Tag Archives: Francis

135. The Decentralization of Catholic Bioethics in the Time of Francis

April 1st, 2017

Since the beginnings of modern bioethics in the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church has taken the hard line of defending human life from conception to natural death, protecting the concept of marriage between a man and a woman, and guarding the limits of scientific research within the parameters of human dignity. Not only did the Catholic Church strongly argue for traditional moral convictions over secular redefinitions of life and reproductive “rights”, but it also put such issues at the forefront of its action in the public arena. Those days are over. With Pope Francis we are witnessing a shift in the posture of the Catholic Church as far as public debates on bioethics are concerned.

A recent study by Luca Lo Sapio (Bioetica cattolica e bioetica laica nell’era di papa Francesco, Catholic Bioethics and Secular Bioethics in Pope Francis’ Era) documents the transition we are witnessing in the attempt by Pope Francis to invest the public voice of his church away from bioethical controversies, which clash with secular culture, and toward a number of social issues (e.g. immigration, poverty, the environment), which seem to resonate with the secular world.

What Happened to the Non-Negotiable Principles?

The differences  between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the one hand, and Pope Francis, on the other, are becoming apparent. When dealing with bioethics, the two former Popes often spoke of “non-negotiable principles” in staunchly defending the Catholic positions on life issues. Moreover, they wanted these principles to be at the heart of the Church’s agenda in the modern world no matter how much controversy they generated in public opinion.

The official teaching of the Church on bioethical issues supported the strong stance taken by these Popes. Encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), exhortations like Familiaris Consortio (The Family, 1981), documents like Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life, 1987) and Dignitatis Personae (The Dignity of a Person, 2008) all univocally pointed to the clear-cut teaching of the Church in dealing with abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and the like, and showed the willingness of the Church to relentlessly advocate for it.

Francis’ Detente Strategy

The outcome of such a posture was an ongoing and intense “culture war” against secular bioethics. The Roman Catholic Church has been considered a “militant” army fighting for the sacredness of life on the battlefield of bioethics. With Pope Francis, Rome has significantly changed strategy. The over-arching narrative of the relationship with the world has been modified. One of his preferred metaphors for the Church is that of a “field hospital for the wounded”. The time of “culture wars” against the West is over and the task of the Church is to convey forgiveness and mercy. The secular world is not to be fought against but cared for. From being the bulwark of the defense of life, the Church is now a place where the wounds can be healed.

How does this narrative work in his pontificate in relation to bioethics? Lo Sapio convincingly argues that Francis has little interest for “doctrinal bioethics” and is more concerned with concrete and individual life situations. His approach is existentialist, rather than theological (or content/truth-driven). He wants to be close to people, even at the cost of appearing to be less faithful to principles. He focuses on the primacy of conscience rather than the prescriptive nature of law. He wants to be a warm and welcoming pastor and has reservations over the dangers of being a cerebral and judgmental theologian. The center of gravity of his pontificate is forgiveness and mercy rather than truth and deontological ethics. His preference goes with the messiness of life rather than the neatness of systems. Rather than talking about embryos and stem cells, Francis often speaks of poor children, displaced people, and abandoned old people. Rather than condemning wrong actions, he looks for ways to go alongside people, notwithstanding the morality or immorality of their lives.

Francis is not outspokenly changing the traditional Roman Catholic positions on bioethics. The official teaching is still there. What he is doing is decentralizing its role, de-emphasizing its importance, and displacing its centrality. His overall strategy looks for ways to engage the secular West on grounds that are more palatable to it, while leaving the controversial issues to the side. Where this strategy will lead the Roman Church is difficult to know. Certainly, all those who looked to Rome for clarity, vigor, and proactive actions on bioethical issues may find it necessary to look elsewhere. Pope Francis has little time for them.

    83. What Francis Really Thinks of the Reformation (and of Calvin in Particular)

    June 23rd, 2014

    Friendly. Appreciative. Always wanting to stress commonalities and to lay aside differences. This has been the popular image of Pope Francis in his dealings with non-Catholics thus far. Many are impressed by his easy-going style that often seeks to affirm others. This may have been the rule but now there is an exception, and a very significant one. The recent re-publication of a lecture on the history of the Jesuits that Archbishop Bergoglio gave in Argentina in 1985 indicates the kind of harsh assessment that he gave of the Protestant Reformation in general and of John Calvin in particular. The lecture was re-published in Spain in 2013 and then translated into Italian in book form (Chi sono i gesuiti, Bologna: EMI, 2014). Since there is no indication that he has changed his mind, we have to consider the contents of the book an accurate reflection of what Francis still thinks of the Protestant Reformation.

    Protestantism as the Root of all Evils

    In examining the history of the Jesuits Bergoglio gives special attention to their interactions with the Reformation and their role in the Latin-American missions. According to him the inevitable consequences of the Reformation are the annihilation of man in his anxiety (resulting in existential atheism), and a leap in the dark by a type of superman (as envisaged by Nietzsche). Both outcomes lead to “the death of God”, and a kind of “paganism” that manifests itself as Nazism and Marxism. All this originating from the “Lutheran position”! Bergoglio argues that the Reformation is the root of all the tragedies of the modern West, from secularization to the death of God, from totalitarian regimes to ideological suicides.

    There is nothing new under the sun. This disparaging and appalling view of the Reformation has been the common reading of modern European history by scores of Counter-reformation Catholic polemists until recent decades. Bergoglio did not invent it. He rather reaffirms it as if more thorough historical research and theological and cultural analyses never took place after the Council of Trent. What can we make of his friendly tones towards Protestants if he really thinks that the “Lutheran position” is to be blamed for all the evils of Western civilization?

    John Calvin the Spiritual Executioner

    There is more. Bergoglio makes a distinction between Martin Luther the “heretic” and John Calvin the “heretic” and “schismatic”. The Lutheran heresy is “a good idea gone foolish”, but Calvin is even worse because he also tore apart man, society, and the church. As for man, Bergoglio’s Calvin split reason from the heart, thus producing the “Calvinist squalor”. In society, Calvin pitted the bourgeoisie against the other working classes, thus becoming “the father of liberalism”. The worst schism happened in the church, however. There Calvin “beheaded the people of God from being united with the Father”. He beheaded the people of God from its patron saints. He also beheaded it from the mass, i.e. the mediation of the “really present” Christ. In summary, Calvin was an executioner that destroyed man, poisoned society, and ruined the church!

    To say that Bergoglio does not like Calvin is an understatement. He has strong feelings against him. But are we sure that he understands Calvin beyond totally biased and outdated clichés? 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and will be an opportunity for Francis to go back to more recent history books and get a fairer and more accurate picture of what happened from the XVI century onwards. If he does not revise his assessment of the Reformation all “ecumenical” language will be a superficial mask hiding a real hatred for Luther and (especially) Calvin.