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Room for the Soul

Room for the Soul

Pete Whitehead examines the importance of last rites and access to clergy for those close to death. 22/10/2021

For people of faith, death brings with it a host of rituals, designed to prepare both the dying and the bereaved for the moment that we pass on. Many Muslims will pray up until death, ask to lie facing Mecca, and say the Shahada as their final words. Tibetan Buddhists may read the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) to the dying, and for some time after death.

For Catholics, the death ritual is known by various names: Extreme Unction, the Anointing of the Sick, Last Rites. These names are somewhat interchangeable colloquially speaking; each refers to slightly different elements of the same thing – the sacraments we receive when close to death. We are offered absolution for our sins, anointed, and where possible receive viaticum – the final Eucharist, followed by the priest commending our souls to God. As we receive Christ’s body, the words “may the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life” are added to the usual communion ritual. It is tremendously important to Catholics; we believe that it allows us to be with Christ as we die. Last week, a devout Catholic man was murdered, and died without them, as a priest was not allowed access to the crime scene.

This led me to think of the lengths that have been gone to in Britain previously to administer the Last Rites, and of the sheer importance of ministry to the sick and dying. I thought of the late Bishop Edward Daly, who – when he was Fr. Daly – ran out holding a white handkerchief as British soldiers opened fire on civilians on Bloody Sunday. He ran through gunfire to escort to safety, and administer last rites, to the dying 17–year–old Jackie Duddy. This image, one of the most enduring of the Troubles, propelled Daly to become the Bishop of Derry – but reflecting on his career, Daly described his most fulfilling pastoral work as looking after the spiritual needs of the terminally ill and their family and friends at a hospice, and described his work there as “an immense privilege”. It is as they pass on that many people take comfort in their faith most profoundly.

The social critic Ivan Illich, himself a Catholic priest, wrote in Medical Nemesis about “iatrogenesis” – the problem of medically–induced illness. Medical iatrogenesis constitutes such things as the side effects of certain drugs, the distress of surgery, or hospital–acquired infections. But he also identified a wider problem – what he termed “social iatrogenesis”. What Illich saw was the way that the medicalisation of death – and thus everyday life – turned us into patients, not people. As he put it, such natural things as “suffering, mourning, and healing outside the patient role are labelled a form of deviance”.[1]

Medicalisation forces us into roles when we die. Most usually ‘patient’, but occasionally others – in the case of David Amess, ‘political situation’. These roles detract from the truth, however, that we are simply dying people. The patient role we are required to take up is a facet of our culture’s quixotic fight against death, and against suffering. We focus far too much on the material; that which is measurable and observable and thus, we hope, graphable and provable. This has social outcomes. It means that we don’t allow a priest through a police cordon to offer comfort. It means that we don’t take spiritual concerns seriously, despite their colossal importance to those of faith. Nowhere is this more evident, in fact, than death: the national survey of bereaved people notes that patients are simply less likely to have their religious needs met than other needs. Of course, it’s not crude materialism to point out that pain management and location of care are incredibly important. But 1 in 4 people actively disagree that their deceased next of kin had their spiritual needs met, and there is a 10% gap between patients having their wishes respected regarding location of care and pain management (69%) and those having their spiritual wishes met (59%).

This isn’t a police problem – though they, quite clearly, need additional training or some intervention to stress the importance of respecting people’s religious beliefs. Nor is it a purely medical one. Rather, it reflects a sort of ‘secular iatrogenesis’ – a flattening out of how we see the world, into a purely physical, material worldview. It’s a process that demeans us, and makes us – as a culture – unwell, unable to deal with the idea that death and suffering are a part of life, and equipping us with the spiritual tools to deal with them. At a time where medical issues are rarely out of the news, due to the pandemic – and understandably so – we would nonetheless do well to address the social illness of failure to make room for faith and the spiritual in people’s lives.

It is especially pertinent that the failure to enable a dying Catholic to receive his Last Rites comes after a separate event last Easter, where a group of police officers raided a Catholic Church in Balham during Mass on Good Friday. The officers walked up to the altar, stood on it, and declared the congregation “unlawful”. (It wasn’t.) They explained that the congregants had to abandon the mass, and go home. (They didn’t.) Quite what the social benefit was of the police entering a place of worship in the middle of an active service I am not entirely sure, and this should be an act that requires significant justification. A spokesperson for the Met said that “officers attended and found a large number of people inside the church. Some people were not wearing masks and those present were clearly not socially distanced”, while the church in question believed that “the police grossly exceeded their powers by issuing their order without adequate reason, as all government requirements were met”.

Often, faith groups are praised for the work that they do in their communities. The Met Police, the same police force that raided the Catholic church in Balham, is quick to praise the work that churches do tackling drug addiction and gang violence – there are even guides for how faith groups doing this kind of work can interact with the police. But the one–sidedness of this view reflects the widely held view of religion as a vague social club: that it’s nice of faith groups to do charity and feed the poor, but it would be best if they stuck to that, rather than all that God stuff. It’s an approach that doesn’t so much put the cart before the horse as it does use the cart and then get angry that some people think the horse exists.

In recent days, Labour MP Mike Kane has argued for an “Amess Amendment” that would make it a legal requirement to allow Catholic priests access to the dying, to ensure they can receive Last Rites. (A spokesperson for Mike Kane MP confirmed the bill would also “protect the right of other religious leaders to pray with a person as they die.”) Likewise, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury has argued that Catholic priests should be considered an “emergency service” – “Every believing Catholic desires to hear Christ’s words of pardon and absolution for the last time; to be strengthened by the grace of anointing; accompanied by the assurance of the Church’s prayer and whenever possible to receive Holy Communion.”

Of course, both Mike Kane MP and Bishop Davies are correct; there should be no debate around Catholics accessing the Last Rites, receiving spiritual comfort at the end of life. I sincerely hope the Amess Amendment passes. But priests are not “emergency service workers” in the conventional sense. They are priests. That alone should be enough – and that our society cannot acknowledge the absolute importance of spiritual comfort, and understand that for many it has parity with physical emergencies, indicates that something has gone quite badly wrong in how we deal with matters of the soul.

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 [1] Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis, (Marion Boyars, London, 1976), p.41


Photo credit: wideonet | Shutterstock


Pete Whitehead

Pete Whitehead

Pete was Research, Events and Communications Assistant at Theos until December 2021. Previously, he worked for a democratic engagement organisation, focused on engaging young people in politics and connecting them to their elected representatives.

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Posted 22 October 2021

Catholicism, Christianity, Death, Faith, Human Rights, Priests, Religious Freedom


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