Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, tradition, practical challenges
The Vatican Publishing House published a text entitled Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, tradition, practical challenges. The volume collects the Proceedings of an interdisciplinary study seminar promoted by the Pontifical Academy for Life. We discuss it with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life and editor of the book.
Archbishop Paglia, the book is very large and dense. How did this project come about?
The initiative takes its cue from the many solicitations Pope Francis is making to theologians in his speeches and documents. We hear people say that the Holy Father is not interested in theology, but if we pay closer attention to what he is really saying, it does not really seem to be the case. So we asked ourselves, are we really listening to the teaching of Pope Francis? Are we taking his words seriously in a systematic way, and not just using some of his singular expressions outside the context of his overall reflection? Are we examining the implications that his considerations have for theological thought? If we consider Evangelii gaudium, Laudato si’, Amoris laetitia, and Veritatis Gaudium in this perspective, we realize that the proposals contained therein open up a new horizon for theology and for the task of theologians, with a strong emphasis on dialogue and the mutual enrichment between different types of knowledge.
The book is devoted only to life issues. How so?
The theological ethics of human life is a particular area in which the Academy is interested: issues like corporeality and health care practices are of special interest. This is, moreover, a field in which continuous scientific and technological innovation demands timely reflection. When we began our journey we were approaching the 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae. We then set ourselves the goal of rereading the main topics covered in St. John Paul II’s encyclical after so many years. And we did this by inviting theologians and experts in different fields to a study seminar that took place in Rome in 2021. Our guests came from multiple continents and expressed different sensitivities and theological approaches. The book being published collects the Proceedings of this work. Pope Francis was informed of every step and encouraged our project.
You wrote in the introduction that the book is “unique in its kind”. What do you mean by that?
On the one hand the initiative came from a Pontifical Academy, an institution that is part of the Holy See, but on the other hand our reflection is not limited to explaining texts of the Magisterium. Rather, we intended to create a dialogue – as I explain in more detail in the introduction – between different opinions on even controversial topics, proposing many insights for discussion. So our perspective was to render a service to the Magisterium by opening up a space for dialogue that makes research possible and encourages it. This is how we see the role of the Academy, which Pope Francis himself also wanted on the front line on delicate issues to be addressed through a transdisciplinary approach. The care of the intelligence of faith must proceed by cultivating this field where insights and progress are necessary: in order to listen to the voice of the Spirit who explains the Gospel of Jesus again and again, in order to detect with new effectiveness, the processes in which the paradigms of human culture are formed (Veritatis Gaudium). Part of the ministry authoritatively entrusted to the Pontifical Academy is to seriously develop these processes of ecclesial dynamism, which does not limit itself to the mere repetition of old formulas and commonplaces.
In your view, is the working method the main innovation?
Yes, it is. It was clear to me from the very beginning that a climate of research, dialogue and discussion among the participants was essential. As already mentioned, but it is worth emphasizing, we not only sought dialogue between different fields of knowledge, but also between theological perspectives and models that develop a sapiential and pastoral intelligence of faith: in order to highlight the richness of Christian theology, its Catholic diversity. The backbone of this text is a theological anthropology inspired by ecclesial faith in close dialogue with contemporary culture. It served as a basis for addressing questions concerning human life and complex scientific and ethical issues in the context of today’s world. It was an attempt, and certainly not a perfect one, to accept the invitation contained in Veritatis Gaudium (par. 3) for a radical paradigm shift in theological reflection.
What did this kind of approach entail for the conduct of your workshop?
I can answer this question by taking a look at the various chapters of the book (there are 12 chapters in all). The starting point is a summary of the most relevant aspects of Pope Francis’ speeches and documents. From there we move on to consider the teaching on life in the Bible in light of the Christological event. After a chapter that seeks to interpret the main elements of today’s culture, the next chapter critically addresses the reading of the magisterial and theological tradition with respect to the fifth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” The themes of conscience, law and moral discernment are then examined. Within this broad framework, we also find issues related to the origin of life and the role of sexuality, suffering, death, and the care of a dying person. Some specific issues, such as the environment and life (including animal life) on the planet, responsible generation and procreation, care of a dying person, and new technologies are addressed as testing ground for the overall approach set forth in the previous chapters. At the end of the book, the fundamental eschatological horizon disclosed by revelation is outlined, which is crucial for a proper understanding of human life and its meaning, and unfortunately is rarely present in Christian preaching today.
What are the fundamental features of the theological anthropology underlying the development of the reflection you have proposed?
The personalist approach (already strongly urged as a principle of anthropological development of Christian theology by John Paul II), must be combined with a profound Christocentric and ecclesiological elaboration. The response to Christ’s call, in its existential implications and in its pastoral expression, requires a commitment to be carried out in the community. It is by making our way together with others, in the social and historical dimension, that moral standards are developed. Note well, however, that the truth of the moral good is not about consensus; it is about the reality of each person who is open to communion and who finds fulfillment through love, openness to others and a true ethics of otherness.
Is the fact that there is free and open discussion in the book a sign of synodality?
Of course. There is no other way, especially when it comes to such fundamental issues as those involving the multiple dimensions of human life. 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. We did this not only in an atmosphere of parrhesia that stimulates and empowers theologians, academicians, scholars. But also with a procedure similar to the quaestiones disputatae: once a thesis was presented, the debate could begin. And debate can lead to open up new ways forward, to advance theological bioethics, including the latest developments facilitated by the questions posed by integral ecology and the global magnitude of problems. Just like the above-mentioned medieval disputations: they did not presume to supplant the authentic Magisterium but wanted to open new horizons of reflection and research, as a service to its specific and authoritative discernment. It is certainly a process that reflects the synodal breath and climate in which Pope Francis wishes the Church to operate. This synodal process was authoritatively stressed during the workshop, by Cardinals Grech and Semeraro who presided and preached during the Eucharistic celebrations. Their texts are also collected in the book.