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guichon and mitchell

Pope Francis declared this the Year of Mercy, and yet the Roman Catholic bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories have instructed priests not to offer families the comfort of a funeral because the bishops don't like the way the loved one died. Dying by assisted suicide is, they say, a gravely sinful act contrary to the will of God. But by preventing families at the worst time of their lives from accessing the families' houses of worship, are these six men acting in conformity with the Catholic faith?

In the postwar era, the Roman Catholic pope, cardinals and bishops gathered in Rome to proclaim a new direction for the modern world. The resulting document was Joy and Hope, published at the Second Vatican Council, December, 1965. In it, the Catholic Church turned away from the thundering, hierarchical, judgment-filled ways of the past, and affirmed that Christ "entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served."

Joy and Hope focuses on the dignity of the human person and his or her conscience. It states that the Roman Catholic Church grows from within each person outward and that each person is uniquely positioned to help the church become a community of love by following his or her own conscience. Indeed, individuals who have not received the church's teachings are not to be condemned; they may act according to God's will as they discern it through the dictates of their own conscience.

Even those who have received the teachings of the Catholic Church are obliged to act according to their individual conscience. As Joy and Hope states, "Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There, he or she is alone with God, whose voice echoes in their depths. In a wonderful manner, conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour."

It appears that Canadian Catholics have exercised their conscience in assessing assisted dying: 78 per cent of Canadian Catholics favour assisted dying (national Ipsos Reid poll, February, 2016). The modern era has seen a fundamental shift in how rules are made. Now, Parliament and legislative assemblies must seek "social licence" before important changes may occur. The more educated the people, the less likely they are to accept being told what to do.

The medieval and thundering approach to rule-making mystifies most Albertans. An educated people, they tend to believe that individuals who suffer intolerably from irremediable illness are in the best position to assess their options, and that it is not for others to judge decisions made in response to intolerable suffering. Indeed, what New York bishop forbade a funeral mass for those people trapped in the World Trade Center who escaped the intolerable suffering of being burned alive by knowingly leaping to their deaths?

The six Alberta men who tell priests not to walk fully beside the bereaved are the same people who do not want girls in publicly funded schools to receive a vaccine against a cancer-causing virus; who seek to prevent students from starting gay-straight alliances in publicly funded schools even though such alliances reduce bullying and can save the lives of vulnerable LGBTQ youth; and who deny divorced people an invitation to share in the sacramental meal of communion.

If this is the direction in which the Alberta and NWT bishops' individual consciences leads them, then they are free to turn their backs on the entreaties of Pope Francis to act with mercy.

But the same freedom of conscience that the bishops assert must, by virtue of Catholic teaching, be granted to every individual, including those patients who seek medical assistance in dying and those priests who wish to act lovingly toward bereaved families. As the Catholic governing document Joy and Hope states, "A person's dignity demands that he or she act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure."

The Alberta and Northwest Territories bishops should follow the example of Quebec and British Columbia bishops by not interfering with priests' freedom to decide how best to help bereaved families. As the Catholic Church decreed, "Only in freedom can people direct themselves toward goodness."

Juliet Guichon and Ian Mitchell are faculty members in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.