Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, March 27, 2008

Proposal: Impose excommunication for euthanasia

For some months I have been researching and writing an article on euthanasia in canon law. I hoped against hope that it might remain an academic exercise, but (to judge from, say, this report on the practice of euthanasia in Belgium) the speed with which the Western, specifically Christian, protection of innocent life is collapsing suggests that one of my projected canonical recommendations deserves an earlier hearing than appearance in a peer-reviewed journal can afford.

Simply put, I recommend that euthanasia be made an excommunicable offense under the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Briefly, my article will demonstrate, among other things, the following points:

1. Euthanasia, correctly understood, is unquestionably repudiated by the Catholic moral tradition (CCC 2324 and 2377) and is regarded by the canonical scholarly tradition as a species of homicide.

2. Canon 1397, which subjects those committing "homicide" to "a just penalty", can be invoked against euthanasia, but both the definition of the delict and the scope of the penalty require specific elaboration for each particular case.

3. The contrast between the canonical treatment of abortion (which is explicitly condemned and made punishable by excommunication under 1983 CIC 1398) and that accorded euthanasia (only implicitly condemned and punishable but indeterminately), can no longer be supported: the same factors that lead to the canonical criminalization of abortion (namely, widespread abandonment by states of their duty to protect innocent human life before birth which occured in the 1970s and 1980s, when the new penal canons were being formulated) are presently underway in regard to innocent human life at other stages. The Church therefore must proclaim and, within the limits of her authority, must protect what the State has forgotten and repudiated, namely, the inherent value of innocent human life regardless of age.

4. Eastern canon law already expressly makes homicide an excommunicable offense (CCEO 1450.1). Besides showing that the excommunication of murderers is plausible, this canon suggests that Western Christians (among whom euthanasia is more widespread) should not be treated more leniently than their Eastern brethren for the same offense.

Note that Eastern canon law has done away with latae sententiae (automatic) sanctions (CCEO 1402). I completely agree with this trend, and recommend that the excommunication propsoed for euthanasia under western law be imposable only ferendae sententiae, that is, by a formal process only (1983 CIC 1314, 1342, and 1425).

Excommunication is the gravest sanction in Church's legal system. It is reserved for the most grievous offenses, but especially, I suggest, for those wherein the aid of the state in upholding important values cannot, for whatever reason, be secured. Euthanasia in every way fits the description of an offense that warrants excommunication, and Eastern Catholics already face excommunication for it. It's time Western Catholics were treated with the same kind of tough-love, and time once again that Church law, as it has done so often in the past, show state law what's really important. +++

Read more about it: Edward Peters, Excommunciation and the Catholic Church (2006) esp. pp. 33-35; Interview with Dr. Peters on excommunication by Carl Olson (November 2006); E. Peters, "Church law and euthansia: time to oil a rusty canon?" Lay Witness (Jan-Feb 1997) 13, 27; and E. Peters, "Excommunication: wave of the future?" National Catholic Register (July 1996) 6.