The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ordered 15 psychiatric hospitals in Belgium which belong to the Brothers of Charity to cease identifying as Catholic institutions after they allowed the euthanization of patients in 2017.

The hospitals are managed by a civil non-profit corporation with the same name as the Brothers of Charity religious congregation which owns them.

The CDF decision was communicated in a letter dated March 30, stating that "with deep sadness" the "psychiatric hospitals managed by the Provincialate of the Brothers of Charity association in Belgium will no longer be able to consider themselves Catholic institutions."

In a statement responding to the CDF's decision, the superior general of the Brothers of Charity, Br. René Stockman, said that "with a heavy heart" the religious congregation "must let go of its psychiatric centers in Belgium."

Br. Stockman pointed out that it is "painful" that the psychiatric centers of the Brothers of Charity in Belgium have lost their Catholic status, considering also that the brothers "were among the pioneers in the field of mental health care in Belgium."

At the same time, Stockman said he recognizes that "the congregation [the Brothers of Charity] has no choice but to remain faithful to the charism of charity, which cannot be reconciled with the practice of euthanasia on psychiatric patients."

The decision by the Vatican's doctrinal office ends three years of disputes between the Brothers of Charity and the corporation which manages their hospitals in Belgium.

In 2017, the board decided to allow euthanasia to be carried out in its hospitals in Belgium, where the euthanasia law is among the most broad.

At the time of the decision, the board of the corporation was composed of 15 members, with only three of them religious brothers of the congregation. 

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Two of the three religious brothers among the board members, Luc Lemmens, 61, and Veron Raes, 57, supported the euthanasia decision. Their terms on the board ended at the end of September 2018 and were not renewed.

The religious congregation, especially Stockman, protested the decision, reiterating the Brothers of Charity's rejection of euthanasia in their hospitals.

The brothers appealed to the Vatican, which asked the psychiatric hospitals to change their protocol allowing euthanasia as "a medical act" under certain conditions.

The hospital management responded with a long statement in September 2017, in which it contested a lack of dialogue and maintained the hospital was "perfectly consistent" with Christian doctrine.

The CDF's direction that the hospitals must no longer identify as Catholic was communicated in a letter signed by CDF prefect Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer and secretary Archbishop Giacomo Morandi.

The letter retraced the developments of the story, recalling that the document allowing euthanasia in the brothers' hospitals "refers neither to God, nor to Holy Scripture, nor to the Christian vision of Man."

According to the letter, the CDF had spoken with the Brothers of Charity and had also informed Pope Francis of the gravity of the situation.

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Other audiences had also taken place beginning June 2017, including with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Secretariat of State, the representatives of the Brothers of Charity and the managing corporation, as well as representatives of the Belgian bishops' conference.

The Holy See also sent Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Amsterdam, as an apostolic visitor, but he did not register any steps forward nor a desire to find "a viable solution that avoids any form of responsibility of the institution for euthanasia."

The request of the CDF to the Brothers of Charity and to the managing corporation was clear: "affirm in writing and in an unequivocal way their adherence to the principles of the sacredness of human life and the unacceptability of euthanasia, and, as a consequence, the absolute refusal to carry it out in the institutions they depend on."

The corporation "did not give assurance on these points."

The CDF therefore reiterated that "euthanasia remains an inadmissible act, even in extreme cases," and strengthened the statement by citing St. John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae, and a Jan. 30 speech by Pope Francis to the CDF.

The CDF stressed that "Catholic teaching affirms the sacred value of human life," the "importance of caring for and accompanying the sick and disabled," as well as "the Christian value of suffering, the moral unacceptability of euthanasia" and "the impossibility of introducing this practice in Catholic hospitals, not even in extreme cases, as well as of collaborating in this regard with civil institutions."

The Brothers of Charity is a religious congregation of lay brothers founded in 1807 in Belgium, whose specialization is care for the sick and those with psychiatric diseases.

At the congregation's July 2018 general chapter the group stressed that the Brothers of Charity "believes in sacredness and absolute respect for every human life, from conception to natural death. The general chapter requires that each brother, associate member and others associated with the mission of the congregation adhere to the doctrine of the Catholic Church on ethical issues."