By Christine Rousselle
The Archdiocese of Seattle is facing questions after a local man received a formal Catholic blessing at Mass shortly before committing medically assisted suicide.
Robert Fuller, an HIV and cancer patient, committed suicide on May 10.
An Aug. 27 Associated Press profile of Fuller’s final days included a photograph and account of the blessing he received at St. Therese Parish in the Seattle archdiocese, five days before he ended his own life.
“The Associated Press story about Mr. Fuller is of great concern to the Archbishops because it may cause confusion among Catholics and others who share our reverence for human life,” the Archdiocese of Seattle said in an Aug. 27 statement.
After Fuller attended a final Mass at his parish, Fr. Quentin Dupont, SJ, led children who had just received their First Holy Communion to gather around the man. The priest, the children, and members of the parish extended their hands in blessing over him. This act was recorded and photographed by an AP journalist.
“The feature story shows a photo of a blessing that Mr. Fuller received after Mass. At the time of this photo, parish leadership was not aware of Mr. Fuller’s intentions,” the archdiocese said.
“That morning, the priest in the photograph was told Mr. Fuller was dying and wanted the blessing of the faith community. It wasn’t until later that parish leaders learned of his plans. When these plans were made known, the pastor met with Mr. Fuller to discuss the sacred gift of human life and how we are called to respect and revere that gift as disciples of Jesus.”
The archdiocesan statement said an investigation is being opened to determine what had happened on and before the Mass on May 5.
While the archdiocesan statement said that parish leaders were unaware of Fuller’s intention to end his own life, the Associated Press reported that Fuller’s plans were “widely known and accepted” among the parishioners at St. Therese, which he began attending regularly towards the end of his life.
One parish leader, Kent Stevenson told the AP that Fuller made the choice to die with “tenacity and clarity” and had been “forthcoming and sober about it.”
Stevenson, the parish music minister, is listed among parish leaders on the front of the weekly parish bulletin alongside the priest, deacon, and bookkeeper.
The archdiocese said it is “reviewing the events reported in this story, even though they took place several months ago.” It added that Seattle’s bishops will “work to clarify any confusion or misunderstanding, which this article may have generated.”
The archdiocese is led by Archbishop James Peter Sartain and coadjutor Archbishop Paul Etienne, who arrived to assist Sartain in April, after he requested help from pope following health problems.
The archdiocese told CNA that Dupont, a member of the West Province of the Society of Jesus, was assigned to serve as the weekend assistant for two parishes, including St. Therese.
A spokesperson explained that the archdiocese has a longstanding relationship with the local Jesuit community, who often assist by celebrating Masses in local parishes if the pastor is not available.
In 2018-2019, Dupont was a graduate student at Seattle University, which is run by the order. The Jesuit province did not respond to CNA’s requests for comment.
Fuller, who contracted HIV in the 1980s, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor at the base of his tongue during the summer of 2018. At the end of his life, he was dependent on a feeding tube, and did wish to pursue chemotherapy treatments. Instead, he expressed his intention to commit medically assisted suicide.
Fuller had been a proponent of the practice for over three decades, and had been a member of the Hemlock Society. He told the AP that in the 1980s, he gave a friend with AIDS an overdose of medication, ending his life.
AP reported that Fuller had previously attempted suicide in in 1975, attemping to overdose on pills he stole from his job working as a psychiatric nurse at a hospital in Seattle. He sought help when it began raining, saying he did not wish to die cold and wet.
On May 10, Fuller injected lethal drugs, mixed with his favorite drink, into his feeding tube. Washington’s assisted suicide laws mandate that the patient self-administer the medication.
Prior to his death, Fuller hosted a party with friends and family, and was civilly married in a non-Catholic ceremony to his partner, a man named Reese Baxter. Baxter was also Fuller’s caretaker. Fuller died about nine and a half hours later.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns both euthanasia and suicide.
“Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible,” says the Catechism. Direct euthansia is “morally unacceptable.”
“Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable,” the Catechism states. “Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.”
The Catechism also condemns suicide, saying “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”
Additionally, the Catechism states “If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.”
A person with “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture” may not be fully responsible for their suicide, says the Catechism.
Washington State passed the Death With Dignity Act in 2008, and since then, about 1,200 people have opted to die by euthanasia.
According to the AP, Fuller agreed to be profiled in order to “demonstrate for people around the country how [assisted suicide] laws work.”