THE FACT that Catholics are dying without the consolation of the sacraments in British hospitals is deeply troubling. The fact that they are dying because of the officious application of the law is nothing short of scandalous. As we report this week, hospitals are refusing to release the names of Catholic patients to chaplains in the belief that they are complying with the Data Protection Act. Unless patients — or their families — specifically request to see a chaplain then it is unlikely that they will receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick during their stay in hospital.
Most Catholics instinctively sense the gravity of this state of affairs. But it is worth returning to first principles. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick is one of the seven sacraments of the Church. According to the Catechism, the sacrament confers five main benefits the uniting of the sick person to the Passion of Christ; the peace and courage to endure suffering; the forgiveness of sins; the restoration of health and the preparation for passing over to eternal life. For centuries the sacrament has occupied a fundamental role in the lives — and deaths — of Catholics. The thought that some Catholics might be denied this last grace because of a man-made law is, therefore, profoundly disturbing. It is all the more grave as it seems that those most likely to die without receiving the sacrament are the lapsed who feel a sudden urge to be reconciled to the Church on their deathbeds.
Those with a detailed knowledge of the Data Protection Act argue that it is not the law itself, but the application of the law that is at fault. They argue that the purpose of the Act was to prevent information from being passed to third parties without the consent of patients. But if a patient indicates on the personal information form that they are Catholic, then they are consenting, implicitly, to the transmission of this information to the hospital’s Catholic chaplain. But our investigation this week reveals that there are some hospitals which do not follow this common-sense approach to the Act. They take the misguided view that further consent needs to be obtained from a patient before they will give out information to chaplains.
It is time for Catholics to challenge hospitals taking a restrictive view of the Act. We urge chaplains who encounter obstructions to seek advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office at Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF. Catholics who are not involved in hospital ministry should write to express their concerns about the application of the law to Dr John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, at the Department of Health, Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2NL.
We are confident that Catholics can persuade the Government to clarify the law and to instruct all hospitals to apply the Act in a way that does not undermine the sacramental economy of the Church. Those who are sick and dying deserve nothing less.