Last week Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that the Church should "let go of the rules" regarding assisted suicide, adding that all Catholics have a duty to "accompany" those choosing to end their own lives. 

"I believe from our perspective, no one can be abandoned, even if we are against assisted suicide because we do not want to do death's dirty work," Paglia told journalists Dec. 10 following a two-day symposium on palliative care.

Paglia was responding to questions about a recent document released by the bishops of Switzerland, which said that pastoral caregivers should not be present during a person's death by assisted suicide. While condemning suicide as "a great defeat", the archbishop also said that "to accompany, to hold the hand of someone who is dying, is, I think a great duty every believer should promote." 

While Paglia has recently condemned euthanasia and assisted suicide unequivocally, his remarks this month have led some to wonder if, by "pastoral accompaniment," he is openning up the Church to a kind of tacit acceptance for assisted suicide. 

Speaking last week about the Swiss bishops' guidelines, Paglia said he "would like to remove the ideology from this situation."

"Let go of the rules. I believe that no one should be abandoned."

How, some commentators have asked, is it possible to "accompany" someone ending their life, and, while at the same time, remaining a faithful witness to the sanctity of life, the Christian meaning of human suffering, and the hope of the resurrection? 

Many Catholics have criticized Paglia, saying his comments represent a departure from the very Church teachings on life that his office is called to advance. 

But those Catholics hoping for a swift correction to Paglia's insistence on the need to "accompany" someone committing assisted suicide may be disappointed. And absent clarity from the Vatican, Paglia's remarks might signal another battleground over pastoral imperatives, with the ambiguous application of select statements by Pope Francis in the middle.

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"Pastoral accompaniment" of people in difficult situations, even ones gravely against Church teaching, has become a flashpoint of the Francis pontificate. 

Disagreement often focuses on the direction in which a person is being "accompanied" -- whether there is an actual move towards reforming the person's life in line with Church teaching, or if a sinful situation is, instead, being tacitly legitimized.

Perhaps the most well-known controversy over the limits of pastoral accompaniment has been the call to admit the divorced-and-civilly-remarried to Communion. 

Bishops backing such an apparent breach with Church teaching and discipline point to the pope's post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia which, in calling for the pastoral accompaniment of such couples, said that doing so could involve "the help of the sacraments."

Many have insisted that admitting Catholics in what are, strictly speaking, adulterous unions to Communion is a danger to their souls and, rather than helping lead them to regularize their situation, could convince them that things are fine as they are. Those who argue this way would point to a reading of Amoris which would suggest "the help of the sacraments" means first confession and absolution, with the attendant resolve to break with the sin in the first place.

Others, notably the bishops' conference of Argentina, have suggested that reception of Communion by couples in irregular unions can be an acceptable form of "help," and insist that Amoris allows for exactly this, even if they intend to continue in their relationship. 

Although he has said that the full integration of the divorced-and-remarried into parish life does not mean admission to Communion, Pope Francis has offered no public discouragement to those who call for it anyway.

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A debate over "accompaniment" for those committing assisted suicide could follow the same contours of the Amoris polemics.

Pope Francis has publicly and consistently spoken out against both euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In September he said that both practices are "based on a utilitarian view of the person, who becomes useless or can be equated to a cost if, from the medical point of view, he has no hope of improvement or can no longer avoid pain."

However, speaking specifically on the impermissibility of euthanasia in 2017, the pope also insisted on "the supreme commandment of responsible closeness" and encouraged remaining alongside those who are dying.

"The anguish associated with conditions that bring us to the threshold of human mortality, and the difficulty of the decision we have to make, may tempt us to step back from the patient. Yet this is where, more than anything else, we are called to show love and closeness, recognizing the limit that we all share and showing our solidarity," the pope said.

"It could be said that the categorical imperative is to never abandon the sick."

Placed in the context of Pope Francis' "categorical imperative," and accepting that Paglia himself has insisted that assisted dying is still always and everywhere wrong and a "defeat," it is not difficult to see how the archbishop might view his own statements as in line with the mind of the pope – however far outside the pastoral discipline and teaching of the Church they might appear to be.

What remains unclear is what form of useful accompaniment is possible in such circumstances. Many priests would argue that the only possible way to "accompany" a person seeking an end to his own life is to try to stop him, physically if necessary, and to beg to hear his confession once it is too late to prevent death.

"Holding the hand" of a dying person may provide some comfort in the loneliest of moments, but it would prove a false comfort without the reform of the one dying, they would argue.

Paglia's insistence on never abandoning a person at the point of death may, to some, seem emotionally defensible. But whether it is a faithful interpretation of the pope's remarks about abandoning the sick will be a subject of fierce debate. In never abandoning the sick, did the pope mean remaining present, even while someone causes his own death, or did he mean that priests should continue to exhort such persons to repent until the very end?

As assisted suicide becomes more commonplace in the West, the debate is likely to take on ever more urgent significance.

To respond to Paglia, and the bishops around the world facing end-of-life pastoral issues, the Vatican may choose to issue guidelines for priests confronting the situation of pastoral care for those who have committed, or attempted, assisted suicide. Until it does, a new front in the Amoris debate will be opened, as Paglia's comments will be seen by some as pastoral kindness, and by others as a dangerous crack in the Church's defense of life at every stage.