The Brothers of Charity, a Belgian religious order, have for most of their 200-year history been utterly uncontroversial: quietly, and often heroically, caring for the sick – especially the mentally ill – in a growing number of countries (today it stands at 30).

But these days healthcare is where secular and Catholic values very often clash, and the Brothers’ current dispute – which has involved the Vatican and a former president of the European Council – symbolises the Church’s awkward place in modern Europe.

The Brothers’ hospitals are run by a board of trustees, only three of whom are actually members of the order. In May, the board blithely announced that euthanasia would be permitted in their hospitals – only, of course, for those in “unbearable suffering” and with appropriate safeguards.

Perhaps they underestimated how much opposition this would raise. The Brothers’ superior general, Brother René Stockman, told the Belgian newspaper De Morgen: “We cannot accept that euthanasia is carried out within the walls of our institutions.” The Belgian bishops said that euthanising the mentally ill “attacks the very foundations of our civilisation”.

At Brother Stockman’s request, the Vatican began investigating, and Pope Francis wrote a cease-and-desist letter to the trustees. But the board declared that it “continues to stand by its vision statement on euthanasia for mental suffering in a non-terminal situation”. One of those trustees, former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, tweeted: “The days of Roma locuta est, causa finita est [‘Rome has spoken, the case is closed’] are long gone.”

The Church is usually at the forefront of battles against euthanasia. What is unusual about the Belgian case is that both sides claim the sanction of Catholic teaching. Van Rompuy himself is a Catholic who likes to go on retreats at a Benedictine abbey and has said that Europe is founded on “fundamental values of Christianity”. For him and his fellow trustees, supporting euthanasia in some cases is perfectly compatible with the Catholic tradition.

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