Watch CBSN Live

Church Snubs Italian Euthanasia Patient

The church's doors remained firmly shut Sunday, as mourners across the street at the lay funeral of a paralyzed man who had a doctor disconnect his respirator kissed his coffin and tossed flowers on it.

The Roman Catholic Church has denied Piergiorgio Welby a religious ceremony on the grounds that he sought to end his own life, a decision that prompted criticism as some at his funeral carried banners that read; "Church, shame on you."

Applause greeted the arrival of Welby's coffin Sunday as music from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" played in the piazza in front of the parish church where his family had originally hoped to hold the ceremony.

"Dear Piero, can't you see this is a triumph?" cried his wife, Mina, from a podium overlooking the square. "Even the sadness has left me, for I feel that you are happy, that you are free."

Welby, 60, terminally ill with the degenerative disease muscular dystrophy and unable to eat, speak or breathe on his own, died Wednesday night after a doctor disconnected his respirator at the patient's request.

CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey says the case gripped the attention of the Italian public and won support from influential politicians.

But the Catholic Church, which Pizzey says still wields significant influence in the country, never wavered in its opposition to euthanasia.

Anti-euthanasia campaigners and some conservative politicians described Welby's death as murder. But the doctor, Mario Riccio, and Welby's family called it a suspension of therapy, saying the decision conformed to a patient's right to refuse treatment.

Euthanasia in Italy can be punished by up to 15 years in prison.

"A man who had not moved in so many years, nailed to that chair, to that bed, he caused this shake up, he caused you all to move," said Marco Cappato of the Radical Party, which was at the forefront of Welby's right-to-die campaign.

"There are many other things we must shake up now — maybe open the doors of that church that have remained closed," Cappato added.

The Catholic Church said Friday that it had decided to deny a religious funeral for Welby because his "will to end his life was known — as it had been repeated and publicly affirmed — in contrast to Catholic doctrine."

The Vatican vehemently opposes euthanasia, and in remarks during his traditional Sunday blessing, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the importance of human life all the way to its "natural" end.

"Christ's Christmas helps us be aware of how valuable human life is, the life of every human being, from its first instant to its natural setting," Benedict said, speaking from his window in St. Peter's Square.

Welby's case has gripped Italians, prompted calls for legislation to help terminally ill patients, and caused even some members of the clergy to speak in favor of his having a religious funeral.

"I understand the decision of the Rome (church)," Mons. Alessandro Maggiolini, former Bishop of Como, wrote in a letter published in Sunday's issue of daily Libero. "But I would suggest a different solution from a lay funeral. I read that in the last 20 minutes (Welby) ... asked God to forgive him. Even the doubt that this happened should induce (the church) to allow a Catholic funeral."

Maggiolini's comment was significant because the church cited its catechism in denying Welby a religious funeral, and Maggiolini assisted late Pope John Paul II when the pontiff revised the summary of church truths that has helped ensure orthodoxy through the ages.

"We have a different sense of religion, less stiff, probably less bigoted, but together we express a deep religiousness," said Emma Bonino, Italy's minister for European Union affairs and foreign trade and a member of the Radical Party.

"We already knew that there isn't a (real) secular state, yet this can be a first step," said Linda Brit, 62, who is originally from the Netherlands and decided to attend Welby's funeral in a show of support.

Welby had fallen into a coma in 1997 and was kept alive by the respirator. He had long campaigned for his right to die, including writing a book, "Let Me Die," and pleading with Italy's president.

Rome prosecutors have begun investigating Welby's death and have questioned Riccio, the doctor who sedated Welby and disconnected his respirator.

The case has highlighted an apparent contradiction in Italian law: Patients have a constitutional right to refuse treatment, but the Italian medical code requires doctors to keep a patient alive.

View CBS News In