The passage of Bernanos cited by Pope Francis is this:
The sin against hope - the deadliest sin and perhaps also the most cherished, the most indulged. It takes a long time to become aware of it, and the sadness which precedes and heralds its advent is so delicious! The richest of all the devil's elixirs, his ambrosia.In the operation of a law such as that which it appears will shortly come into force in Belgium, there is a network of guilt (the word here used in the sense of responsibility for an action that is ethically unjust, in the same way that a court might find a person "guilty", rather than in an emotive sense). The "sin against hope" comes in to play at several points.
Euthanasia is profoundly an action against life (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church n.2277):
Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.But it is also profoundly an action against hope, in the first instant, on the part of those voting in favour of the legislation. They have manifested their inability to recognise that life itself, even when weak and impaired, is a good to be promoted. They have acted contrary to the "inalienable" character of the right to life expressed in Article 3 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which articulates a right that exists "without distinction of any kind".
They have also sown the seeds of that act against hope in the relationships between every terminally ill child and their parents. A question that should not even be there in any such relationship will now be there in every such relationship, if you live in Belgium. How does a child ask for euthanasia if the parents have not first suggested it to them? Parliament has implicated every parent of a seriously ill child in this conversation. I am reminded of the story that Clara Lejeune tells about her father (Life is a Blessing, p.46 in the Ignatius Press edition), soon after a television debate in France had raised the possibility of abortion of babies diagnosed as suffering from Down's Syndrome:
One morning a ten-year-old boy with trisomy came for a consultation. He was crying inconsolably. The mother explained: "He watched the debate with us last night".
The child threw his arms around my father's neck and said to him, "They want to kill us. You've got to defend us. We're just too weak, and we don't know how".It also sows the seeds of that sin against hope in the relationships between medical professionals and their young patients and their families, since those medical professionals must also be involved in the decision. What does it say of their confidence in their own profession - and their own inter-personal skills, which are just as much a part of their profession as their technical skill? Are they so without hope that they are unable to devote their skills to the successful (which does not always mean survival) of their patients?
Bernanos' words indicate, too, how the unthinkable - the deliberate killing of children - becomes acceptable, even in what would be considered a civilised continent. It takes a long time to become really aware of this sin against hope when one has become accustomed to legalised euthanasia. The parallel in the United Kingdom is the way in which we have become accustomed to abortion to such an extent that one abortion provider (see here and the comment at the end of the news release here) readily sees abortion as the back up for contraceptive failure.
As Bernanos' words suggest (and Fr Tim indicates when he reminds us of the position taken with regard to euthanasia by the medical profession in Germany, even ahead of the Nazi euthanasia programme), becoming accustomed to a practice means that a society fails to perceive its evil nature - "it takes a long time to become aware of it". In the Belgian context, a particular responsibility rests with those engaged in the professions of politics and of medicine; their actions are not just confined to the range of their own professions but are actions representative of the whole of society. Members of those professions need to say a "no" to the law that has now been passed - by their votes, as did some 44 members of parliament, and by their letter in the media, as did a large number of paediatricians.
The prompt of conscience, more than anything else, asks all members of society to find a way of articulating a "no" to such an evil. The prompt of conscience is less one that demands a materially effective course of action to reverse or limit the effects of a law passed - that is a matter of a calling that is given to some and not to others. Rather it asks that members of society continue to articulate that "no" when the law has been passed. Primarily, it is a "no" that a person says to themselves, in public so that others may perceive that "no", and in public so that they are seen as expressing that "no" and so distancing themselves from complicity in the evil. It is not a comment on the choices and actions of others; it is primarily a statement about oneself.
It is also a "no" that asks that a person does not take part directly in the evil that the law permits, a particular ask for those in the professions directly involved.
This seems to me a primary motivation for participating in a prayer vigil at an abortion clinic, for example. It could also drive the way in which an annual Day for Life is implemented. The "vigil" movement in France that has arisen in the aftermath of the Loi Taubirau is another example of this. The statement of a "no" is a dimension of participation in all of these, though each also has other aspects to it. The way in which a bishop or priest articulates this "no" arises from their office as pastor of souls and teachers, so might have a different character than the articulation of a lay person.
I am going to end with another passage from The Diary of a Country Priest. In his homily at Mass yesterday, on the feast of two co-patrons of Europe, Father observed, with feeling, that the new law in Belgium had been passed on a continent that was perhaps more civilised than any other, and that this was a sign of a decay in the life of that continent. As well as a sin against hope, is it not also a sign of a sin against love (in the proper sense of the word love) in our continent? Bernanos places in the mouth of his country priest a meditation upon hell that might well have relevance here:
... the lowest of human beings, even though he no longer thinks he can love, still has in him the power of loving. Our very hate is resplendent, and the least tormented of the fiends would warm himself in what we call our despair, as in a morning of glittering sunshine. Hell is not to love any more, madame. Not to love any more! That sounds quite ordinary to you. To a human being still alive, it means to love less or to love elsewhere. To understand is still a way of loving. But suppose this faculty which seems so inseparably ours, of our very essence, should disappear! Oh, prodigy! To stop loving, to stop understanding - and yet to live.Is Europe gradually losing its ability to love, in the true sense?