What’s going on at the Pontifical Academy for Life?


The Pontifical Academy for Life has found itself at the center of a social media storm, with the institution’s official account drawing heavy criticism over the publication of a new book.

While the academy’s Twitter account reposted positive reviews of “The Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, tradition, practical challenges,” many users, including theologians and ethicists, began asking questions about the book.

Soon the official record of the papal institution decried “uncontrollable insults and criticism” and seemed to hint at a possible wholesale revision of Church teaching on a range of moral issues, including contraception, IVF and other life issues.

Angry tweets on the one hand, critics and supporters said the book is boundary-pushing work that could influence the Catholic Church’s stance on bioethical issues.

So what’s going on? And what is it, anyway?

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What is the new book about?

The 528 pages Italian volumepublished by the Vatican Publishing House, collects the addresses of a three-day seminar sponsored by the Pontifical Academy in the fall of 2021.

In an introduction available In Englishthe president of the pontifical academy, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, explained that the “basic text” of the book was intended to “introduce a paradigm shift”.

He described the change – which seems to be linked to the “theological ethics of life” in the title of the book – as “descriptive and conceptual, since it follows a pattern that is at once argumentative and narrative, theoretical and sapiential, phenomenological and interpretative”.

“This allows it to be both receptive and critical of different areas of human knowledge, providing a welcoming register not only for philosophy and its methods, but also for the humanities and natural sciences,” he writes.

What is a paradigm shift?

The term is associated with the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who used it to describe the advancement of scientific understanding, in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Kuhn gave the famous example of how thinkers abandoned a geocentric model of the universe, with the Earth at the center, for a Copernican model, in which the planets revolve around the sun.

The expression quickly took hold in other areas of university life. In his 2015 book “Paradigm Shift: How Expert Opinions Keep Changing About Life, the Universe, and Everything,” Martin Cohen compared it to an “intellectual virus” spreading through higher education, the arts and politics.

The phrase has also been popular in certain theological circles, associated with writers such as the French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The term has also been frequently applied to Pope Francis – both by allies and opponents.

What the critics say

Writing for the Italian site Daily Compass, Luisella Scrosati said the new book challenged the Church’s condemnation of contraception, reaffirmed in the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae.

She said it ‘supports the thesis that ‘under practical conditions and circumstances which would make it irresponsible to choose to generate’, one could resort ‘with careful choice’ to contraceptive techniques, ‘obviously excluding those that are aboriginal’ “.

“This “advance in theological bioethics” aims directly to relativize the negative precepts of the moral law, just as Amoris Laetitia had already done so: the absoluteness of negative precepts is confined to theory, in order to relativize them – and therefore to deny them as absolute – in the concrete case”, she argued.

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What the fans are saying

In an article published in four languages ​​on the website of the Pontifical Academy, Pierangelo Sequeri wrote that the institution’s decision to host “broad theological and moral debate is a symbol of notable intellectual honesty that brings credit to the Church itself”.

Sequeri, Dean of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciencesadded that “unfinished business and new issues need to be resolved, not swept under the rug.”

What the Academy said (on Twitter, anyway)

The Pontifical Academy’s Twitter account is retaliate to the “uncontrollable insults and criticism” prompted by the book, but seems to have gone much further than merely defending the book’s publication as a collection of contributions to a debate.

The account, which is reportedly run by the institution’s social media manager, Fabrizio Mastrofini, has engaged in a back and forth with a Twitter user describing himself as a “bit of Trad”. He disputed that the book represented a “deviation” from Church teaching, insisting instead that it embodied “debate and dialogue”.

When the Twitter user suggested that “the correct response is to *unambiguously* defend the teaching of the Church and condemn dissent on these settled issues,” the Pontifical Academy replied, “You mean” condemn” real people, concrete people in difficulty in their private lives and in their intimate relationships. I think the right approach is mercy and dialogue. Luke 6.36-37 for example…”

He added: “Be careful: what is dissenting today may change. It’s not relativism, it’s the dynamics of understanding phenomena and science: the Sun does not revolve around the Earth. Otherwise, there would be no progress and everything would stand still. Even in theology. Think about it.”

“The problems of life are not [sic] it’s about taking fundamentalist positions with ideology, but opening up debate within the community of moral theologians,” the account said in a Tweeter paraphrasing a quote in an article about the US Supreme Court ruling on abortion.

This prompted several users, including moral theologiansto point out Pope Francis’ statements on issues like abortion and to ask the academy’s record to clarify the scope of the debate and whether the pope was using “fundamentalist” language.

And after?

Of course, it could be considered highly unusual for a Holy See think tank to engage in Twitter polemics with seemingly randomly selected American Catholics. But it’s not that unusual for the Pontifical Academy for Life.

In January this year, for example, the academy’s report delved into the heated online debate around COVID-19 vaccines, condemning the use of social media to spread “misinformation” and ” sheer nonsense” about vaccines and the historical connection between certain cell lines. used in their development and abortion. The exact account critical “some ‘Catholics’ [who] only insult [the Pontifical Academy’s president] Bishop Vincenzo Paglia” in what he claimed was an effort to “disturb” US President Joe Biden.

In April 2021, the account received a lot of reaction online when it marked the death of controversial Swiss theologian Hans Küng, describing as “a great figure in theology of the last century whose ideas and analyzes must always make us reflect on the Catholic Church, the Churches, society, culture”.

But in this case, while the initial tweet was surprising, the pontifical academy didn’t wade into the resulting speech.

As for “The Theological Ethics of Life. Writing, Tradition, Practical Challenges”, a favorable opinion exam of the book in the July 2 edition of the influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica concluded by suggesting that Pope Francis could write “a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics, which he could perhaps title Gaudium vitae” (“The joy of living.”)

This idea was taken up by the American Gerard O’Connell, who wrote that “interesting times await us if the reflections reported in the [Civiltà Cattolica] essay talk about what can happen in the Vatican.

While speculating about a possible future papal document might be just that – speculation – the fluttering of a specific title of “Gaudium vitaecould be an indicator that such a document is already in the works. If so, it will be eagerly awaited and closely scrutinized, for the kind of “paradigm shift” the academy seems to predict.

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