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Baptism When Euthanasia Looms

Date: May 15, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: Here in Canada, euthanasia is legal – it is called medical assistance in dying. If a Catholic layperson is in the presence of someone who is about to be euthanized (death is imminent but still avoidable), would he be permitted to baptize the person who is about to die if the person requests it? -- T.B., Courtenay, British Columbia

Answer: This is a somewhat delicate question and I will strive to be as precise as possible.

First, however, it is necessary to address a question that is not really relevant to the precise question at hand. Our reader asks if a Catholic layperson is present, can he or she baptize. The question of the minister of baptism is treated in the Code of Canon Law:

“Canon 861 §1. The ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 530, n. 1.

“§2. When an ordinary minister is absent or impeded, a catechist or another person designated for this function by the local ordinary, or in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly. Pastors of souls, especially the pastor of a parish, are to be concerned that the Christian faithful are taught the correct way to baptize.”

Therefore, it is established practice in the Church that, in a case of necessity, any person with right intention, even a non-Christian, can licitly baptize.

Nevertheless, the essential question is not who can baptize, but can the baptism be carried out? With respect to adults canon law determines the following:

“Canon 863. The baptism of adults, at least of those who have completed their fourteenth year, is to be deferred to the diocesan bishop so that he himself administers it if he has judged it expedient.

“Canon 865 §1. For an adult to be baptized, the person must have manifested the intention to receive baptism, have been instructed sufficiently about the truths of the faith and Christian obligations, and have been tested in the Christian life through the catechumenate. The adult is also to be urged to have sorrow for personal sins.

“§2. An adult in danger of death can be baptized if, having some knowledge of the principal truths of the faith, the person has manifested in any way at all the intention to receive baptism and promises to observe the commandments of the Christian religion.”

Herein lie the questions that must be analyzed.

First of all, is the person in danger of death in such a way as to qualify for the application of Canon 865 §2?

Although Canadian law requires serious incurable illness for the application of “medical assistance in dying,” it no longer requires the foreseeable approach of death as a condition. Therefore, there will be some cases of people not in immediate danger of death.

Although I make the above point, I must also say it is of little relevance to the essential question as to whether such a baptism can take place. Canon 865 §2 requires that the person manifests the intention to receive baptism and “promises to observe the commandments of the Christian religion.”

The point is, can a person who, in fulfillment of Canadian law, has requested in writing before witnesses to receive medical help to end his or her life, really promise to observe the commandments of the Christian religion?

Can that person truly proclaim belief in God and truthfully declare to reject Satan, all his works and empty promises without first formally withdrawing the request for his life to be ended? The law allows for such a withdrawal at any moment before the process begins.

The heart of the question is, therefore, not who can be the minister, nor that the person willingly makes the request, but if the concrete circumstances are such that as to impede the possibility of a valid baptism.

While there may be subjective mitigating circumstances in some concrete cases, I would be of the opinion that, in general, if such a hypothetical case were to arise the probability of an invalid baptism is almost certain.

Since, with respect to the validity of the sacraments, we must always apply the strictest interpretation, I think that the person who would receive such an unusual request should refuse to baptize the person unless and until they withdraw the request for euthanasia.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

 

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