Birth control, IVF, euthanasia: The Vatican encouraged dialogue on polarizing life issues. Is a papal encyclical next?
Pope Francis has encouraged a process of theological renewal on many fronts but perhaps nowhere more significant than in the realm of theological ethics and moral theology. In four of his landmark papal documents—“Evangelii Gaudium” (2013), “Laudato Si’” (2015), “Amoris Laetitia” (2016) and “Veritatis Gaudium” (2018)—and in countless speeches, catechetical talks and homilies throughout his papacy, he has revived the church’s longstanding tradition of the primacy of an individual’s informed conscience and, among others, the role of discernment in moral decision-making.
The pope’s teachings in these authoritative documents have influenced how theology is taught in Catholic universities and seminaries throughout the world and have also given church scholars much sought-after permission and freedom to explore new horizons in Catholic theology. Under the present papacy, theologians are empowered to ask complex questions that touch on the messy, real-life issues that affect the faithful without fear of being silenced. But the pope’s efforts to revitalize the Catholic Church’s understanding and approach to the moral life could take yet another major leap forward.
A new essay titled “Rileggere l’etica teologica della vita,” which translates to English as “Re-reading the theological ethics of life” and was published June 30 in La Civilta’ Cattolica—the Jesuit-led periodical whose content is approved by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State before publication—could place renewed emphasis on this often fraught area of reflection in the life of the church. Interesting times lie ahead if the reflections reported in the essay speak to what may be afoot at the Vatican.
“It is legitimate to ask if Pope Francis will give us a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics that might be called ‘Gaudium Vitae.’ [‘The Joy of Life’],” said Jorge José Ferrer, S.J., the author of the essay, a priest and professor of moral theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Were such a papal document forthcoming it would spark a wide-ranging reflection on the ethics of human life that could lead to a new and definitive papal teaching document on issues as polarizing as contraception, assisted procreation and palliative care.
Were a papal document forthcoming it could lead to a new and definitive papal teaching document on issues as polarizing as contraception and palliative care.
The essay offers an overview of the contents of a 528-page book that contains the proceedings of a three-day interdisciplinary seminar convened by the Pontifical Academy for Life at the Vatican from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 in 2021 and was published last month by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican publishing house, under the title Etica teologica della vita: Scrittura, tradizione, sfide, pratiche (Theological Ethics of Life: Writing, Tradition, Practical Challenges).
The departure point for this seminar was to listen attentively to the magisterium of Pope Francis and, after careful study, to reflect on theological ethics, and bioethics in particular, in a truly dialogical way, while still recognizing the decisive role of the pope’s teaching authority.
“We followed a path of study and reflection that led us to see the issues of bioethics in a new light, starting with the role of discernment and the formed conscience of the moral agent,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in an interview about the book with Vatican Media. “We did this not only in an atmosphere of parrhesia [a bold and courageous freedom of speech] that stimulates and empowers theologians, academics and scholars. But also with a procedure similar to the quaestiones disputatae: to pose a thesis and open it up to debate.” The quaestiones disputatae is a medieval method of philosophical and theological discussion to dispute issues pertinent to society, where one scholar presents a thesis and another responds in dispute.
More than 20 theologians, among them clerics, consecrated religious, lay women and men, gathered for the seminar. Most of the participants were from Europe, but two were from Latin America, one from Africa and one the United States. Two consultors from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—which under the new reform of the Roman Curia is now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith—were present at the seminar as well as three cardinals: Luis Antonio Tagle (Philippines), Mario Grech (Malta) and Marcello Semeraro (Italy).
The seminar was itself convened as a response to the work of eight theologians (men and women) who had been commissioned by the same pontifical academy a year before the seminar to reflect on fundamental aspects of the moral theology of life and bioethical concerns that touch on such contentious issues as contraception, in vitro fertilization and the suspension of nutrition and hydration for terminally ill persons. It also took account of what the different disciplines of modern science and technology had to contribute to the discussion at hand.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia: We followed a path of study and reflection that led us to see the issues of bioethics in a new light.
To better understand the significance of these two initiatives promoted by the pontifical academy and their potential contribution to papal teaching and to the ongoing renewal of theological ethics, I interviewed Carlo Casalone, S.J., a former provincial of the Jesuits in Italy, from 2008 to 2014, a visiting professor in moral theology and bioethics at the Pontifical Gregorian University since 2019 and the president of the Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini Foundation. He was appointed as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life in October 2017 and works in its scientific section. He participated in the drafting of the discussion text for the seminar and in the seminar from which the book has resulted.
I asked Father Casalone to explain what he and his fellow theologians linked to the pontifical academy are trying to do:
Our aim is to listen to what Pope Francis is saying to theologians in a more comprehensive way, and since we are moral theologians dealing mainly with global bioethical issues, we try to make explicit what “Evangelii Gaudium,” “Amoris Laetitia,” “Laudato Si’” and “Veritatis Gaudium”—the document for the renewal of the universities and theological studies—mean for our theological reflection.
Father Casalone noted that people, not infrequently, take a sentence or statement from what Francis says but fail to grasp his organic vision.
The problem is that we only listen to some things Francis says but not to others. And sometimes we take his remarks out of context. The question is: Are we able to give a holistic listening to what Francis says?
When I noted that Francis appears to have revolutionized the approach to many questions in moral theology and the ethics of life, the Jesuit theologian, seeking to be more precise, said:
I would rather say that Francis has highlighted aspects of the patrimony of the tradition of moral theology which were overlooked in the interventions of the recent magisterium. This becomes clear if you go beyond merely thinking that Francis has made what appear to be only small changes and consider instead the broader implications of those changes with a systemic approach; then you will understand that they are indeed very major changes. If you put together all that Francis has said, then you will see that there are very new accentuations, for example, in relation to conscience versus the norm [and] ethical discernment (in its connection with spiritual discernment), and this is both new and in continuity with tradition. This is what we are trying to say.
The problem is that we only listen to some things Francis says but not to others. And sometimes we take his remarks out of context.
He recalled that the preliminary text for discussion sought to present the magisterium of Pope Francis in an integrated and comprehensive way. To this end, he said, the participants addressed such fundamental issues as“the relation between nature and culture,” “the understanding of conscience in relation to law and discernment,” “the use of an approach to the characteristics of phenomena through the various disciplines,” “the inseparable link of theology and pastoral experience,” “the understanding of history in the elaboration of moral theology” and “the relativityof all language—since it cannot pretend to fix forever the understanding of the faith.”
The group also reviewed controversial bioethical issues that have arisen since the promulgation of three previous papal teaching documents: “Humanae Vitae” (1968), on responsible parenthood and contraception, “Donum Vitae” (1987), which deals with the relationship between natural moral law and reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization, and “Samaritanus Bonus” (2020), on the care of persons in the terminally and critically ill stages of life.
“As moral theologians,” Father Casalone said:
We must ask ourselves the reasons why these vexed issues continue to be a motive for unease and even desolation among believers. We realized that to reach a better understanding of these questions we had to open a dialogue; and in this dialogical approach we must take into consideration what the people of God understand and feel about them....
Moreover, we saw it necessary for us to listen to each other as theologians, and then let the magisterium do its work. It is not for the academy to make a magisterial statement....
[At the pontifical academy,] we felt the right thing to do at this moment in history is to open a dialogue, including on these controversial issues because the space for this type of open discussion was not there in past decades. Indeed, it was not easy to debate these questions openly.
Father Casalone appeared to be alluding to the fact that since “Humanae Vitae” and, especially, during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it was not easy to find a space to discuss such themes as contraception, I.V.F. and end-of-life treatment in a calm and reasoned way, as one risked being judged unorthodox by the mere raising of questions regarding such subjects.
By inviting to the seminar theologians “with different, even contrasting approaches to those issues,” Father Casalone said, the pontifical academy opened a space for such free discussions following the logic of synodality as encouraged by Pope Francis. Therefore, the resultant publication of the seminar’s proceedings, he said, “is not the presentation of a one-sided approach to moral theology of these controversial issues.”
“We intended to create a dialogue,” Archbishop Paglia said in the interview, “between different opinions on even controversial topics, proposing many insights for discussion.” The academy’s role “is not limited to explaining texts of the magisterium,” he said. “Our perspective was to render a service to the magisterium by opening up a space for dialogue that makes research possible and encourages it.”
Pope Francis, according to Archbishop Paglia, had been fully informed of the process and knew about the preliminary text and the discussion at the seminar, and agreed that its proceedings be published in book form. The reflection was also prompted in part by the 25th anniversary of “Evangelium Vitae.” The archbishop said the academy wanted to commemorate this milestone by “rereading the main topics covered in St. John Paul II's encyclical after so many years,” and “by inviting theologians and experts in different fields to a study seminar.”
The book is divided into 12 chapters, Father Casalone explained, and each chapter is structured according to the themes presented in the preliminary text.
The subject that is likely to draw most attention is the revisiting of the question regarding the use of artificial contraceptives, discussed in the seventh chapter. The use of contraceptives was rejected by “Humanae Vitae,” but that teaching was to a large extent not accepted in much of the Catholic world. Both in the seminar and in the book it is affirmed that a couple can make a “wise choice” by having recourse to contraceptive techniques, “obviously excluding those that are abortive,” in situations where the “conditions and practical circumstances would make it irresponsible to choose to procreate.” Whether Pope Francis will endorse this position remains to be seen.
The subject that is likely to draw most attention is the revisiting of the question regarding the use of artificial contraceptives, discussed in the seventh chapter of the book.
Father Casalone noted the first chapter, on the joy of human life, collects the most significant statements of Pope Francis on this subject and seeks to bring them together in an organic synthesis that inspires and directs the rest of the reflection. The second chapter reviews what the Old and New Testament teach about life, culminating in the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus.
Chapter three examines our current cultural situation and seeks to identify what the Second Vatican Council called “the signs of the times” because all theological reflection takes place at a particular place and time and is rooted in a specific culture and in an ongoing conversation with the currents of philosophical and scientific thought of its own era. Father Casalone recalled that Benedict XVI had described tradition as “the living river that links us to the origins; the living river in which the origins are ever present.” And, Father Casalone added: “Since it is living, such tradition is also constantly in motion; it always remains unfinished and open to further development.”
Chapters four and five are of great importance for moral theology today, the Jesuit professor explained. The fourth chapter examines in a critical manner how the Catholic moral tradition, the magisterium and theology have treated the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” over the centuries.
Commenting on this, Father Casalone said:
History shows that the Catholic moral theology tradition regarding this norm is not monolithic. This norm has been interpreted through different philosophical and theological concepts and within a historical interpretation. Different sensibilities have led to different interpretations. Killings were admitted in certain circumstances.
“We have a historical plurality of interpretations of the commandment ‘Do not kill,’” he added, pointing to the reasoning given on such issues as the death penalty by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, the Second Vatican Council and more recently in the magisterium of Pope Francis.
Father Carlo Casalone, S.J.: History shows that the Catholic moral theology tradition regarding this norm is not monolithic.
“Traditionally, both the magisterium and theological reflection have held that the negative norms bind with greater force,” Father Ferrer wrote in his essay for La Civilta’ Cattolica, “without any exception, independent of the circumstances and consequences.” He said, “This doctrine was vigorously reaffirmed” by John Paul II in his encyclicals ‘Veritatis Splendor’ (1993) and ‘Evangelium Vitae’ (1995).” But, the Puerto Rican Jesuit noted, the text drafted by the theologians of pontifical academy for discussion concludes that this rigorist position has been criticized in recent decades by moral theologians who say it is excessively “rationalist” and leads to “a limited understanding of the moral norm and of the role of conscience.”Father Casalone agreed with his Jesuit confrere, Father Ferrer, and added that Pope Francis in his teachings in “Amoris Laetitia” and other writings has emphasized the importance of the relationship between “conscience, norm and discernment.” He insisted, however, that “Francis is not just changing the role of a norm,” he said. “No. He is rehabilitating something that is typical of the Catholic tradition but has since been overshadowed.”
This focus on conscience, norm and discernment is of the utmost importance and is dealt with in chapter five of the book, he said:
Moral tradition shows us that norms formulated in general terms cannot cover the concrete situation; and so there is a need for the interpretation of conscience, a discernment is needed in the situation.…”
This is the path Pope Francis followed in “Amoris Laetitia,” where he emphasized the relation between conscience and the norm, and the need to give attention to the circumstances and to practice discernment. The norms remain an indispensable point of reference to help persons do what is the best good for them in their concrete circumstances, within the community they belong to. It is the relation between culture, conscience and the law.
The other chapters of the book deal with specific questions related to the experiences of generating life, sexuality, suffering, dying and their related ethical implications. Specific issues are also addressed, including the environment and the use of modern scientific technologies in this whole field of life ethics.
Whether Pope Francis will publish an exhortation or encyclical on theological ethics that addresses these and other urgent topics in our human history remains to be seen.