The Pontifical Academy for Life issued a clarification Monday, after its president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, delivered an address last week in which he appeared to favor legal accommodations for assisted suicide.
The academy’s April 24 statement said that Paglia is “in full conformity with the Church’s Magisterium, [and] reaffirms his ‘No’ to euthanasia and assisted suicide.”
The statement came in response to what the academy called “incorrect interpretations” of a speech Paglia gave last week, in which he appeared to declare the decriminalization of assisted suicide “the greatest common good” possible in the current political circumstances of Italy.
Paglia has led the academy since 2016, when Pope Francis merged the body he previously led, the Pontifical Council for the Family, into the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life.
Throughout his tenure, the archbishop’s public statements have proven a magnet for controversy, especially given his position at an institution dedicated to the “study, information and formation on the principal problems of biomedicine and of law, relative to the promotion and defense of life, above all in the direct relation that they have with Christian morality and the directives of the Church's Magisterium.”
So, what has the archbishop said this time, what is the context, and is he in “full conformity” with Church teaching?
The Pillar explains.
What did Paglia say, exactly?
Archbishop Paglia addressed last Wednesday the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, giving a short speech as part of a debate on the theme “The Last Journey — Towards the end of life”.
The entire text of Paglia’s address was published Friday by the Italian periodical Il Riformista, under the headline “The time has come for a law on assisted suicide,” and was then reported widely by both Italian and Catholic media outlets over the weekend.
At the conclusion of his address to the conference, Paglia addressed a push in Italy to decriminalize assisted suicide — both a 2019 court case which urged decriminalization, and a subsequent legislative initiative to do the same.
The archbishop supported the move to end criminal penalties for assisted suicide committed under a particular set of criteria.
Paglia stated that “It cannot be excluded that in our society a legal mediation is feasible which allows assisted suicide in the conditions specified by the Constitutional Court 's Judgment [of 2019].”
The archbishop enumerated criteria specified by the 2019 court ruling, for circumstances under which assisted suicide might not be criminally sanctioned:
The person must be being kept alive by life support treatments and diagnosed with an irreversible pathology;
that condition must be a source of physical or psychological suffering that they deem intolerable;
they must be fully capable of making free and informed decisions.
The archbishop noted that a bill to establish the court’s decision as law in Italy was approved in March 21 by one chamber of the Italian parliament, by a margin of 253-117, though it is now pending in the Italian senate.
He added that eliminating criminal punishment for instances of assisted suicide which meet the the court’s criteria could be the best way for Italy to address the issue.
Paglia explained that “personally [he] would not practice assisted suicide, but [he could] understand that legal mediation can constitute the greatest common good that is concretely possible in the conditions in which we find ourselves.”
What does the Church say?
The Church has always opposed the practice of both euthanasia, in which a patient is killed because it is deemed to be in his best interest, and of assisted suicide, or so-called “medical assistance in dying,” in which either a doctor or some other individual helps a patient to end his own life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.”
It goes on to teach that any “act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.”
“The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.”
On the issue of suicide, the Catechism further teaches that it always “contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self.”
“It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life,” the Catechism states. “We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”
However, the Catechism does address end of life circumstances, distinguishing between the refusal of “overzealous treatment” to prolong life and suffering in the face of otherwise imminent death and a deliberate act to end life.
“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate,” the Catechism teaches, noting that, in such cases, the key criteria is that “one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted.”
What did the Pontifical Academy for Life say?
According to the statement issued by the Pontifical Academy for Life on Monday morning, Paglia is “in full conformity with the Church’s Magisterium, reaffirms his ‘No’ to euthanasia and assisted suicide.”
“In his presentation, in which he dealt extensively with the subject of the end-of-life, Archbishop Paglia mentioned, without full development, Decision 242/2019 of the Italian Constitutional Court and its specific Italian context,” the statement said.
The academy explained that the Italian Constitutional Court held in 2019 that assisting a suicide is a crime, and should continue to be considered a criminal act, but that in some cases — where the four criteria outlined by Paglia were met — there should be no penalty for the crime.
“In this precise and specific context,” said the academy, “Archbishop Paglia explained that in his view a ‘legislative initiative’ (certainly not a moral one) could be possible which would be consistent with the [court’s] Decision and which preserves both the criminality of the act and the conditions in which the crime carries no penalty.”
“For Archbishop Paglia, it is important that the Decision holds that the criminality of the act remains and is not overruled. Any further elaboration is uncalled for,” the academy’s statement said.
So, is Paglia right? Is making assisted suicide a crime without punishment the ‘greatest common good that is concretely possible’?
It might seem difficult to argue in favor of Paglia’s claim that making assisted suicide a crime-in-name-only is the “greatest common good possible,” even in the specific context of the Italian supreme court ruling.
But the academy - and other defenders of Paglia’s intervention - argue that it is possible to defend the archbishop’s statement as a strictly pragmatic and utilitarian observation.
Given that the court decision called for a legislative response to its ruling, supporters have argued that Paglia meant only that some kind of legal accommodation for assisted suicide is inevitable, and that preserving criminality-in-theory of the practice was the best outcome that could be expected.
But even if that was what Paglia meant to argue, and even if he would be right in his political calculus, that doesn’t necessarily mean accepting that outcome, let alone welcoming it as the “greatest common good possible,” is entirely in line with what the Church teaches.
In its 2002 doctrinal note “On some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith explained that there are circumstances in which “political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation,” and that Catholics are always obligated to oppose laws which violate “fundamental and inalienable ethical demands.”
“This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate),” the dicastery wrote. “Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard.”
“Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person,” the doctrinal note said, while citing the encyclical of St. John Paul II Evangelum vitae on the “grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life.”
What else did Paglia say?
While response to the Archbishop’s speech last week has mostly focused on the final paragraph of his text, the academy president opened his remarks with statements which themselves raise questions about his “full conformity with the Church’s Magisterium,” as asserted by the academy.
Paglia opened his speech saying “First of all, I would like to point out that the Catholic Church does not have a package of prêt-à-porter truths, prepackaged, as if it were a dispenser of pills of truth.”
“The intervention and witness of the Church, insofar as she too participates in the public, intellectual, political and juridical debate, are placed on the level of culture and dialogue between consciences,” Paglia said.
In the doctrinal note on Catholics’ participation in political life, the Vatican’s doctrinal department noted that the function of Catholic voices in the political and wider cultural debate is not to serve as one point of view in dialogue with others when dealing with questions of the fundamental moral law.
Instead, the DDF wrote, “Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard.”
“No Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 2002.
“This is not a question of ‘confessional values’ per se, because such ethical precepts are rooted in human nature itself and belong to the natural moral law.”
Archbishop Paglia’s comments on assisted suicide are just the latest controversy involving the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
In 2019, he also drew criticism on the same subject, after he was asked about guidance from the Swiss bishops stating that clergy should not attend deaths by assisted suicide.
Paglia told journalists he believed it was important to “Let go of the rules.”
While calling every instance of assisted suicide a “great defeat,” the archbishop said he “would like to remove the ideology from this situation.” “In this sense, to accompany, to hold the hand of someone who is dying, is, I think, a great duty every believer should promote.”
In August last year, Paglia caused a similar media storm when he told an Italian journalist that a 1978 law decriminalizing abortion is a “pillar” of Italian “social life” and is “absolutely not” up for discussion in the country.
Pushing back against Catholic criticism of that remark, the pontifical academy’s spokesman argued that Paglia was not praising Italy’s abortion law, he was just stating a fact about the entrenched position of abortion in Italian society and law.
Paglia, and the academy itself, were also at the center of considerable media scrutiny last year when both the archbishop and the institution spent months promoting a book, “Theological Ethics of Life,” which Paglia said is meant to “introduce a paradigm shift” in the Church’s theological discussion of sex and contraception.
In a series of statements released on Twitter, the academy defended the book and hit back at criticism that it was an attempt to subvert the Church’s articulation of natural law morality on life issues contained in the papal encyclical Humanae vitae.
“What is dissent today, can change,” the academy said via its official account. “It is not relativism, it is the dynamics of the understanding of phenomena and science: the Sun does not rotate around the Earth. Otherwise there would be no progress and everything would stand still. Even in theology. Think about it.”
“Life issues is not [sic] a matter of taking fundamentalist positions with ideology, but of opening the debate within the community of moral theologians,” the academy said.
Paglia has also come under scrutiny in recent months following reports he diverted hundreds of thousands of euros in donations received by the Pontifical Council for the Family under his leadership.
In December, The Pillar reported that the funds, originally allocated to support missionary and charitable works, were used to finance building projects in Rome, including the renovation of Paglia’s personal apartment.
Vatican officials told The Pillar that, in a May 2015 memo, Paglia claimed he had replaced the money he had diverted away from charitable purposes. But sources said that while 600,000 euros had been transferred into the relevant account, they came from new donations raised by the Pontifical Council, not from Paglia.
After initially refusing to comment, Paglia subsequently denied he had used charitable funds for personal expenses and his personal assistant told The Pillar via email that the archbishop “has instructed a lawyer based in the United States to initiate a lawsuit against your newspaper for the serious defamation represented by part of your writing.”
To date, no communication from Paglia’s lawyer has been received and The Pillar stands by its original reporting, in full.