The Vatican and Humanity 2.0

Ira Pastor, ideaXme life sciences ambassador and founder of Bioquark, interviews Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life and Grand Chancellor of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.

Ira Pastor Comments:

Vatican City is an independent city-state, enclaved within Rome, Italy, established with the Lateran Treaty (in 1929), and with an area of only about 121 acres, and a population of about 825, it is the smallest sovereign state in the world by both area and population.

The Vatican City is an ecclesiastical state ruled by the pope (currently His Holiness Pope Francis) who is the bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church.

Within the Vatican City are various religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums, and they feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures.

The Pontifical Academy for Life

The Pontifical Academy for Life is one of the Pontifical Academies of the Roman Catholic Church dedicated to promoting the Church’s consistent life ethic (an ideology based on the premise that all human life is sacred), as well as doing a variety of related research on a wide range of bio-ethical topics, on current and developing themes in the life sciences, such as gene therapy and editing, neuroscience and consciousness, artificial intelligence and robotics, as well as palliative end-of-life care, which has become a rather important topic in recent weeks with the global Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2020, the Academy hosted a workshop “Robo-Ethics: Humans, Machines and Health” that accommodated scientists and church representatives where they discussed moral issues related to the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics, a set of values to be established around these new technologies, their role in the life of society, and the rights that should be given to humans and new forms of autonomous technology. Participants agreed on the importance of technical research and scheduled another AI-focused meeting for the next year.

Credit: The Pontifical Academy for Life
Photo Credit: The Pontifical Academy for Life

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia is an Italian prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, who Pope Francis in 2016 named current President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, as well as Grand Chancellor of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.

Archbishop Paglia was President of the Pontifical Council for the Family from 2012 to 2016 and Bishop of Terni-Narni-Amelia, Italy, from 2000 to 2012. He was a co-founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio in 1968, which is a Catholic association dedicated to social service.

ArchBishop Paglia has also been a staunch advocate at the Vatican for inter-religious dialogue.

On this episode we will hear from Archbishop Paglia:

About his background; where he was born, about his early studies in the area of theology, philosophy and pedagogy, and about his path through the church to his eventual leadership of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The background, history, and role of the Pontifical Academy for Life in the Vatican. A general background on the core technological themes that their research focuses on. How the Pontifical Academy for Life works with other Vatican groups that research related topics like stem cells, as well as about their position on the overall topic of transhumanism.

Dr. Fabrizio Mastrofini of the Press Office for the Pontifical Academy for Life was kind enough to record Archbishop Paglia’s responses to our questions in both Italian and English.

Please find the interview text below:

Archbishop Paglia, please introduce yourself and share with us your training path and how you ended up at the Pontifical Academy for Life.

I am a priest of Roman descent, I mean, a priest from the diocese of Rome, who entered the seminary in 1955, so a long time ago, even before the Second Vatican Council. But from the beginning I focused on the perspective of Christian Rome, at the same time attentive to local reality and extremely alive in its relationship with universality, obviously because of the presence of the Pope. I therefore did my studies at the Roman seminary and part of my training was closeness to the Pope, which felt like an almost physical relationship of closeness and which became a spiritual relationship and therefore also a pastoral relationship. A very special moment in my life was the time of the Second Vatican Council, which I experienced while attending university: a number of my professors were experts or even bishops who participated in the Second Vatican Council. For example, the secretary general of the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Pericle Felici, had been the spiritual father of the Roman seminary. Pope John himself was an ex-pupil of the Roman seminary. The time following the Second Vatican Council was exalting for me and I can say about myself that my greater inspiration originates precisely from the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which I carried out together with the Community of Sant’Egidio, which was developed in those years. I was immediately part of the community and was the first priest in that community. For me, this path has always meant giving the Word of God first place, putting the Eucharistic Liturgy at the centre, the link with the See of Peter, the link with the poor and the Church of Rome. A Church, as the Ancient Fathers used to say, which presides in charity over all the other Churches. So much for my formative years. Then during my priestly ministry, the meeting with John Paul II was very important, not only because he appointed me parish priest of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (I was just 35 years old) but also because he involved me, together with the Community of Sant’Egidio, in a missionary dimension both within the city and in the whole world. For example, let us consider what the World Youth Days have meant to the world. They were born in that initial relationship of Pope St. John Paul II with the youth movements of Rome, including the Community of Sant’Egidio. At the same time my cultural formation continued, focused first of all on the theological development in relation to the Second Vatican Council, to which I added my specialization on the history of the laity in the life of the Church and also a degree in Pedagogy due to the great changes that occurred in that time. Everything led to the appointment as bishop of Terni in the year 2000. Terni is a city between Rome and Assisi, at the time it was an industrial city with one of the largest steelworks in our country. There I encountered the problems of the working world, the problems of industry. I must also say that the first bishop of Terni, according to tradition, was Saint Valentine. And for me it was important to combine the feast of that saint with the feast of love, which is celebrated on February 14th, thus joining the ecclesial event with the opportunity to pause to reflect on the meaning of true love and not of romance. After 12 years as bishop of Terni, Pope Benedict XVI called me to direct the then Pontifical Council for the Family: the Pope was fully convinced that the new anthropological and theological perspectives found in this area of ​​the family one of the most delicate frontiers, as it was also Pope Francis who, at the time of the reform of the Roman Curia, in bringing together several dicasteries, chose an American bishop for the leadership of the new “Lay Family and Life” dicastery – Cardinal Farrell – and he wanted to entrust me with the let’s say theological and cultural dimension, by giving me the presidency of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the position of Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for the Sciences for the Marriage and Family. These institutions have the task to respond to the enormous problems and to the fascinating and tremendous frontiers concerning life, the meaning of marriage and the meaning of the family.

Could you give a brief presentation of the Academy from this point of view?

The Pontifical Academy for Life today presents itself as an institution consisting of a central office and a network of 163 scientists from all over the world, experts in different disciplines: doctors, anthropologists, jurists, theologians, bioethicists. In our network of academicians, we have exponents of different religious traditions and different cultures, from different continents. It is therefore a group of scientists who can reflect on the great themes of contemporary life. For example, three years ago we started talking about global bioethics and therefore about new technologies related to birth, death, development of different ages of life. Subsequently we dealt with the new topic of robot-ethics, so far little explored in the Catholic world: that is, the relationship between robotics development and the ethical dimension which directly concerns the great theme of life. And this year, 2020, we dedicated ourselves to its consequential development: the issue of Artificial Intelligence. And it is precisely about artificial intelligence – in connection with the more properly scientific, economic, political issues – that we coined a new term: “algor-ethics”. Algorithms are the basis of Artificial Intelligence; in our opinion, the scientific development must be linked to the ethical dimension: algor-ethics, specifically. We want to emphasize that the development of science and technology must put the dignity and value of the human beings at the centre: they were created by God and placed at the summit of Creation, of the world. Philosophically speaking we could say that according to the Kantian perspective the human person is always an end in himself and never a means. In this respect, the commitment of the Academy is expressed in various perspectives linked to the development of technology and connected to the specific themes of the Catholic world. It is clear how the great issues of human life, at the beginning and at the end of it, but also related issues such as the relationship between generations – young and elderly and adults – in today’s different societies are not abstract concepts: they actually affect the reality of 7 billion people. There are 7 billion people on the planet Earth, which is our common home and therefore, in this sense, summarizing the perspective of the Academy for Life, I would say that its direction is expressed by Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato si’”. The Academy for Life highlights a crucial dimension: the human family lives in this common home; the human family is responsible towards the generations and therefore must not only continue life but also preserve our common home in the best possible way to hand it over to the future generations. The scientific commitment of the Academy is linked to faith and bioethics. It is one of the most delicate and important areas of our work, which joins in the hottest topics of the debate regarding politics and healthcare.

For example, the Academy is working on Covid-19. But it also deals with palliative care and health policies.

Well, these are important issues as well: I have somehow mentioned them previously. The question allows me to better decline it; when we say that life takes on a wider semantic connotation, obviously it also includes all of this. In the past, Bioethics used to focus on two major perspectives: the moment of birth and the moment of death. Today with new emerging and converging technologies, all areas of human life are involved in this research. Artificial Intelligence, for example, has a great impact on the world of work and therefore on the development of society in its everyday life. It is obvious that new technologies give a much broader meaning to the terminal phase of life: they lengthen the life span, they cure diseases that were previously fatal; they lengthen the life span and the number of the elderly grows, the time of old age increases. As Pope Francis has often stressed, we risk promoting a culture of waste by creating a singular contradiction: we keep extending life on the one hand and, when it is very long, we discard it. Let’s think about the nursing homes for the elderly, where currently, in these times of pandemic, you die alone without your family members. It is obvious that careful, deeper reflection is needed, because technology must be attentive to the ethical dimension. The scientists, right in the face of the tragedy of this pandemic, are warning us that it probably won’t be the last, and we as the Pontifical Academy for Life urge the development of science, but without ever losing a humanistic dimension. Without a dimension linked to the dignity of man, we risk derailing development: we must take into account the centrality of man and the human family. In this regard, politics is also a reality that needs to be involved. In the Pontifical Academy for Life we ​​are convinced that we will have to face a perspective that in a synthetic way can be called bio politics. Politics, political forces at all levels, in the face of a new condition of globalized humanity, must be careful to rethink and redesign the role of politics itself. We must avoid that there is a rich North of the world that does not take into account the large number of poor countries. We must prevent discrimination within the same country. The pandemic we are experiencing makes us understand the need to rethink and reorganize health care, treatments, technologies, public health, in a more shared and more equal way. The Academy is putting a lot of thought into it. It is also committed to preventing the so-called “surveillance society” from prevailing, where technology owners could become the absolute masters of citizens’ lives. As you can see, the relevant themes are multiplying, but they are all directed towards the perspective of the unity of the human family that inhabits the only habitable planet we have got, and it must be so for this generation, for the next one and for those to come.

With regard to these issues, what are the relations with other Vatican entities, such as the Pontifical Council for Culture on Stem Cells or the Department for Integral Human Development, which has a working group on the themes of transhumanism?

The distinctive feature of the Pontifical Academy for Life is its scientific focus. The contribution that we can give to others and we are giving to the other dicasteries of the Roman Curia, which are much more engaged on the pastoral and organizational side of relations with the various local churches in the world, concerns an in-depth discussion which must obviously be in close contact with the pastoral dimension. That is a challenge for the Academy and I spoke directly with Pope Francis about it, also within a general vision of the role of the Roman Curia. It is not simply a matter of reorganizing the offices, it is a question of giving a new engine to the whole Roman Curia, so that in a more compact and more coordinated way it can help the whole planet, the societies, the Christian Churches to respond in the most adequate way possible to the great challenges we face. It is in the DNA of the Academy: to pursue a new alliance between faith, science, politics, economics, to respond to challenges that now are without borders, without barriers and without distinctions. Let me give you a small example that concerns us right now, in the face of the pandemics outbreak. Technique, namely the medical technology, was very surprised; I was impressed by the fact that coronavirus affected the richest regions of the world: the big cities where economic development is quite substantial. Then of course there are different variations. The Pontifical Academy has felt the responsibility of offering a first reading of what is happening, precisely to help everyone understand the fragility of the human condition. Fragility is part of the tradition of the Catholic Church of yesterday and today: just think of the sentence “remember that you are dust” of Ash Wednesday. Without resorting to tragic pessimism, we should understand that the God of Creation chose this powder, to give positive energy to solidarity reflection. It is a way – let me use this term – to tell all of us that we must increasingly spread the contagion of solidarity or fraternity. The document of the Pontifical Academy for Life is a text of a few pages with the significant title “Pandemic and universal Fraternity”: it is meant to be a tool for reflection that helps to understand where we are and gives some indications in the health field, because I was shocked by the excessive number of elderly people who died, as well as by those who think it is possible to choose which people to treat based on their age. In the text of our document, which Pope Francis received, we provide guidance on ethics and public health. Meanwhile, we collaborate with other Departments, in particular with the Department of Integral Human Development, because it is possible to produce even more complete tools, which would help the whole world reflect and find perspectives for the present and especially for the aftermath.

Archbishop Paglia, do you have a message to send to the North American public?

I have a lot of believing and unbelieving friends in the United States of America. I am well aware of the role they play in the whole planet. I would like to urge you all, American friends, to hold up the leadership of freedom, fraternity, equality and the dimension of the mystery that makes us all brothers and sisters. Not as masters but united in the face of the mystery of life, the very mystery of God. God has given men and women in the United States the opportunity to create a great country. A great country with a great responsibility, with a great tradition, which must be put at the service of the entire human family.

This interview is in American English