Abp. Paglia and Questions about ‘Accompaniment’

How does a priest accompany a suicide? Confession doesn't cover 'bless me Father, for I will sin'

After delivering a muddled set of remarks about assisted suicide which now the Pontifical Academy for Life claims do not mean what most people think they mean, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia wants us really to believe that he was merely engaging in a thought experiment about how Italian civil law should deal with doctor-provided death (and, of course, he reassures he absolutely shares the Church’s moral condemnation of such an act).

I’ve elsewhere [here] analyzed those remarks free of Roman spin, but I want here to develop a theme that Vatican apologists have been pushing to cast this thousand-word long confusion in a positive light: “accompaniment.”

According to spin control, besides just wondering aloud about “judicial mediation” of the criminal status of doctor-assisted death, Archbishop Paglia was talking about the need for “accompaniment,” for being with the dying. You know, just another day of good old-fashioned simple “fraternity.”

Pardon me if I rain on the simplicity parade.

If (and “if” is a key word when it comes to understanding the Academy president) “accompaniment” means being-with-the-dying, I don’t dispute that. If it means dispelling people’s feelings of being alone and abandoned, yes, that’s vital. If it means bearing Christian witness to the meaning and value of life, death, sin, and suffering, true.

The medicalization of dying has profoundly altered moderns’ encounter with death, and not for the better. Most people die in cold clinical settings, rather than at home, where the process and moment of death are often shielded from the eyes of loved ones. Put bluntly, lots of people have never been with a person at death.

That spills over to the process of dying. People don’t know how to talk to or be with a person who is dying, especially if it is an extended process. Sometimes, the dying person doesn’t even tell those around him of his state. And, given moderns’ alienation from the common human phenomenon of death, people increasingly pick up a cultural vibe telling them that their dying and death should not be things to “burden” others with.

If Archbishop Paglia means accompanying people to move away from that paradigm, more power to him.

I am not sure that’s what he means.

A person planning assisted suicide will not die of the underlying cause (assuming current “safeguards” about imminent and fatal conditions being prerequisite to resort to it remain a place, a dubious proposition when we examine the historical expansion of doctor-provided death). He will die of suicide. In the past and in “normal” suicides, “accompanying” the person constituted criminal complicity. The state might remove the threat of prosecution, but the act is the same: one is with somebody killing himself.

So, how does one “accompany” a suicide?” By holding his hand and holding one’s ethical peace? By maybe posing an objection in a “caring” manner, carefully modulating one’s insistence based on the intending suicide’s firmness of resolve and his feigned “good conscience” decision? By being in the room as he presses the button on the Dr. Kevorkian suicide machine? By helping our bed-ridden suicide by picking up the doctor’s prescription for poison at the dispensary?

How does a priest “accompany” the suicide? By dissuading him? By telling him he cannot give him absolution, since the sacrament of Penance does not encompass “bless me Father, for I will sin?” By telling him that it would be scandalous to celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial for a publicly declared suicide?

Or by announcing at the end of Sunday Mass, “Let’s all say goodbye to Sr. Tony, who’s going to kill herself tomorrow?” By having the local bishop’s conference, together with national synodal participants, write a “Blessing to Accompany Those Intending Physician-Assisted Suicide?” By abusing the sacraments by feigning to absolve a sinner, give him Viaticum, and even anoint him? By having bishops fudge these questions by skirting questions about the validity of such sacraments through overwrought sloganeering about “autonomy” and “conscience” and “accompaniment” (as the bishops of Atlantic Canada have done)? By engaging in a kind of social schizophrenia: “My country thinks this suicide made her decision to kill herself rationally and voluntarily, but now I am going to pretend that her reason and will were somehow impaired to celebrate a Christian funeral with all the trimmings?”

I ask these questions bluntly because (a) once upon a time, their answers would have been clear and (b) in the new “accompanying fraternity” world, I can imagine no small number of clerics and people thinking themselves religious who would score me for suggesting that denying any of these ministrations should even be discussed. How dare I “sit in the chair of Moses” and with “closed heart” judge these “difficult cases”?

While Paglia spouted on about “relational autonomy,” how does that square with the moral integrity of a Christian at the scene of a self-killing? Once upon a time, we had “prêt-à-porter” principles, in the form of norms of formal and material cooperation, about participation in the evil of another. Do we jettison that to “accompany?” How do we preserve the right of the “accompanying” person not to be morally sullied by such proximity to another’s evil? Or is asking that question today impermissible, because “who am I to judge?”

We have heard a lot about “accompaniment,” but its contours are rather amorphous. And I don’t buy the likely retort to my challenge about its vagueness: “it’s obvious – just be there!”

Well, should I be there when the suicide kills himself? In the past, one reason for physician-assisted suicide was to get a doctor to provide a controlled lethal substance that the suicide could self-administer privately when he chose. Beyond this infantilized rhetoric of “accompaniment” and “relational and responsible autonomy,” how are we fundamentally changing human relationships if we take “being there” to mean presence, maybe even celebration, as somebody kills himself? Enough with the sop about “accompaniment.” This is a sea change in human relationality and in our theology.

Sea changes shouldn’t occur on slogans.

I don’t know what Paglia meant by “accompaniment,” and how far it goes. I know that it’s a favorite term of this pontificate, where there are precedents for stretching it as little or as much as I have in this essay. And that’s the problem.

So, if those who seek to cast Paglia’s remarks in a positive light want to point to his concern about “accompanying” the dying, they need to clarify these ambiguities. Because we’re not accompanying the dying, but we may be accompanying killing.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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