A Meaningless “Catholic Identity” in Belgian Healthcare

America’s proponents of socialized health care often point to Europe as having the ideal system – one in which Church institutions and governments have been able to collaborate in providing high-quality, universal health care. But a look behind the curtain of apparent harmony tells a much different story: the great collaboration often tends to be predicated upon Catholic institutions abandoning the moral teaching of the Church and supinely adopting anti-life practices required by law.

Three quarters of Belgians are baptized Catholic, but it has been an open secret for decades now that Catholic moral teaching and sacramental life are no longer taken seriously by the vast majority of Belgians. As in other countries, this trend clearly gained momentum following the widespread public rejection of 1968’s Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed Catholic magisterial teaching against artificial birth control.

Few nations have gone as far down the road of rejecting their Catholic heritage as Belgium. A case in point: euthanasia was legalized in Belgium in 2002. The opposition to euthanasia was led by a number of Catholic groups and individuals whose main argument was that palliative care, particularly expert pain management, was the moral alternative to lethal injections for suffering patients. A law promoting palliative care was actually passed on the same day as the euthanasia law. It is also interesting to note that the law permitting mercy killing actually provides for conscientious objection so that no one will be forced to go against their moral conscience and kill patients.[1]

In a 2006 article entitled “Prevalence and content of written ethics policies on euthanasia in Catholic healthcare institutions in Belgium (Flanders),” however, we find that Catholics were instrumental in the law’s passage.[2] [Flanders is the Dutch speaking region of Belgium.] The primary author of the article is affiliated with the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law at the Catholic University of Leuven. Further, the ethics committee of Caritas Flanders, an official Catholic charity under the bishops, gave written approval for this survey of euthanasia practices in Catholic healthcare institutions.[3]

The responses reported in the study from Catholic healthcare institutions in Belgium were telling. According to the authors of the study, only 1 Catholic hospital and 6 Catholic nursing homes reported policies that completely prohibited euthanasia.[4] These institutions represent only 3% of the hospitals and 13% of nursing homes. The survey of general directors of these officially Catholic facilities reported that 7% of hospitals and 13% of nursing homes refused to allow the killing of “competent terminally ill patients,” since to do so would go against the “Christian values of the institution.”[5] This means that 93% of these hospitals allowed euthanasia of competent terminally ill patients and 87% of nursing homes did the same in Belgian Flanders.

Lest one think that these findings are not reflective of the general situation, this was a major study of all 298 Catholic healthcare institutions representing 56% and 33% respectively of all the hospitals and nursing homes in Flanders. Furthermore, the response rate to the questionnaire was very high, at 81% for hospitals and 62% for nursing homes.[6]

Catholic healthcare institutions in Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium by and large have adopted the attitude that palliative care should be actively promoted to reduce the number of euthanasia requests, but the proposal of palliative care should not be “used as an impenetrable barrier making euthanasia impossible to perform.”[7] They are also much less willing to euthanize incompetent terminally ill and non-terminally ill patients, although their written ethics policies generally allow for euthanasia here as well in “exceptional cases.” [8]

The article summarizes the Belgian situation correctly: “The statements of the Roman Catholic Magisterium on euthanasia are, in Catholic healthcare institutions, no longer generally accepted as the legitimate foundation for developing their own ethics policies.”[9] The authors even provide a footnote to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Declaration on Euthanasia” from 1980 to emphasize that the clear position of the Catholic Church against euthanasia is known and rejected in Belgium.

It is false advertizing for most if not all of these institutions to call themselves Catholic. In fact, the “Christian values” accepted by the vast majority of these hospitals and nursing homes are based on and in conformity with something other than the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. They should be required to choose between calling themselves Catholic and performing euthanasia and, in all probability, a host of other morally offensive practices. That they have not yet been asked to do so makes it appear as if the label “Catholic” can be interpreted to endorse contradictory moral positions and practices. This cannot be allowed to continue.

[1] 93% of Flemish Catholic hospital ethics policies provided for respecting conscientious objection, but 88% of these stipulated that the conscientious objector refer the patient to another physician within the Catholic institution rather than to an outside institution. Ibid; 175.
[2] Gastmans C. et al. Prevalence and content of written ethics policies on euthanasia in Catholic healthcare institutions in Belgium (Flanders). Health Policy 76 (2006) 169-178.
[3] Ibid; 172.
[4] Ibid; 173.
[5] Ibid; 173.
[6] Ibid; 169.
[7] Ibid; 176.
[8] Ibid; 174.
[9] Ibid; 176.

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