24. The Vatican and the New Strategy for Impacting the Biotech World

The Vatican is a global player in bioethical debates. Its magisterium has been addressing bioethical issues since the birth of this discipline in the Sixties. Encyclicals like Humanae Vitae (“[The Transmission of] Human Life”, 1968) dealt with contraception in the context of changing sexual habits; Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”, 1993) defended the teaching of the authority of the Church in an age of moral relativism; Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”, 1995) underlined the inviolability of human life in the context of thorny debates about abortion, euthanasia, and medical research involving human embryos.

From the institutional point of view, the Pontifical Academy for Life was established in 1994 as the Vatican department whose mission is defending and promoting the views of the Church in academic and public debates around the world.

Theologically and ethically, Roman Catholic bioethics has been majoring on categories like “nature” (understood rather philosophically and statically), “the sacredness of life” (verging towards the absoluteness of what is a created and transient gift), “person” (conceived in rather monolithic terms and not adequately distinguishing human biology and human biography). More than exploring and developing Biblically supported reasoning, Catholic bioethics has preferred locking itself in natural law and the finality of being.

If secular bioethics has elevated the “ego” as its idol (i.e. whatever the individual decides, that’s fine), Catholic bioethics has tended towards elevating the “bios” as its idol (i.e. the decisive point is wherever and whenever biological life is found). The complexity of life is therefore flattened in both approaches and the Biblical realism about life is left aside.


A New Phase of Bioethical Engagement

Catholic bioethics has become synonymous with ethical conservatism and frequently mocked in public debate dominated by secularist trends. It has always been defending something and has developed a defensive attitude. However, things may change.

A recent move by the Pontifical Council for Culture (another important Vatican department) calls for attention. For the first time ever, the Vatican has signed a contract with a US biotech company (NeoStem) to stir research on adult stem cells. NeoStem is working in the field of regenerative medicine in order to develop cell therapies for autoimmune disorders (e.g. diabetes), heart diseases, and orthopedic ailments. Regenerative medicine using adult stem cells does not destroy human embryos and is therefore ethically legitimate for those who are in the pro-life front.

The Vatican financial investment amounts to 1 million US dollars. Not a big deal, but not an insignificant figure either. An international conference at the Vatican on “Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture” (November, 9-11) hosted the launching of the joint-venture in the biotech industry and the new Vatican engagement in the bioethical arena. The great promises of the use of adult stem cells were highlighted as far as the reduction of human suffering is concerned as well as their full ethical viability. Participants were also granted an audience with Benedict XVI who delivered a speech reinforcing the morality of using adult stem cells over against the immorality of destroying embryo stem cells.



The Two-fold Strategy

The Vatican is well aware that the bioethical debate is very polarized. In the area of regenerative medicine, the embryo stem cells versus adult stem cells debate has taken a very ideological turn. It is more often a clash of opposing worldviews than an informed scientific and moral discussion.

So far the Vatican has tended to embody and support the conservative side of the debate offering philosophical and moral arguments against embryo destruction and for the use of adult stem cells on the basis of Catholic moral theology. The partnership with NeoStem amounts perhaps to a paradigm shift or at least to a broadening of scope. The regenerative medicine battle will not be won by arguments, principles, and values alone. Those who discover sustainable cures first will win the day. So the Vatican, in investing in the adult stem cells industry, shows its willingness to run the race by financing research on adult stem cells with the expectation that it will deliver what it promises before the embryo stem cells industry gets to it. First come, first served.

Of course the Vatican will continue to play its role in the battle by way of its traditional contribution, e.g. through encyclicals, documents, conferences, moral suasion, etc. It will keep on employing its philosophical and theological expertise in order to support its moral framework. It will continue to let its voice be heard through its institutions. Yet this is not enough. For a global player like the Vatican, the bioethical challenges of our day require a new two-fold strategy as a moral reference point and as a financial investor. The Vatican seems to have the know-how and the resources to do both.

Leonardo De Chirico



Rome, 14th November 2011

23. A Year of Faith to commemorate Vatican II and to launch the New Evangelization

Motu proprio (i.e. “on his own impulse”) is a document that comes directly from the initiative of the Pope and which is binding for the Roman Catholic Church. Popes scarcely use motu proprio pronouncements and when they do, its utility underlines the importance of certain decisions they make. Benedict XVI has already employed it in making provisions for the Tridentine Mass to be celebrated everywhere there is a demand for it (2007) and in the prevention of illegal financial activities (2010). The first move was meant to meet the requests of traditionalists whereas the second one was intended to counter wrong practices in Vatican financial affairs. On 11th October 2011, Pope Ratzinger issued another Motu proprio to announce a Year of Faith beginning on 11th October 2012 and ending on 24th November 2013.

A special Year … another one

Roman Catholicism has a unique ability to mark time: holy years (i.e. jubilee years), Marian years, Pauline years, years of faith, etc. all express the willingness to shape time with symbols, themes, events that evoke the “sacredness” of time. The same is true with regard to days, weeks, seasons, etc. The church calendar is stuffed in such a way that it reflects a pervasive worldview which traces time as church-focused and church-centered. In the last Motu proprio, Benedict XVI recalls his predecessor Paul VI who announced a Year of Faith in 1967 when severe criticism mounted against the traditionalist positions of the RC magisterium on sexual ethics. That Holy Year was meant to calm the nerves down and to call for more respectful relationships within the RC church. The coming Holy Year will have a threefold goal: remembering Vatican II, appreciating the Catechism and launching the New Evangelization. By looking backward to Vatican II, the Pope wants to lead forward to the New Evangelization by way of stressing the Church’s well established teaching. These themes will be echoed in the Pope’s catechesis and in special events that will take place during the year.

From Vatican II …

The Year of Faith will commence exactly 50 years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Anniversaries are very important for a historical institution like the RC Church. After half a century the interpretation of Vatican II is still disputed in RC circles. Benedict XVI has already stressed the need to apply a “proper” hermeneutic which underlines both the continuity and the discontinuity brought by Vatican II, striking a “catholic” balance between the two and actually showing the inner dynamics and stability of Rome. The two polarizing trends of reformist (left-wing) and traditionalist (right-wing) readings will be shown totally inadequate to come to terms with the legacy of the Council. “Reformation-in-continuity” will be the buzzword of the Year of Faith. However, will Benedict XVI be able to settle the dispute through the Year of Faith?

… through the Catechism of the Catholic Church …

The second event that the Year of Faith will celebrate is the 20th anniversary of the publishing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It was Cardinal Ratzinger himself who was behind the project as Prefect of the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine and it is Benedict XVI who is reinforcing its value. The Catechism was meant to provide a universal, comprehensive and authoritative tool for RC teaching.

The overlap of anniversaries between Vatican II and the Catechism is no coincidence. The Pope is saying that the Catechism is the “right” reception and application of Vatican II. All those who tend to pull Vatican II on their side should take the Catechism as the already given fidei depositum (i.e. the deposit of faith) for its right appreciation. There is no Vatican II without the Catechism. Joining together the 1962 and 1992 celebrations in the Year of Faith symbolizes the inherent reciprocity between the two.

… to the New Evangelization

Benedict XVI’s intention in announcing the Year of Faith is both backward and forward looking. At the beginning of the Year in 2012, the Pope has called a Synod of Bishops to discuss the New Evangelization, i.e. the project aimed at reaching the baptized who are far from the Church in order to call them back to the fold. In 2010 he set up a new Pontifical Council entirely devoted to this task and now is encouraging the whole body of bishops to embrace it as a world-wide agenda. The idea is that one of the mature fruits of Vatican II is the New Evangelization and that the theological resource for the New Evangelization is given by the Catechism. This is how the economy of RC tradition works: past events become present-day resources in order to foster the on-going agenda of the Church. The Year of Faith will show what it means for RC to be a living tradition.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 3rd November 2011

22. The “spirit” of Assisi 2011

At the beginning of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was going to convene a world meeting in Assisi (Italy) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1986 day of prayer for peace, launched by his predecessor John Paul II. That event saw representatives of various faith communities gathering together to pray on their own, and also in joint prayer sessions. For many observers, both Evangelicals and more traditional Catholics, Assisi 1986 was a sign of unbiblical universalism and syncretism whereby people of different faith-communities prayed (whatever prayer may mean in an inter-religious context) together under the leadership of the Pope. Critics, many of whom are also in Roman Catholic circles, argued that it is one thing to join forces to promote peace in the world, but a completely different thing to join prayers in common multi-faith petition the way it was done in 1986.


Assisi 2011

After 25 years, Benedict XVI will again invite religious leaders to come to Assisi to pray for peace and justice. Actually, the new official heading of the event is “Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer,” and it will take place on 27th October 2011. The variety of those who have confirmed their participation is impressive:

  • 176 representatives of non-Christian religions (48 Muslims, 67 Buddhists, 7 Hindus, 5 Sikhs, 4 people of traditional African religions, etc.);
  • 31 official delegations from Christian churches and communions (e.g. the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Anglican Communion, the World Council of Churches);
  • Representatives of world Judaism;
  • Several secular intellectuals;
  • Diplomatic delegations (a constant reminder that the Vatican is also a sovereign state with official diplomatic relationships with all the other states of the world).


Ratzinger’s assertive influence is clearly visible in the title of the event. Following criticism that Assisi 1986 encouraged syncretism, the emphasis of the 2011 meeting will be more on common reflection and dialogue between people of different religions and cultures. Prayer only comes as the final marker of the event, but it still there.

The program does not entail a common, public prayer session, but each delegation will pray or reflect (there will also be agnostic participants!) in separate rooms in St. Francis’ convent according to their beliefs and traditions. Moreover, as already indicated, Benedict XVI wanted non-believers, both agnostic and atheist, to be part of the event, involving them in the search for truth and peace. Assisi 2011, therefore, will still be an inter-religious gathering, but the scope of the meeting is larger so as to include people of good will, but not necessarily religious ones. The theme is thus expanded and the audience enlarged.

The day will include sessions with brief speeches by different participants, concluded by a short pilgrimage across the streets of Assisi by the Pope himself. This will represent a final commitment to peace symbolized by the lightening of candles, and a time for meditation in front of St. Francis’s tomb. As for the other sessions, the program will be ended by the Pope who is the convener, host and primary actor of the day. Words, languages, gestures, acts and symbols reflect the richness of the Catholic way of conceiving and implementing inter-religious gatherings which retain the centrality of the RC institution.


Continuity, discontinuity or catholicity?

Will Assisi 2011 be different than its 1986 precedent? It is likely that the measures taken by Benedict XVI will avoid overtly syncretistic practices that characterized the first event. It is certain that many words will be used to explain that each participant retains his own religious identity so as to prevent any misunderstandings.

Yet the beatification of John Paul II (celebrated on 1st May this year) will set the emotional context of the 2011 event, and major points of continuity between 1986 and 2011 will be stressed. The “spirit of Assisi”, with its “what unites us is bigger than what divides us” language, will prevail, especially for the media and public opinion. There will be little room for change in the way the event will be perceived by most people. The “spirit of Assisi” will be possibly confirmed as the only way forward as far as inter-religious relationships are concerned: i.e. setting aside differences, celebrating unity, searching for truth together, appreciating different perspectives on truth, welcoming each other as “brothers and sisters”. This appears to be the “message” of Assisi. Assisi 2011, therefore, will be both in continuity and discontinuity with Assisi 1986, but the overarching combination between 1986 and 2011 will be the expanded catholicity of Roman Catholicism: its ability to think and act globally while retaining its particularity, its ability to join people of all backgrounds without losing its profile, its ability to be center-stage in the relationship between religions and the modern world.

The goal of promoting peace and justice in the world is good and urgent. Yet is inter-religious prayer (in whatever form it takes place) a biblically viable option? Is the religious universalist bent the only way of dealing with different religious traditions? Is the Assisi-type event the best Biblically warranted way to foster peace and justice? The Roman Catholic Church can respond “yes” to all three questions. What about Evangelicals?


Leonardo De Chirico



Rome, 19st October 2011



21. After Luther what? Benedict XVI on new forms of Christianity and secularization

October 3rd, 2011

In his recent visit to Germany (22-25 September 2011), ecumenical issues had center-stage in Pope Benedict’s agenda. Visiting the Erfurt’s convent, where the young monk Martin Luther had studied theology, the Pope met representatives of the Protestant church in Germany (EKD) and delivered an interesting speech whose theme was Luther’s main passion and his legacy in the present-day’s ecumenical scene. Let’s briefly review it.

1. The actuality of Luther’s question

After expressing words of appreciation for the occasion, Benedict rightly points out that Luther’s fundamental question (“How do I receive the grace of God?”) has on-going spiritual significance for us. Although many people do not seem to have troubled consciousnesses before God, God’s position towards us and our position before Him are “real” issues for the whole of mankind. The Pope wants to stress the interplay between the existential import of faith (“How do I …) and God’s salvation (“… receive the grace of God?”) that was central for Luther.

The other main point about Luther’s importance lies in his “thoroughly Christocentric” thinking and spirituality. For Luther, as it is reviewed by Benedict, God is no mere philosophical hypothesis, but has a face and has spoken to us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, “what promotes Christ’s cause” is the driving concern of the German Reformer.

This first part of the speech is a respectful and fair summary of Luther’s theological vision, but even more interesting is the second part where Benedict indirectly touches on the question of what happened after Luther.

2. After Luther … two directions?

In the second part the Pope addresses the present-day ecumenical situation. It is quite clear that after surveying Luther’s message, he wants to reflect on where Luther’s legacy is to be found today. According to Benedict there are two streams, both of them causing some concerns to him. The “geography of Christianity” is characterized by a “new form of Christianity” which is readily identifiable with Evangelical and Pentecostal spiritualities, although these terms are not used in the official text, but have been referred to by journalists reporting on the event. We will need to say a few remarks about this “new form of Christianity” which the Pope relates to Evangelical Protestantism.

The other stream is secularization whereby “God is increasingly driven out of our society”. In our secularized context, the Scriptures seem locked into a remote past and faith is watered down. Is it a description of the failures of liberal Protestantism? Benedict is saying that Luther has been a great figure of the world-wide church but after five centuries his heirs are either going astray in a “new form of Christianity” or somewhat responsible for the downgrading of secularization.

Where is Luther to be found today? Is the Pope gently but firmly saying that Luther’s legacy is a failure? Is he also implying that the correction for both dangerous directions is to recover the (Roman) catholic dimension through an appeased ecumenical engagement with Rome?

3. Evangelicals according to Benedict XVI

Let’s go back to the reference to “A new form of Christianity”. It is interesting to notice how Benedict describes it, remembering that description is also evaluation:

–       It is a “new form of Christianity”. We are given the impression that Evangelicalism is a new religious movement, with little if any sense of history and tradition. Whereas the RC Church cherishes (sometimes idolizes) continuity, Evangelicals are people of discontinuity, always wanting something “new” but not building on the past. It is sad that we mirror the newness of the Christian faith at the expense of the “old Gospel” passed through history.

–       It is “spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism”. The Pope acknowledges that the Evangelical movement is the form of Christianity that is increasingly expanding world-wide. He says that this information comes from bishops from around the world that constantly tell him so. The Vatican recognizes the missionary impetus and zeal of the movement.

–       Its dynamism sometimes happens “in frightening ways”. There are methods, dynamics, practices of Evangelical missions that scare the Pope. Is this a critique of unethical forms of proselytism? Or is it a more general dissatisfaction with regard to Evangelical activism and its lack of “respect” for territorial and established churches?

–       It is a form of Christianity marked by “little institutional depth”, i.e. with little ecclesiological awareness and little ecclesiastical apparatus. Evangelicalism is more para-church than church proper. Fair comment.

–       It is also marked by “little rationality”. Is he thinking to “signs and wonders”, “health and  wealth”, “experience vs rational”, “easy-believism” types of Evangelicalism? Certainly, he is saying that Evangelicalism as a whole is not a champion of rational thinking.

–       Even worse, this form of Christianity has “even less dogmatic content”. The Pope is passing judgment on the doctrinal superficiality of much Evangelicalism. According to him, Evangelicals do not excel in being reasonable people, but are not doctrinal people either. Beyond a vague spirituality, there is little left in his perception.

–       Finally, it also has “little stability”. The impression we give as a movement is that of instability, excessive fragmentation, lack of cohesiveness, on-going state of flux that is leading nowhere.

 These comments on Evangelicalism are not new. Pope Benedict had already mentioned some of them in the 2011 book-interview Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times. [1] They could be dismissed as unwarranted caricatures. Actually, they are not. Although painful, it is healthy to ask ourselves what kind of witness do we give to the observing world. The logic of Benedict’s interpretation of present-day Protestantism seems to indicate that Luther’s heirs, be they Evangelicals or liberals, are performing poorly. All those who share Luther’s passion for God and love of Christ should react and live out a faith that is biblical, apostolic, protestant, awakened (always reforming) and missionary, i.e. Evangelicalism at its best. Will the Pope change his mind?


Leonardo De Chirico





[1] See Vatican Files n. 3, “Papa dixit. The recent interview with Pope Benedict XVI” (6th December 2010).

20. Engaging in dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians.

Three lessons from two recent episodes

This month I have taken part in two important occasions of dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians and officials. The first setting was a theological conference where Evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians discussed the doctrine of Scripture. The topics were “Is the Bible the Word of God?” and “How does the Bible shape our lives?” and were addressed in a lively conversation. The second setting was an official dialogue between the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican department that develops relationships with non-Catholic Christians. The topic of this second consultation was “Scripture and tradition”, a long-standing issue since Reformation times.

I have observed our Catholic friends trying to learn from them. Here are the lessons that I found most intriguing. I think they well deserve to be digested by us Evangelicals.


Lesson 1: know your sources

In entering and dealing with theological conversation, the procedure of the Roman Catholic theologians was somewhat predictable. In terms of sources and basic theological framework they would start from the Second Vatican Council (in this case, Dei Verbum, the Vatican II constitution on the Word of God), then find some loose Biblical arguments and imagery in these magisterial teachings, referring then to more recent authoritative pronouncements by the Pope, or by a Pontifical Commission or by the 1992 Catechism. These theologians were all quite in line with the Roman hierarchy. Perhaps some fringe theologians would proceed in a different way, but as a matter of fact these representatives of the RC Church showed a degree of respectful familiarity with the foundational documents of their Church. They were able to quote from them and were steeped in them. The RC doctrines and traditions, its formulations, its complexities had forged them. They knew their sources.

As Evangelical theologians, how well do we know our sources? We presume we know the Bible, but what about the confessional heritage of Evangelicalism: its Patristic sources, its Reformation confessions, its Evangelical documents? How much are we at home in the homeland of the Protestant faith as we have received it? Can we grasp the doctrinal contours of our faith to the point of being able to show the biblical foundation, its doctrinal profile, its historical development and present-day outlook?


Lesson 2: carry your sources with you

The second lesson that I learned has to do with a practical habit with symbolic significance. They all carried with them a few items: the Enchiridion (i.e. a compendium of all basic texts of Catholic dogma and morality, otherwise known as Denzinger, its first editor in 1854), Vatican II texts and the collection of recent papal documents. Some also had the Bible. In approaching dialogue, they were all concerned to have the RC sources at their full disposal for quick reference and checking. It was a way for them to show that they were not improvising nor were they parroting, but that they were the living voices of a long tradition.

There is much to learn from this. Sometime we Evangelicals show a degree of superficiality in entering dialogue with RC theologians. They often perceive the Evangelical faith as if it were a vague spirituality without doctrinal content. Part of the problem is that we find it difficult to represent a living tradition subject to Scripture but aware of our background. When engaging in dialogue, I would suggest that we also need the Denzinger to make sure that we can refer to Post-apostolic and medieval pronouncements of the Church. Then we need to carry a volume of Protestant creeds and confessions of faith. Finally, I find indispensable the need to become familiar with at least two volumes:

  1. J.I. Packer – T.C. Oden, One Faith. The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006). A presentation of the Evangelical faith through quotations from the Berlin Statement (1966), the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the Amsterdam Affirmations (1983), the Manila Manifesto (1989), The Gospel of Jesus Christ: an evangelical celebration (1999), and the Amsterdam Declaration (2000). Getting acquaintance with these sources will show that the Evangelical faith is the Apostolic faith, not a modern religious spirituality.
  2. John Stott (ed.), Making Christ Known. Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement 1974-1989 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997). Beginning with the Lausanne Covenant (1974) and ending with the Manila Manifesto (1989), this book include lots of “Lausanne Occasional Papers”. Absorbing these sources will show that our commitment to mission has deep theological roots, and is not just a child of an activist mentality.

Now that the Cape Town Commitment (2010) is also available, which Evangelical publishing house will accept the task of producing a book that includes all the major documents of present-day Evangelicalism? In Italy we have many needs as far as Evangelical books are concerned but we are privileged in another sense. We have in our hands the wonderful volume edited by Pietro Bolognesi, Dichiarazioni evangeliche. Il movimento evangelicale 1966-1996 (Bologna: EDB, 1997), with 38 Evangelical statements that was published by a RC publishing house in the same series of the papal documents! I wish that similar books would be produced in different languages.


Lesson 3: respect your sources

The final observation is about the general tone of these RC theologians. Originality did not appear to be their catchword, nor the search for creativity or relevance. Rather, their approach to theological dialogue with Evangelicals seemed marked by the awareness that the magisterium of the Church stands above them, asking them to defend it, to argue on its behalf, to listen to the interlocutor and to come close to him as much as possible, but not to the point of coming at odds with the received teaching. In trying to draft a joint-statement they attempted to find words and phrases that had already been used by RC documents or joint-statements with other confessional families.

As Evangelicals, we are less constrained by past renderings or formulations of our faith. Unlike Catholics, Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. Yet we need to come to terms with the fact that that our search for relevance or originality may become an idol if it is not governed by our primary desire to stay faithful to God’s Word and to respect those who have preceded us. It will be very unlikely that we come with a better version of what we already have. If that happens, we have to make sure that we know what our past and recent forefathers have already said before coming with our ideas.



Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 26th September 2011