Catholic guidelines in NZ for those working with people choosing ‘assisted dying’


Catholic health professionals, chaplains and priests are being given guidelines and pastoral help to work with people who decide to die under the End of Life Choice Act which takes effect on November 7.

Though the Church opposes the deliberate taking of human life, it cannot turn away those who choose “assisted dying” under the new law, said Hamilton Bishop Stephen Lowe, the vice-president of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference.

“Life puts before us many questions and choices,” Bishop Lowe said. “As a Church we try to help people look at these questions and choices through a Christian lens. Individuals often find themselves in complex places. In these times the Church tries to offer guidance to people as best as she can, but people make their own choices.

“Often, as a Church, we find ourselves caring for people dealing with the consequences of such choices. Our pastoral practice is always called to be a reflection of our God, who does not abandon his people.”

The bishops have written a pastoral statement and a set of guidelines for chaplains, priests and other Catholic professionals who care for the dying. The Church’s Te Kupenga-Catholic Leadership Institute has been organising workshops on working with the law.

The Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand opposed the End of Life Choice Act Referendum held at the 2020 general election. However the referendum was passed.

Bishop Lowe said “medically assisted dying” or euthanasia would not be offered in Catholic rest homes or hospices, just as many non-Catholic carers would not offer it.

“However, it will become available in a number of hospitals and other public care facilities throughout the country. These are the places of work or ministry for some of our Catholic community. We do not need to deny the objective wrong of euthanasia in order to accompany, with consolation and hope, those who might feel drawn or pushed towards this type of death,” said Bishop Lowe.

“The legal availability of euthanasia in New Zealand does not change Catholic convictions about the practice. At the same time, our faith tells us there is no place or situation, no matter how uncomfortable, where our faith cannot be expressed, or God’s grace encountered.”

The bishop’s document “Ministers of Consolation and Hope – Ngā Kaiārahi o te Aroha me te Tūmanako”, contains “principles and guidelines for those working with and ministering to people contemplating assisted dying”.

The pastoral statement is titled “Bearers of Consolation and Hope – Ngā Kaihāpai o te Aroha me te Tūmanako”.

The bishops said that, before writing the statement, they had surveyed Catholics, including priests, who work with, and minister to, the dying, sick and vulnerable.

“The responses we received were overwhelmingly characterised by a desire to show compassion in the face of complexity, combined with a profound respect for the Church’s teaching on euthanasia,” the pastoral statement explained.

“We do not need to deny the objective wrong of euthanasia in order to accompany, with consolation and hope, those who might feel drawn or pushed towards this type of death.”

In the documents, the bishops drew on several sources, including Scripture, the Church’s tradition of care for the sick and dying, and magisterial teaching, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Samaritanus Bonus”, which Pope Francis ordered to be published last year.

The bishops noted some of the truths spelled out in the CDF document that should be borne in mind. In many cases, the CDF document stated, the request for death is a symptom of the disease, aggravated by isolation and discomfort. Requests for death are not necessarily a true desire for euthanasia, but rather are almost always anguished pleas for help and love. Therefore, the Church’s expectation is that “spiritual accompaniment will be offered to those considering assisted dying who request it from a bearer or servant of consolation and hope”.

The bishops also noted the likelihood of diminished responsibility in those requesting this type of death, adding that hope is never extinguished, and even a firm intention of opting for an assisted death does not become an objective reality until the moment it is administered.

When spiritual accompaniment is requested from a priest, chaplain or pastoral worker, the “desire for a compassionate companion is already a sign of good intent”.

“In accepting their request in a spirit of mutual trust, we recognise and respect the person’s faith and their conscience. This entails a commitment to listen profoundly to them as their sacred journey towards death unfolds.”

Pastoral and spiritual accompaniment can be a “hikoi of hope”, which leaves open the way for an encounter with God.

Presenting the loving face of the Church as a mother “contributes to assuaging the terrible, desperate desire to end one’s life”, the bishops stated, again referencing the CDF document.

Therefore, the bishops stated, it is “proper that prayers are offered for and with those facing death and their family or whanau”.

“Similarly, it is proper that the Church’s sacraments – encounters with God – are provided to the person who requests them. In accordance with pastoral practice in other areas, the sacraments should only ever be declined in those very rare cases when someone seeks them in bad faith. All ministers are entitled to presume that a person asking for the sacraments does so in good faith.”

The bishops noted that accompanying someone who is expressing a desire for assisted dying does not imply moral agreement by the accompanier. Nor does it ask those doing the accompaniment to suspend belief in the Church’s expressed teaching on euthanasia. Rather, accompaniment ensures that no one is abandoned to desolation.

The bishops added that the Catholic ethical tradition makes clear distinctions between “moral distance”, “assent” and “physical proximity”. “Accompaniment does not necessarily mean endorsement.”

At the same time, cooperation in the act of facilitating or administering an assisted death must be excluded in all cases, the bishops stressed.

“The implementation of assisted dying for persons with a life-limiting illness will put many vulnerable people at risk. These include the elderly who may feel they have become a burden to family and society, and many others, some of whom will be young.”

The bishops acknowledged that family members of people requesting assisted death might have varying views, and they should be listened to and attended to with great sensitivity.

Speaking about individual conscience, the bishops stated that, “if an individual priest, chaplain, pastoral worker, healthcare professional or caregiver decides that there is a limit to their ability to accompany a person seeking assisted dying, such a decision should be fully respected”.

At the same time, they should ensure that “provision is made for the person to be accompanied by another.”

Regarding funerals, the bishops stated that parishes should “provide an integrated model of pastoral care, with priests ready to affirm God’s mercy by presiding at the funeral or tangi of those whose motivation for choosing assisted dying may well have come through an act which might be seen as one of anguish”.

The coming into force of the End of Life Choice Act provides Catholics with “an opportunity to renew our commitment to the dignity of every person in practical ways”, the bishops added.

These ways include advocating for equitably available effective palliative care; forming outward- looking parishes that reach out to the lonely, sick, elderly and disabled and their whānau; and supporting in prayer and other ways those who are engaged in caring for people at the end of life, including those contemplating assisted dying.

The pastoral statement can be viewed as a pdf file at:

The guidelines and principles can be viewed as a pdf file at:

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Michael Otto

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