglia is instructive. (Indeed, the archbishop himself did not confine his remarks to his own conscience, but said that “accompaniment” of those committing suicide is “a great duty every believer should promote.”) Being instructive means that it’s meant for others to imitate. So, embedded in Paglia’s example is a hope and expectation that hundreds or thousands more bishops, priests, and deacons (and laymen, I suppose) would do likewise.
In that event, it’s hard to see how the outcome would not be an increase in the number of assisted suicides. Even if there is no formal approval of the act, “accompaniment” of the act would be widely perceived as a kind of approval, removing a stigma attached to it.
How many people contemplating suicide are restrained to some degree, perhaps even ultimately restrained, by the sense of divine disapproval that is communicated by the Church’s resistance to the act? Surely this would include not only practicing Catholics but those who are fallen away, or even non-Catholics who still recognize in Catholicism a moral force to be reckoned with.
If Catholic accompaniment of assisted suicide became commonplace, that force would no longer restrain. Removal of that restraint could for some be the last thing needed to make the horrible decision to end their life. For some it might even be a positive motivator. Either way, the result of this accompaniment, this misplaced mercy, would be hundreds or thousands more people taking their lives and many more medical professionals sucked into cooperation with that evil.
Finally and worst of all, the presence of a cleric at a suicide event could dissuade the dying person from making a last-ditch act of repentance.
Yes, if the accompanying priest (for instance) were to spend those minutes continually begging the person not to go through with it, and then, after the deadly dose is administered, to repent of the act, this might not be the case. But there’s no reason to think this what Paglia has in mind. He says nothing of the kind, and that sort of direct conviction-of-sin is the opposite of what “accompaniment” has come to mean in recent pastoral context.
Typically, spiritual care for the dying is about giving comfort, about the promise of the world to come. How would this affect a person committing assisted suicide?[i]
He almost certainly has nagging moral doubts about his actions. If he is a Christian, he may be feeling pangs of conscience, an awareness of transgressing commandments he learned from the Bible or catechism. Ordinarily, these pangs are part of the movement of God’s actual grace leading him to repentance. The Church’s absence from that scene underscores the evil being done and adds to the momentum of repentance.
But what if the Church is present at the scene instead? What will the person think? At least some will take it as a sign that God “understands,” that there is no need to repent, that he is being blessed on his way by God’s representative. The conscience is salved, the interior call to repentance is silenced, and a final opportunity to turn back to God is lost.
Archbishop Paglia, no momentary benefit a dying person may gain from holding your hand is worth the eternal loss of his soul.
[i] This is not to ignore the possibility that a suicidal person’s moral judgment may be clouded by physical pain, medication, emotional or mental degradation, etc. But we should presume moral agency unless there is reason not to.