Mixed Messages from the Vatican and Bishops

With the pope’s approval, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has issued a letter entitled The Good Samaritan devoted to the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life. Those hoping to renew Christian moral awareness in response to the needs of our time will welcome its many affirmations of the Gospel and its critique of harmful cultural treads. Unfortunately, those contributions are undermined by the radically different approach to morality found in other statements coming from the Vatican and many bishops on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and remarriage after divorce. This conflict is evident in their divergent understandings of moral acts, cooperation, conscience, and pastoral accompaniment.

The CDF’s letter affirms the human and evangelical truth that euthanasia and assisted suicide are intrinsically evil acts, that is, they are always violations of human life and the Gospel. The document denies that any consideration of other “goods or values” can alter the fundamental reality: the moral object chosen in euthanasia is “an act or omission which of itself or by intention causes death” to an innocent person (i.e., it is murder).

It follows that “any formal or immediate material cooperation in such an act is a grave sin.” This means in particular that those who approve euthanasia laws are “accomplices of a grave sin” and “guilty of scandal because by such laws they contribute to the distortion of conscience.”

The CDF acknowledges that requests for euthanasia may arise in circumstances that reduce or completely remove guilt. Nevertheless, “the error of judgment into which the conscience falls. . .does not change the nature of this act.” Thus, the act is always harmful and never a real service to the person.

The letter calls Christians and others to follow the example of the Good Samaritan (who, ultimately, represents Jesus) by personally attending to those who suffer, enlisting others to assist in their care, and unfailingly doing good for them. It stresses the Christian duty to help them embrace unavoidable suffering by uniting themselves to the Crucified and Risen Lord. Notably, this pastoral accompaniment is said to require withholding sacraments from those who request euthanasia and avoiding anything that approves or appears to approve their decision, such as standing by while the person is killed.

These pastoral directives serve the good of the person, other Christians, and the civil community. The person seeking euthanasia, “whatever their subjective dispositions may be, has decided upon a gravely immoral act” and thus lacks “the proper disposition for the reception of the Sacraments of Penance, with absolution, and Anointing, and Viaticum.”


Such persons need, then, first to be guided to abandon their intention and to remove themselves from any organization that provides euthanasia. Withholding sacraments under these conditions serves a medicinal purpose: to lead the person to a deeper participation in the life of Christ. Similarly, avoiding the appearance of approving the killing prevents the scandal of misleading the person, those present, or others who may hear of it. These acts of pastoral accompaniment do not reject or abandon the person, but affirm their human dignity and the Gospel.

The letter’s approach to morality and to the pastoral response to evil is remarkable for the stark challenge it poses to contemporary approaches to other moral issues, particularly one theory claiming to have the pope’s support.

Consider that abortion, like euthanasia, is the direct killing of the innocent. Contraception and homosexual activity, too, are intrinsically evil acts. Jesus himself declared that remarriage after the divorce of a legitimate marriage is inherently adulterous. Yet for more than fifty years, bishops have allowed priests and theologians to teach that other “goods or values” and judgments of conscience can sometimes permit such actions.

During the same period, most bishops have failed to instruct Catholics that voters and politicians who approve abortion laws are accomplices in grave sin and guilty of scandal. Worse, bishops taught or allowed the public to believe that this cooperation isn’t sinful and refused to provide the medicine of withholding sacraments. Thus, their “pastoral accompaniment” slipped into approval or the appearance of approval which misleads others. They, not Catholic politicians, should be the first to atone publicly for this scandal.

In recent decades, numerous bishops have permitted ministries for Catholic homosexuals that don’t declare the need to renounce sexual activity and membership in organizations that promote such behavior. In fact, some bishops have suggested that pastoral accompaniment should include blessings or ecclesial recognition for same-sex “partnerships,” ignoring the scandal of leading people to believe that God approves this behavior.

At present, bishops and theologians who claim to speak on the Pope’s behalf, such as Cardinals Cupich and Marx, assert that the Church may not withhold sacraments from those acting with a sincere conscience. They seem unaware that conscience can’t change the nature of an action and that the appearance of approving evil actions isn’t really pastoral care; it’s a scandal. True accompaniment patiently corrects consciences, withholding sacraments when necessary.

Regrettably, there are periodic claims that Pope Francis has spoken privately in favor of these distorted understandings of conscience and pastoral accompaniment. Some say this is the key to interpreting his much-debated Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which speaks of various goods and values in second unions. But it never establishes the evangelical basis on which  these can alter the fundamental reality that the moral act chosen by such a couple is sexual relations outside a valid marriage (i.e., adultery).

If circumstance or conscience can’t make euthanasia good, how could they make an adulterous union good?

The pope’s continued resistance to settling questions regarding his alleged remarks and the moral foundations of Amoris Laetitia leave space for scandal. Now, he wishes to rally Christians to defend using an approach to morality that repudiates the theories he allows to spread in his name. A vigorous, unified Catholic response is currently impossible because “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (I Cor. 14:8)


*Image: The Sleeping Bishop (or The Dozing Archbishop) by Fernando Botero Angulo, 1957

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek, STD has been a priest of the Diocese of Austin since 1985 and is currently pastor of Assumption parish in the city of West. His studies were in Dogmatics with a focus on Ecclesiology, Apostolic Ministry, Newman, and Ecumenism. His new book is As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ (Emmaus Road Publishing). Click here to watch Scott Hahn interview Fr. Vaverek about about the book.