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Archbishop Paglia’s moral and theological gymnastics

Contrary to the recent remarks by the president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, Catholic theology has been consistently clear about the morality of suicide throughout its history.

Pope Francis greets Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, during a meeting with its members in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Sept. 27, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

An Italian paper published what are supposed to be last week’s remarks of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia on assisted suicide, with specific reference to the debate in Italy. Archbishop Paglia is president of the Pontifical Academy of Life. For purposes of debate, I take this text as credible.

Prescinding from the specifically Italian debate, some reflections on the larger theological mishmash served up in the text of the Pontifical Academy of Life president published April 21. One is truly challenged as to where to start amidst this babble of confusion.

Lack of moral absolutes

Archbishop Paglia’s text is striking for its lack of moral absolutes. Pace Paglia’s caricature, Catholic teaching does have a “package of ready-made truths” in this area, starting with its foundational principle that it is intrinsically evil deliberately to take an innocent life. That is why no other person can ever morally take another innocent person’s life. That is also why one cannot take his own life: Catholic theology has been consistently clear about the morality of suicide throughout its history, even when other proto-Italians (e.g., Seneca) saw no problem with it. The moral assessment of suicide does not change because the suicide delegates the actual act of killing to somebody else: The moral culpability is not lost amidst the serve-and-return.

The text exhibits confusion when it comes to discussing Pope Francis’ revision of the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. It attributes the change to “cultural and social conditions, due to the maturation of reflection on rights,” then announces “today we no longer consider [the death penalty] admissible under any circumstances” (emphasis mine).

Well, what about “tomorrow?” Could a situation exist where, due to altered “cultural and social conditions … [and] reflection on rights,” we might regard the death penalty as admissible under some circumstances? Because if the primary force of a moral principle are the “cultural and social conditions” in which it emerges, how can one a priori exclude changed circumstances that change the principle? And isn’t there a whiff of contradiction to assert that the state cannot take a criminal’s life but can authorize the taking of the life of a sick, aged, or incapacitated person?

I make this objection not because I believe that Archbishop Paglia would admit it (nor would I) but because it shows the lack of “maturation of reflection” in these remarks. Can the papal prohibition on capital punishment advance to a future and immutable moral absolute but what had been a past absolute (the prohibition on direct taking of an innocent human life) suddenly suffer a case of moral anemia, making it no longer so totally binding?

To put it bluntly, what makes some moral principles on taking life absolutely beyond appeal, while others can decay? If it is “cultural and social conditions,” then none of them are absolutes: they all ride on the latest Gallup or Eurobarometer polls.


Archbishop Paglia’s musings want to have it both ways. He pays lip service to the illusions of absolute freedom and autonomy but, in the end, that’s exactly where he winds up. He might deny this, claiming he advocates for a “relational and responsible autonomy,” but his caricature of freedom does not tell the potential suicide “you cannot do this and I will not support you.” Instead, he spouts on about “accompaniment.”

So, is the “responsible and relational Christian” supposed to hold his ethical peace while somebody undertakes deliberate acts to kill himself, alone or with another’s aid? Is that “responsible and relational Christian” supposed to sit by in silence and hold hands? Should he ever sour the moment by saying out loud “this is wrong?” Or is he supposed to embody the new “nice Christian” that affirms what another calls his decision in conscience?

And what about that “accompanying” Christian? Apart from being affirming, what about his moral integrity? Perhaps to Archbishop Paglia’s surprise, Catholic moral theology has a “package of ready-made principles” about moral cooperation with another’s evil: norms of formal and material cooperation. Those principles make clear that no person (not just “no Catholic”) may ever willfully cooperate in another’s grave evildoing.

Catholics have a duty to keep their hands clean of another’s moral evil. Archbishop Paglia’s very superficial remarks about “accompaniment” fail to grapple with these real problems faced by real people. He’s oblique at best but mostly silent on this dilemma. That is pastoral irresponsibility and, if that is what he considers pastoral care, then that care is derelict.

I say this because the text of Archbishop Paglia’s remarks seem to suggest even more malign cooperation in the evil of assisted suicide than we’ve seen. In some countries where assisted suicide has been legalized, physicians have been pressed to prostitute their vocation by participating in killing or at least making referrals to those who will. But the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life seems to suggest that even the ordinary Christian friend or relative should somehow engage in some hazy and unclear “accompaniment” on the road to self-murder. Archbishop Paglia can travel that route; I will not, nor should any responsible and authentic Catholic.

Archbishop Paglia is a priest. What does “accompaniment” mean in his case? Does he “accompany” the intending suicide by giving him absolution, even though such an absolution would be invalid since the sinner persists in his sin. Does he give him Viaticum? Does he anoint him? These are not fictitious questions: Canadian bishops in various provinces already wrestled with them. Would Paglia consider such sacramental ministries legitimate if he tried to dissuade the intending suicide but was unpersuasive, perhaps pretending the sinner was “in good conscience?”

This text advances what is ultimately a false notion of conscience. It at least assumes that one can in good conscience decide on one’s suicide and even involve others — willingly, maybe unwillingly — in it. That is no Catholic understanding of conscience, which never admitted that the moral agent can create his own moral norms (especially at variance with the Church’s teaching on intrinsic evil). This is not “relational and responsible” conscience; it is a recipe for moral monsters pretending to be Catholic.

At the end of these remarks, Paglia notes that the Italian argument for assisted suicide stands on the premise that one can be “fully capable of making free and informed decisions” that include suicide. He notes but does not comment on that supposition. One way the Church has pretended not to “judge suicides” has been to impute that anybody making such a decision must have lacked the full freedom to make such a morally grave choice. You can’t have it both ways: Either people are or aren’t responsible for their choices. They can’t be responsible in the clinic but limited in their culpability when wheeled in their coffin into church. So, will we now have a “suicide accompaniment” blessing?

Moral and Civil Orders

Archbishop Paglia draws a sharp, almost schizophrenic distinction between the moral and civil orders. He seems to justify it on the grounds of our valuing a “pluralistic, democratic society.” What does that mean?

If, by pluralism, he means there are different, even contradictory ethical options competing for the public square, true. That was also true in 1933 Germany before Hitler’s Putsch. Does that mean that a “pluralistic” society should have given respectful consideration to the merits of a race-based extermination plan? After all, the Nazis were democratically elected. Hitler suppressed German pluralism and eviscerated its democracy from the inside.

If, by democracy, Archbishop Paglia means 50.1% of people ostensibly elected democratically can declare intrinsic evil moral good, then he doesn’t understand how democracies die. A true democracy recognizes that there are zones of life excluded from majoritarian decision: Thomas Jefferson articulated that 200 years ago when he spoke of “inalienable rights,” Benedict XVI 20 years ago when he spoke to the German Bundestag and European Parliament.

Yes, Catholic tradition has recognized there can be divergences between the moral and civil orders: Not everything that is a sin can be a correspondingly serious crime.

But those who invoke this distinction usually fail to voice the opposite side of the coin: Catholics should work to foster a greater coherence between the moral and civil orders, because a morally good society is a society that is good to live in. Nor is the work of promoting that coherence purely exhortatory or “evangelical.” It is also political, because the political realm is not exempt from Gospel-inspired reform.

Would Archbishop Paglia say that Christians should only have decried the Roman patria potestas — the lawful abandonment by a father of his child after birth if he did not want him — and not outlawed infanticide after Christianity became ascendant post-313 A.D.?

If the answer is “Yes” or “it depends,” then the truth is that Archbishop Paglia’s rigid ethical/civil distinction is fertile ground for a European generation of “personally opposed” politicians identifying as Catholics while advancing non-Catholic agendas. Archbishop Paglia augurs this with his own prevarications between his “personally” not resorting to assisted suicide but his ability to envision a public order that does.

One cannot exclude that this text may yet be spun as expressing reservations about assisted suicide while acknowledging the complexities it poses. It may yet be framed as Archbishop Paglia’s thought experiment on those competing values. On April 24, the Vatican press office contended Archbishop Paglia is in “full adherence to the Magisterium,” that he rejects assisted suicide, and was only engaged in a “juridical meditation.” “Personally” I don’t buy that line: The head of the Pontifical Academy of Life should be providing clear guidance on matters of life and death, not further obfuscating a field already burdened by euphemisms its proponents frame to promote their agenda. The Church’s witness through her moral theology deserves better.

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About John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. 8 Articles
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He publishes regularly in the National Catholic Register and in theological journals. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.


  1. Grondelski’s major thesis that we cannot separate the morality of an act’s end from the religious order when situated in the political order underlies the present accommodation of physician assisted suicide. Similarly, abortion falls under this accommodation of moral evil. The reason is killing the innocent or killing in general is not confined to the purview of religion. Killing a person as described is also a justice issue.
    Natural law is the historical basis [see Common Law of England] of juridical judgment seen in stare decisis. It is not due to a change in the nature of the juridical, rather it’s a change in the morals of our culture. Archbishop Paglia affirms this unethical separation by the very act of acknowledgement. The world of morality is not categorized in separate social compartments. What is intrinsically evil here, in this place, is evil everywhere.
    This cleavage of two worlds with separate definitions of good and evil is itself evil, and Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life has the moral obligation to correct not appease.

  2. Maybe it’s about biology rather than theology…

    We recall in 1996 an outbreak of neurological, debilitating and even fatal “mad cow disease” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, BSE). Possibly transmissible to humans by eating infected beef, but with symptoms showing up only decades later…

    It is reported that: “[i]n humans, it’s difficult to diagnose mad cow disease until it’s reached the most serious symptoms. It can begin with symptoms of depression and loss of coordination. Later, dementia symptoms appear. These can include serious declines in memory, thinking, and behavior.”

    One begins to wonder where the seminaries of the late 20th-century bought their beef! And if it was a good idea to dispense with the protection of meatless Fridays!

    Worldwide, only 231 cases of human infection have been reported, but still one wonders about the “declines in memory, thinking, and behavior” of some incoherent clerics and many equally-Bidenesque laity as well.

  3. Thank you, dear Dr John M. Grondelski,

    This is an illuminating and consternation-evoking scholarly dissection of yet another piece of heterodox equivocation out of the current coterie in Rome.

    The Roman powers-that-be are displaying their contempt for even the basics of Catholic Christian doctrine, such as: “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in Heaven.”

    Yet, according to ‘Ethical Encounter Theology’ (free on the web), these hubristic clerics are actually ushering in the concluding phase of the comprehensive ‘Binary Ethical Apocalypsis’ that must precede ‘Ethical Dialysis’. Both St Matthew (18:7) & St Luke (17:1) say our Lord Jesus Christ warned that: “Such offenses must occur!”

    Beloved Jesus also warned that this was not to be done by His faithful.

    Perhaps we should have been expecting these offenses. Perhaps we should have been readying ourselves to abjure them.

    At least, to publicly expose them as you have done so effectively.

    Ever in the grace & mercy of Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

  4. Combining the worst from the realm of cynical Catholic politicians “Although I’m personally opposed” and the colossal stupidity of process theologians, Paglia did bring the Church down to an all time low. No it is not Luther all over again, but in an age of instant global communications, it isn’t hard to bring down the entire edifice of the Church’s moral witness.
    At his presser Paglia defended Assisted Suicide, similar to Pope Francis’ undermining of Catholic Tradition saying, “Personally, I would not practice suicide assistance, but I understand that legal mediation may be the greatest common good concretely possible under the conditions we find ourselves in.” Paglia undermined the authority of the Catholic Church to pronounce of matters of truth and morals, stating: “First of all, I would like to clarify that the Catholic Church is not that it has a ready-made, prepackaged package of truths, as if it were a dispenser of truth pills. Theological thought evolves in history,” This statement alone tells the world don’t believe us when it comes to anything.

    Unambiguously, this reflects Francis’ resurrection of the process theology of the sixties and seventies expressed early in his pontificate. Quoting from Walter Kasper’s widely noted 1967 essay Francis stated: “The God who is enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offence to man. One must deny Him for man’s sake, because he claims for himself the dignity and honor that belong by right to man. We must resist this God, however, not only for man’s sake, but also for God’s sake. He is not the true God at all, but rather a wretched idol. For a God who is only alongside of history, who is not himself history, is a finite God. If we call such a being God, then for the sake of the Absolute we must become absolute atheists. Such a God springs from a rigid worldview; he is the guarantor of the status quo and the enemy of the new.”

    The mind of a neophilliac is not far removed from the mind of a sociopath in its inability to grasp the potential evil from a refusal to consider the constant potential for moral delusion in a fallen human condition.

  5. Many thanks, dear Edward J. Baker.

    That is a really helpful comment, illuminating what it is that Francis and Co. call ‘God’. Very different to the God of Abraham, Moses, David, & the great prophets. Categorically different from the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and of our Most Blessed Mother Mary and the Apostles, whose Word must be obeyed, even at the cost of our everything in this world.

    As has been said: “God made us in God’s Image; Francis makes God in Jorge’s image!”

    And again: “Jesus Christ changed water into wine; Francis is turning wine into water!”

    For the theologically minded: John W. Cooper’s book: ‘Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers’ gives us a comprehensive understanding of the fundamental error in process thought, of imagining God as less than Perfect. Cooper writes from a reformed perspective but with detailed crits of de Chardin, Rahner, Kung, Gutierrez, Segundo, Boff, Ruether, McFague, & Fox (i.e. many of Jorge’s gurus).

    What of the future? If Pope Francis & Co. persist & prevail on the pseudo-synods, it looks like we’re heading for 2 churches – 1. The Apostolic Catholic Church; & 2. The Process Philosophy Catholic Church. This issue, therefore, should right now be the major research and publication focus of all Catholic thinkers, across the world; before the deed is done while we are all asleep.

    Thanks again, dear Edward; you’ve found the key to unlock the heavily camouflaged stronghold that’s currently trying to mold The Church in its own image.

    Always in the grace & mercy of Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

  6. Dr. Grondelski’s piece is rigorous and incisive. In fact, it strikes me that he’s using heavy artillery to swat a gnat.

    Let’s be frank. We all know that Paglia — like his fellow Bergoglio appointees, McElroy, Hollerich, Martin, Bätzing, et al — is not actually Catholic.

    But the truth is, these people are not even Christians.

    Their ultimate allegiance is not to the Savior of the world — indeed, have you noticed that they barely ever mention Him? — but rather to the leftist political agenda, which is intent on the destruction of the Catholic Church.

    • Dear ‘brineyman’.

      I’m hoping & praying this is not so; but suspect you are right. The evidence is mounting.

      Though, Pope Francis does often refer to ‘Jesus’ and the ‘Spirit’ but, tragically most often as an entre for his radically non-Catholic, process theological alterations of Apostolic witness. Some of this appears as a deliberate camouflaging of heresy, under the Sacred Name of Jesus. Classic, isagetical, hypocritical spin.

      It’s hard not to feel that Matthew 24:5 pertains to the Pope Francis coterie: “Many will come in My Name . . . ”

      These are strange & very testing times for faithful Catholics. It’s beyond our imagination to conceive that pirates could capture the bridge on the barque of Peter.

      Ever in the unshakeable, unbreakable, unbeatable love of King Jesus Christ; blessings from marty

    • Thank you, but I’ll stand by the value of deploying heavy artillery, because once the culture of death ensconces itself, it metastisizes quickly and requires radical surgery to excise: consider the almost 50 years it took to overturn Roe, which has still given us only the POSSIBILITY of protecting life. In light of that and the dangers that come from having a senior churchman to quote/distort for the euthanasia side (no matter how much he denies it), I think coming down hard on such aid to the enemy–intended or not–is wholly warranted.

      • You are so right, dear John. This is no time for c’est la vie.

        “Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith . .” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

        Ever in the love of Christ; blessings from marty

      • Godspeed, Dr. G.!

        By all means, you’re doing God’s work by combating these facile, innocuous-sounding lies with your clarity of thought and irrefutable logic.

        We, the struggling faithful, owe you our gratitude. The true Church has too few defenders, even within our own ranks, as the evil one and its minions strive to supplant her with their evil, inverted, ersatz “church.”

  7. Heresy is Heresy, regardless of the person promoting Heresy. This does not change the fact that the one promoting Heresy ipso facto separates themself from The One Body Of Christ, (Catholic Canon 750), or the fact that “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.”
    Promoting Heresy is a sin, and “it is a sin to accommodate an occasion of sin”.
    To allow the promotion of Heresy to continue, is to promote and accommodate an occasion of sin, while denying sin is sin.

    Unless one has become a heretic,

    4 It is impossible for those who were once illuminated, have tasted also the heavenly gift and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, 5Have moreover tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come…”, to not believe that Christ’s Sacrifice On The Cross will lead us to Salvation, but we must desire forgiveness for our sins, and accept Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy; believe in The Power And The Glory Of Salvation Love, and rejoice in the fact that No Greater Love Is There Than This, To Desire Salvation For One’s Beloved.
    “Hail The Cross, Our Only Hope.”

    “Blessed are they who are Called to The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb.

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