Vatican officials have summoned to Rome the board of directors overseeing a group of Belgian Catholic hospitals. The group administers hospitals sponsored by the Brothers of Charity, a religious order, although the board is mostly composed of laity. The board recently decided to allow euthanasia in the Catholic hospitals it oversees. After appeals from the religious order, board members have been asked to explain their decision to Church authorities in Rome, apparently at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

News of the summons broke after a Sept. 29 meeting between Br. René Stockman, Superior General of the Brothers of Charity, and the competent authorities at the Vatican.

Last spring, the board of directors decided to permit euthanasia, under certain conditions, in their facilities. The religious order asked the board to reverse the decision, but the board refused. Because the Brothers of Charity had no legal options in Belgium, they appealed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The response, backed by Pope Francis, directed that the board reverse the euthanasia policy, in conformity to Catholic doctrine.

The decision to allow euthanasia in Brothers of Charity hospitals came after the Belgian bishops’ conference publicly declared that no euthanasia could be allowed in Catholic institutions. Cardinal Jozef de Kesel of Malines-Brussels, stressed to CNA that “the bishops spoke out clearly: euthanasia cannot become a right.”

In a statement released on their web site, the Brothers of Charity explained that the board reaffirmed their to allow euthanasia, under certain conditions, during a Sept. 11 meeting, despite the directives of the Belgian bishops and the Vatican. After the religious order was unable to persuade the board to reverse the decision, they appealed again to Vatican officials. The board will now be asked to explain their decision, as Church officials determine how to proceed.

The Brothers of Charity underscored that “the Vatican communicates that it will not change its initial request to have an absolute respect for life in all circumstances in accordance with the Catholic doctrine.” The meeting, which has not yet been scheduled, “will be the last chance” for the hospital board “to set themselves in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church,” said Br. Stockman.

The Brothers of Charity sponsor 15 hospitals in Belgium, taking care of about 5,000 patients. The board of directors administers the hospitals’ civil corporation. The board has 15 members, but only three of them are Brothers of Charity. The Brothers of Charity who serve as board members have signed a joint letter declaring their full support of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

However, to emphasize their decision, the board has published positions reiterating their support for euthanasia. Fernand Keuleneer, an attorney in Brussels who served as a member of the Belgian euthanasia commission from 2002 through 2012 and who is advising the Brothers of Charity on the issue, told CNA that the board’s position paper has “repeatedly stated that euthanasia is part of the ‘therapeutic liberty’ of medical doctors.”

According to Keuleneer, “such a position implies that the board of trustees consider euthanasia to be a medical act.” Keuleneer explained that the position paper is problematic because it “denies the legal autonomy and liberty of institutions to refuse the execution of euthanasia, but moreover it does so by declaring euthanasia a medical act, which will have implication far beyond its own institution.”

The attorney explained that if euthanasia is a medical act, a claim unique to the position paper, “even if all medical doctors in a psychiatric care institution would adhere to the conditions and procedures of the position paper, nothing would prevent a patient from bringing in an outside physician. Such are the far-reaching consequences of this position paper.”

Keleuneer also noted that “the fact that an association calling itself Brothers of Charity, which is in addition explicitly confirming its Christian identity, adopts this position will receive worldwide attention and will be used on a global level.”

Kesel, who serves as president of the Belgian bishops' conference, summarized the position of the Belgian bishops on the matter. “Euthanasia is never possible. This is, in fact, a taboo, and our society barely understands taboos,” the cardinal said. “Freedom cannot be an absolute, it has limits. But these limits do not limit freedom, they give sense to freedom."