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Catholic archbishop: Austrian court ruling on assisted suicide ‘just the beginning’

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CNA Staff, Feb 19, 2021 / 07:35 am (CNA).- An Austrian archbishop warned Catholics on Wednesday that a top court’s ruling on assisted suicide is “just the beginning.”

In a Lenten pastoral letter, released on Feb. 17, Archbishop Franz Lackner said that Catholics could not remain silent after the constitutional court issued a judgment in December that a ban on assisted suicide was unconstitutional. The court ordered the government to lift the ban in 2021.

Lackner, the president of Austria’s Catholic bishops’ conference, wrote: “Permitting assisted suicide is always just the beginning. The danger of further steps, such as the introduction of euthanasia on demand, will also become virulent in our country.” 

He added: “What is to be done? We cannot possibly remain silent. Despite our powerlessness — the decision of the constitutional court is final — we are getting involved when it now comes to shaping the law.” 

Lackner, who succeeded Cardinal Christoph Schönborn as bishops’ conference president in June 2020, urged Catholics to increase their efforts to care for the sick and dying.

He wrote: “I know life can be difficult — dark clouds can appear, especially towards the end of life, which can be hard to bear — and unfortunately sometimes is. This requires the fullest understanding on all sides and courageous and competent assistance.” 

“The tried and tested path of palliative and hospice care needs to be expanded further.”

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported that the pastoral letter will be read out in churches in Salzburg archdiocese this Sunday.

Lackner sharply criticized the constitutional court’s judgment on the day that it was issued, describing it as a fundamental “cultural breach.”

“Up until now, every person in Austria could assume that their life was considered to be unconditionally valuable — up to their natural death. With its decision, the supreme court removed an essential basis for this consensus,” he said.

Austria, which has a population of almost nine million people, borders the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Germany.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna and Leopold Wimmer, president of the lay organization Catholic Action Austria, also lamented the ruling, alongside ethicists and medical professionals.

The court argued in its ruling that the country’s criminal code is unconstitutional because its ban on assisted suicide violates the right to self-determination. 

In December, Catholic Action Austria called for a wide consultation on which legal regulations should be enacted to protect people from being pressured to opt for assisted suicide.

Wimmer asked the Austrian legislature to create a parliamentary inquiry, or similar means, to clarify open questions and to define processes and criteria “that ensure that no economic or other pressure is exerted on those affected.”

Advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide are gaining ground in some parts of Europe.

Last month, Portugal’s parliament backed a bill approving euthanasia. If the bill is signed into law, Portugal will become the fourth country in Europe to legalize the practice, alongside the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. 

Earlier this month, Catholic leaders and human rights advocates in Ireland expressed concern over a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide. 

In September 2020, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation reaffirmed the Church’s perennial teaching on the sinfulness of euthanasia and assisted suicide. 

In the German-speaking world, assisted suicide and euthanasia are often referred to as “Sterbehilfe” (“help in dying”), in an effort to distinguish it from the euthanasia policy of the Nazi era. 

Cardinal Schönborn referred to the Nazis’ notorious euthanasia program in an interview with the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest newspaper, in December.

He criticized the constitutional court’s ruling and asked politicians to expand hospice and palliative facilities.

He said: “If someone wants to jump off the bridge, one will try to prevent him from doing so. Should it now be allowed to give him the last push? And should everyone think that this is good?”


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