Canada's largest Catholic archdiocese is mobilizing its members to pressure federal politicians tasked with shaping new doctor-assisted dying legislation by June to protect vulnerable groups and to exempt doctors, nurses and Catholic hospitals from having to provide those services because it goes against their religious beliefs.
Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, used a sermon on Sunday at St. Paul's Basilica in downtown Toronto to argue that forcing Catholic doctors to refer patients to medically assisted dying services was a "violation of conscience" and amounted to religious discrimination.
The same message was shared through videotaped or written statements distributed to the congregations of 225 churches that attended Sunday mass in an area that includes Toronto, vast stretches of the suburban 905 region from Mississauga to Oshawa, and north to Georgian Bay. The archdiocese is home to almost two million Catholics.
"It is unjust to force people to act against their conscience in order to be allowed to practise as a physician or, in the case of a health-care facility, in order to qualify for government funding. It is not tolerant of religious diversity," Cardinal Collins said in a statement.
A comprehensive medically assisted dying law is on its way. The Supreme Court of Canada is giving the federal government until June to draft new legislation after the court struck down a ban just over a year ago. The scope of the new law and which groups will be affected is still being decided. In the meantime, those seeking an assisted death must get permission from a superior court.
The message that Catholic parishioners are being encouraged to deliver to politicians is two-fold: protect vulnerable groups under Canada's new law, and ensure that medical professionals who object to doctor-assisted dying on moral and religious grounds are exempt from providing those services.
In part, what has forced Catholic groups into action is a joint parliamentary committee report released last month that made 21 recommendations, such as not excluding "mature minors" and those living with mental illness from doctor-assisted dying.
"They [the recommendations] should shock us to the core, especially if we believe, complacently and incorrectly, that the change in the law will affect only a few people with grave physical illness, who have lived a long life, and are near death," Cardinal Collins said.
The archbishop is calling on those concerned about the law to write to their member of Parliament through a website set up by the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience, which includes several Catholic groups and claims to have the backing of more than 5,000 Canadian doctors.
At a packed Sunday morning mass at St. Mary's Church, the full text of the archbishop's statement was placed at the back of the church for parishioners to pick up on their way out.
Churchgoer Therese McGuirk said she planned on contacting her MP, adding she felt that doctors and nurses should be allowed to follow their conscience. "Otherwise, it's one viewpoint forced on a whole society," she said.
She said she found the parliamentary recommendations concerning minors and those living with a mental illness "abhorrent."
Ms. McGuirk said she worried that the law would give young people "too easy a way out."
"How many depressed 16- or 17- or 18-year-olds are out there?" she said. Other attendees at the Toronto church seemed unaware of the brewing debate.
Zvonimir Cicvaric said he could understand an individual experiencing insufferable pain and wishing for a way to end it through doctor-assisted death.
"I can see that side of the argument. On the other hand, it is suicide," he said. He added that he did not feel strongly enough about the issue to contact his MP.
A Forum Research poll from last August found that 77 per cent of those surveyed supported doctor-assisted dying in terminally ill cases. The joint parliamentary committee recommended last month that the new law also include cases of prolonged and intolerable suffering because of non-terminal grievous and irremediable medical conditions.