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ROME – On Monday the Pontifical Academy for Life hit back against critics of remarks its president made several days prior implying that while personally opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide, he was supportive of legislation regulating it.
Last Wednesday, speaking at the Perugia Journalism Festival in Perugia on “The last journey (towards the end of life),” Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the Catholic Church “does not have a package of prêt-à-porter, a pre-packaged truth as if it were a distributor of truth pills.”
Rather, its teaching is the result of “Theological thought evolves throughout history in dialogue with the Magisterium and with the experience of the people of God in a dynamic of mutual enrichment.”
To this end, he pointed to the development over time of the church’s position on the death penalty, which previously held that there were certain circumstances in which it was considered permissible until Pope Francis modified the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2018 to state that it is always “inadmissible.”
When the church intervenes publicly at the intellectual political, or juridical level, it does so “the level of culture and dialogue between consciences,” Paglia said.
In terms of end-of-life issues, Paglia said the big question is how to achieve an ethical and juridical plan that respect both individuals and society as a whole.
He stressed the importance of individual freedom and insisted that when it comes to decisions regarding death, it often happens that those who apparently make a free decision to medically end their own lives do so as the result “of a social injunction,” and often “under the pressure of economic convenience.”
Paglia noted that adults with mental incapacity or whose decision-making ability has been compromised are among those who receive euthanasia or assisted suicide, and as a result, “the cases of involuntary euthanasia and palliative sedation without consent have grown.”
“The overall result is that we are witnessing a contradictory outcome: in the name of self-determination, the effective exercise of freedom is curtailed, especially for those who are most vulnerable,” he said, and stressed the need to foster a culture of “accompaniment” and of palliative medicine for the sick and dying.
This mentality must not only be fostered at the individual level, but also at the level of culture and society, he said, saying that in this context, “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 judgement.”
Paglia was referring to a decision by Italy’s Constitutional Court in 2019 which partially decriminalized assisted suicide under certain conditions, require local heath authorities and an ethics board to approve each request.
However, the court at the same time ruled that parliament must pass a law regulating the practice, and lawmakers have yet to pass that legislation.
In 2021, supporters of euthanasia in Italy gathered 1.4 million signatures, well over the required 500,000, to petition the Constitutional Court to approve a national referendum on assisted suicide, making it legally available to all who wish to avail themselves of it.
The signatures and arguments were submitted to the court early last year, however, the Constitutional Court shot down the referendum as unconstitutional on grounds that it did not guarantee “the minimum constitutionally necessary protection of human life in general, with particular reference to the weak and vulnerable.”
Under current Italian law, anyone who assists another person commit suicide can be jailed for 5-12 years.
Debate over assisted suicide is still a heated topic in Italy, and lawmakers remain deeply divided over the issue, meaning still have not been able to overcome their deadlock on legislation regulating the practice, or the hundreds of amendments to a draft bill that have been proposed.
In his speech, Paglia noted that according to the Constitutional Court’s 2019 ruling, a person seeking assisted suicide must be “kept alive by life support treatments and affected by an irreversible pathology, which is a source of physical or psychological suffering they consider intolerable, but fully capable of making free and informed decisions.”
He noted that the draft legislation currently under debate, which has been approved by Italy’s lower house of parliament but not its upper house, follows the same line.
“Personally, I would not practice assisted suicide, but I understand that legal mediation can constitute the greatest common good concretely possible in the conditions in which we find ourselves,” he said, closing his speech.
Paglia’s remark on legal regulation of euthanasia as “the greatest common good” given Italy’s current status on the issue generated immediate backlash, with many arguing that the Catholic Church should not be advocating for a law that offers legal protection for euthanasia, and that it was inappropriate for the head of the Vatican’s Academy for Life to appear supportive of an end-of-life legislation.
Concern was also raised over Paglia’s remarks on the development of church teaching over time and his apparent comparison of the death penalty to euthanasia.
Many criticized Paglia’s remarks as confusing and as signaling a potential openness to euthanasia and assisted suicide at worst.
In a statement Monday, the Pontifical Academy for Life hit back against critics saying Paglia, “reaffirms his ‘No’ to euthanasia and assisted suicide, in full conformity with the church’s Magisterium,” meaning its collective body of teaching.
The statement insisted that Paglia in his presentation briefly touched on the Constitutional Court’s 2019 ruling and the current status of assisted suicide in Italy “without full development” of the topic.
“In this precise and specific context, 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 ruling and which would preserve “both the criminality of the act and the conditions in which the crime carries no penalty, as the Court requested Parliament to legislate.”
The academy insisted that for Paglia, it is crucial that the court’s ruling on the criminality of assisted suicide “remains and is not overruled.”
“Any further elaboration is uncalled for,” the statement said, insisting that at the scientific and cultural levels, Paglia “has always supported the need for accompaniment of the sick in the final phase of life, using palliative care and loving personal attention, to ensure that no one is left to face alone the illness and suffering, and difficult decisions, that the end of life brings on.”
Critics also hit back against the statement, arguing that it did little to clarify Paglia’s remarks and generated more confusion on the issue, while offering no insight into the Italian legal situation Paglia was referring to.
Paglia, who is also the head of a government commission established in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic on care of the elderly, generally prefers an attitude of friendly engagement with the government on Catholic moral issues, rather than publicly sparring over controversies.
For this and other reasons, he has been an increasingly controversial figure over the past 18 months, both for personal remarks and decisions made by the academy under his leadership.
Since last year, the academy has made headlines repeatedly for controversial publications and statements and for its social media activity.
Most of those debates surround the appointment of a prominent pro-choice Italian-American economist to the academy’s membership and for the publication of a controversial volume which included contributions from theologians suggesting that artificial contraception and reproduction was permissible in certain circumstances.
They have also come under fire for a series of tweets that were dispatched and later retracted arguing that Pope Saint Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – which reinforced the church’s teachings on marriage and upheld its condemnation of artificial contraception – was not covered by the doctrine of papal infallibility, meaning it can be subject to change.
Paglia has repeatedly insisted that it is the academy’s duty to facilitate debate among experts and theologians of differing views and that he is acting with the pope’s backing.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen