Taking Archbishop Paglia at His Word

The Pontifical Academy for Life assured us that, though we had seen the naked text of Archbishop Paglia’s remarks on assisted suicide, he was attired in the finest and fullest of ecclesiastical garb.

The Pontifical Academy for Life spent April 24 channeling its inner tailor: it assured us that, though we had seen the naked text of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia’s remarks on assisted suicide, His Grace really was attired in the finest and fullest of ecclesiastical garb.  

No, you didn’t see a prelate talking explicitly about moral absolutes (except, perhaps, in relation to the death penalty). No, you didn’t see a prelate running down moral principles as “ready-to-wear,” said his ecclesiastical tailors, busily weaving a new narrative. No, you didn’t hear about “accompaniment” without much specificity about what that means.

All you heard was a “juridical mediation,” a kind of out loud thought experiment about how to think about assisted suicide in a peculiarly Italian civil context.  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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I don’t believe that.  

I know that there are those who claim Paglia was misrepresented, that the world’s uncritical social media grabbed a headline and the last paragraph (of his eight-paragraph-long exposé) and took things out of context. And, of course, why would anybody expect an archbishop to manage to say what he meant clearly and unambiguously in only about a thousand words? Why would anybody expect an archbishop to manage to say what he meant clearly and unambiguously in only about a thousand words?Tweet This

I’ve elsewhere critiqued what I think is wrong with Paglia’s statement. That said, I’ll play along with the spin that Paglia was merely engaged in “juridical” ruminations. Let’s play that out.

Paglia insists there is a distinction between the moral and civil orders. No doubt: one could even cite St. Thomas Aquinas to that end. Not everything that is morally wrong is or should be a crime.

The classical example of that distinction is prostitution. Would the cost—political, social, legal, enforcement—of eliminating all cases of prostitution be justified, or can society tolerate some cases? Traditional theology answered that question, “yes.”

But let’s unpack that argument. We’re talking low grade prostitution. We’re talking what would be involved in attempting to put every clandestine brothel operating under the radar out of business. Should society try that? A prudential judgment might be: perhaps not.  

But that does not mean that those incidences of prostitution were any less morally sinful.

Nor should we imagine Thomas extrapolating that argument to saying that societies should be indifferent to publicly visible prostitution operating under legal norms (and, thus, to some measure under “legal protection”), much less treated as just another potential employment opportunity (“sex worker”) and regarded as a tolerable, if not legitimate, alternative in a society that is “democratic [and] pluralist” (Paglia’s words on suicide). 

There is a difference between “toleration” and creating a public legal infrastructure supportive of a certain regime. Nor would I say that Thomas’ argument should be extrapolated to saying a society should tolerate a relatively significant mean level of venereal disease (merely deploying public health resources to ameliorate its consequences) in the name of such a prudential judgment.

So, let’s not try to score a secular touchdown for amorality by running with a Thomistic prudential judgment football.    

In Paglia’s case, we’re not talking about sex but life. That is a qualitatively different question. Society has no more fundamental responsibility than the protection of life. That is sine qua non to the common good. That is not a uniquely Catholic perspective. It stands behind Thomas Hobbes’ basically atheist view of society: but for a totalitarian strongman on top keeping lesser strongmen from acting on their self-interested impulses, lots of people would be dead in a world of homo homini lupus. 

A just society would be one in which the state protects life because life is sacred. Paglia’s concession, however, leads to a state that protects not life but the individual agent who may decide whether life is to be protected…or not.  

There are two critical questions here about a just society: (1) Can a just society make the protection of life discretionary (and, if so, can the state exercise that discretion)? (2) Can a just society delegate that discretion to individuals, effectively thereby abandoning its values commitment to subjective, individual judgments? 

These are not insignificant questions, and they are rife with implications far beyond physician-assisted killing. Pardon me if I am not impressed by the head of an institution ostensibly committed to the protection of life ruminating about them and their civil consequences in a thousand words.  

But there’s a further question to be raised in this distinction between the civil and moral orders. The flip side of that coin is that the Christian is called to foster a greater coherence between those orders. Is a Christian supposed to say “they’re different, and we’re in a democratic, pluralist society, so….” No. A society that is “good to live in” is a society that is ethically good.  

A Christian is called to bring the joy of the Gospel, to evangelize that world, to heal rifts. That message is not just exhortatory. It also demands action in the public square because public life is not immune from evangelical action. And, in a world where the culture of death competes for that public square, Christian public officials—not just talking but acting as public policymakers—need “in the midst of wolves [to] be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  

One must ask how is it that in societies that have nominally been evangelized for millennia so basic a moral absolute as the sanctity of life has come to be eroded and what role the Church has played—actively or passively—in the devolution of that situation. And, in that examination, particularly of recent times when this has happened, no questions should a priori be off the table.

It’s not enough to say “the civil order is one thing, the moral another,” as if never should the twain meet. That may be an excuse for those who are embarrassed about the right to life and look for a way to remain in the good graces of political allies and friends while backpedaling the “hard teachings” that make them skunks in the political salon. Consider Jesus’ advice on what to do with such teachings (John 6:60-71).

So, even if we want to take at face value the claims that Archbishop Paglia’s remarks were “in full conformity with the Church’s magisterium,” they were at least woefully weak and in need of “maturation of reflection on rights.”

[Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency]


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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