giovedì 10 novembre 2022

How could the Catholic Church develop its teaching on artificial contraception?

(Christopher Lamb, The Tablet) As rumours grow that Pope Francis is considering a new document that may soften the Church’s ban on artificial contraception, The Tablet’s Rome correspondent meets the advisor seeking to knit together and refresh the Church’s approach to ethical issues. 
The protection and nurture of human life from conception to natural death is at the heart of the Church’s mission. But how best to witness to this in a world where there is often hostility to Christian teaching is one of the most hotly contested questions in the Catholic community. And – to the fury of many conservative Catholics – the man Pope Francis has entrusted with responsibility for taking the discussion forward is energetically pursuing a change of tack in the Church’s approach to the defence of human flourishing. 
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, a co-founder of the community of Sant’Egidio, the Catholic peace and justice group, and the postulator for the cause of the canonisation of Oscar Romero, starts from the passionate conviction that there is more to being “pro-life” than simply re-stating the Church’s traditional opposition to abortion and contraception. He has a broader and richer vision of what it means to cherish life.

Not everyone is happy with an approach which seeks to avoid dragging the Church into the culture wars. Some bishops go so far as to seek to ban the two most prominent Catholic politicians in the United States, the President, Joe Biden, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, from receiving Communion because they are in favour of legal abortion. And there are groups who think that to question Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical which reiterated that any use of artificial contraception by married couples is gravely sinful, would be to tinker with unchangeable Church teaching.

Paglia’s work is coming under even greater scrutiny as speculation in Rome grows that Francis is preparing a major document on life teaching in an encyclical or an apostolic exhortation. There is speculation that the Pope, who repeatedly emphasises the primacy of an informed conscience and the role of discernment in moral decision-making, could develop the position that married couples may not use artificial contraception in any circumstances. Born in the ancient town of Boville Ernica, in Lazio, central Italy, the 77-year-old archbishop is President of the Pontifical Academy for Life and Chancellor of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.

When we meet, he seems unfazed by the turbulent debate that has seen the academy come under heavy fire from sections of the Catholic media, especially in the US, where even a hint of a wobble on the Church’s ban on the use of the Pill or other forms of artificial contraception provokes furious charges of apostasy. Paglia has a warm, effervescent personality. He seems to approach life at 100 miles per hour. When I arrived at the academy’s offices on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad thoroughfare that leads to St Peter’s Basilica, he had just finished one meeting. When I leave, he was being ushered away to another. Underneath the smiley exterior is the steel of someone determined to get things done. “Look, today what is always important to us is to be really pro-life in a manner that is effective and in no way ideological,” he tells me. “We’re interested in demolishing – how to say – the ideological prejudices that contaminate reflection, contaminate public opinion. And they prevent broad engagement across the board.”

Threats to life today, the archbishop points out, come in myriad forms. They include war, hunger, poverty, falling birth rates, teenagers taking their own lives, the elderly being discarded. It is within this context, he believes, that the Church must articulate its pro-life message. Debates “about abortion or euthanasia”, he says, “have become ideologised”. Paglia’s work is wide-ranging, and he is not afraid to look for ways of reframing traditional Catholic thinking. One of his initiatives has been to work with “big tech” companies including IBM and Microsoft on the development of an ethical framework for artificial intelligence.

As we speak, the early afternoon sunshine is streaming through an open window, and our discussion is frequently interrupted by screaming sirens and the cacophony of Roman traffic. It strikes me as a metaphor for what Paglia is trying to do: while he wants to let some light into the room and hear the noise from the street, some would prefer to keep the curtains drawn and for the sounds of the outside world to be silenced. It’s not a strategy without risks. The academy has been excoriated from some quarters recently on two counts.

The first is Paglia’s desire to open up a theological dialogue about how to understand Humanae Vitae; the second is that the Pope appointed new members who have expressed pro-choice views. They include the Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato, who has written about how to save capitalism by making it more inclusive and whose work was cited by the Pope in Let Us Dream.

On the plane back from Bahrain last Sunday, Pope Francis said he had appointed Mazzucato because she is a “great economist” and that she would “give a little more humanity” to the academy. Why appoint an economist to the life academy, I asked Paglia. “When we talk about ‘life’ in a broad sense, we realised that it is not possible … to think about life without what it means in all its significance. There are thousands and thousands per day, for example, [dying] from hunger – can I not talk about economics? If [we] want to talk about life, we need to,” he explains. “That’s why, for us, an economist is indispensable, like other scientists … We already have scientists, and in this sense it seemed to us useful that a well-known economist scientist like [Mazzucato] could be part of this alliance.”

The decision to appoint Mazzucato reflects what Paglia sees as a need for greater dialogue with all the sciences, and for issues not to be compartmentalised. He has described Mazzucato’s views on abortion as “pro-choice” rather than “pro-abortion”, and he has explained that the academy is opposed to abortion but cannot ignore “attacks on life that come from inequality”. Two million children die of malnutrition every year, he points out.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has insisted that the abolition of the death penalty, the protection of migrants, care for the environment and tackling economic injustice are all part of an interlocking tapestry of life concerns. While he’s used strong language to condemn abortion, he’s distanced himself from attempts to bar politicians from the Eucharist, saying he’s never refused anyone Communion. And on marriage and family life, the Pope has called for the Church to follow the path of discernment, accompaniment and listening. “The family is not an ideology; it is a reality,” Francis told theologians from the John Paul II Marriage and Family Institute, led by Paglia, last month. “But when ideologies come to explain what the family is, everything is destroyed. Ideologies ruin things!”

Earlier this year saw the publication of a 528-page book in Italian, Theological Ethics of Life, a collection of papers from an October 2021 seminar organised by the academy to consider bio-ethical and life issues in light of Francis’ vision. It was an attempt to further a dialogue between theologians and the teaching authority of the magisterium, so often seen in opposition or occupying alternative realities. During the seminar, theologians responded to a base text (testo base) which addressed questions including artificial contraception, IVF and end-of-life care.

Some contributors suggested that there might be some circumstances when the use of artificial contraception by a married couple could be morally licit in some circumstances. Asked by a journalist about the possibility of a development in the Church’s teaching on contraception during his flight back to Rome from Canada this summer, Francis replied that “dogma, morality, is always in a path of development, but development in the same direction”. He referred to the book, saying those involved in the academy seminar discussions “did their duty because they tried to move forward in doctrine”. The “duty of theologians”, he said, “is research, theological reflection” and “the magisterium will say: ‘Yes, it is good, or, No, it is not good.’” But he insisted: “You cannot do theology with a ‘No’ in front of it.”

The Pope’s remarks once again fuelled speculation that a papal document is in the pipeline. The Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica has even suggested a title: Gaudium Vitae (“The Joy of Life”). Might a papal encyclical on life issues be possible, I asked Paglia. “Obviously, this question would need to be put to the Holy Father, more than to me,” he says. “I believe that the day will come when Pope Francis or the next Pope [will do so]. But what can I say? Certainly, we have to address it.”

As Paglia pointed out, Francis has already addressed life issues on several occasions, notably in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, in Fratelli Tutti, his encyclical on fraternity, and in his teaching document on marriage and family life, Amoris Laetitia. In Humanae Vitae Paul VI warned that the widespread use of contraceptives would lead to a decline in moral standards and a diminishing of respect for women. Paglia tells me that the emphasis should be placed on the encyclical’s prophetic element, seen in the falling birth rates in the West. The bigger issue, he says, is how to “generate” new life. “We have stopped only at, perhaps, one small aspect, that of contraception,” he explains. “There is the issue of responsible parenthood that Paul VI emphasises. So, in this sense, perhaps new thinking in this area is useful.” There’s also a risk, he suggests, of applying Humanae Vitae in a too narrowly legalistic way. A couple might use natural methods of contraception and not have any children, for example. Paglia points out that they “could be very correct in the application of natural methods” and they could say they “stand by the rule – but it actually betrays the substance” of the Church’s teaching. Birth rates are declining in Catholic countries as much as in any other in the West. Humanae Vitaeremains a teaching that many couples have not “received”. (Polling worldwide consistently shows that the overwhelming majority of Catholics do not accept that the use of contraceptives is morally wrong.)

Fr Maurizio Chiodi, a moral theologian at the John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences has argued that Humanae Vitae is not an infallible teaching and is a “reformable doctrine”. Chiodi was one of those who drafted the discussion text for the October 2021 seminar, and argued that a “theological discussion” over Humanae Vitae, including “the possibility of dissent”, is overdue. It’s worth noting that both Benedict XVI – before he stepped back from the papacy – and Pope Francis have said artificial contraception may be used when the intention is not to prevent conception but to stop the spread of deadly diseases including HIV and the Zika virus. At the heart of the debate over Humanae Vitae are the limits to the development of doctrine.

An animated Paglia references St John Henry Newman, telling me that without his work the Second Vatican Council would not have been able to produce Dignitatis Humanae, with its decisive shift in the attitude of the Church on freedom of belief and its protection by civil authorities. Its embrace of religious freedom – robustly defended by every Pope since the Council – was bitterly opposed by traditionalists precisely because this represented a change in the Church’s teaching.

For Paglia, Newman’s tests for the development of doctrine continue to be relevant. The Church “is not a museum of archaeological artefacts; it is a living body”, he says. A development of the “whole architecture of the ethical dimension of life” is necessary, and he gives capital punishment as an example of the development of teaching. John Paul II, Paglia points out, repeatedly called for the suspension of capital punishment and then Francis decided it was time to change the catechism to make the death penalty inadmissible. “Growth is not the contradiction of the prior,” he says. “Growth is an overcoming in breadth and depth.”

What raises Paglia’s hackles is that there are some in the Church who oppose even having a theological dialogue about certain moral questions. “I say to those who oppose discussing these issues: I think there is a deep problem of faithfulness to the Spirit. And that is to say, that it is a pathology, it is a sick faith. And faith in the formula and not in the Spirit. I would say it runs the risk of blocking the Spirit,” Paglia says. “I ask that they come and debate” and to do so without “falling into the temptation of being the magisterium”. For Paglia, that the action of the Holy Spirit is found in the lives of the faithful, not only in the formulas of doctrine, is central. “We see this in what Jesus said to the Apostles before he left them. He said, ‘I have other things to say to you, but you would not understand them. Then the Spirit will come.’ This is also the progress of the Church.”

This reflects the pastoral approach of Pope Francis; it is also a synodal approach, which Paglia’s academy has tried to model with its latest reflections by following a process based on listening and dialogue. “This is not an easy exercise, precisely in a world in which individualism has made us no longer dialogical, but often like crazy insects banging on glass in a room,” he says. “Today, the biggest risk is that we don’t know how to listen to each other.” Vincenzo Paglia might have the Pope, the majority of the bishops and the sensus fidelium as it is emerging in the synodal process – not to mention an Englishman canonised three years ago – on his side but he also faces a current of sustained opposition to his approach. I left his office convinced he is not going to be knocked off course. A whole new chapter on the ethics of life could be emerging.


(The Tablet)