With American Catholic backing, a group of jurists and theologians are gathering in Rome this week to push back against a seemingly more permissive stance from the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life on traditional moral norms, including the church’s ban on artificial birth control.
From Dec. 8-10, the International Catholic Jurists Forum will host a conference in Rome on the topic, “A Response to the Pontifical Academy for Life’s Publication: Etica teologica della Vita: Scrittua, tradizione, sfide, pratiche.”
The conference is being co-sponsored by Ave Maria University, the Ave Maria School of Law, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, all based in the United States.
Etica teologica della Vita: Scrittua, tradizione, sfide, pratiche, meaning “Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Challenges, and Practice,” is the title of a volume published by the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) in July, and is a summary of discussions held in a previous meeting of academy members and experts.
Immediately after its release, the text ignited debate over the inclusion of papers from some theologians arguing for a distinction between moral norms, such as the ban on birth control, and the concrete pastoral application of those norms.
In some of the contributions, theologians appeared to suggest that in certain circumstances, couples might be justified in choosing artificial contraception or methods of artificial reproduction.
Critics argued that it was inappropriate for a Vatican body to publish voices questioning the church’s core moral teachings, while the academy defended the volume, saying it is the duty of a pontifical academy to facilitate dialogue among experts of differing opinions.
Since then, the academy has continued to generate controversy, with debate flaring up in August over a tweet sent from the academy’s official Twitter account suggesting that St. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – which reinforced church teaching 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.
The academy sparked debate again in October with the appointment of economist Mariana Mazzucato, who holds pro-choice views on abortion, as a new member. The academy defended the decision as an opportunity for dialogue.
While this week’s conference does not venture into the debate surrounding Mazzucato, it will explore fundamental moral principles on life and family discussed in Etica teologica della Vita and will touch on the status of Humanae Vitae.
A flyer for the conference says the aim is to “is to respond, in a spirit of respect and fraternity, to some of the issues raised in the recent publication of the Pontifical Academy for Life.”
They quoted the academy’s president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who in his presentation of the volume said, “Today there is a deeply felt need to promote, safeguard and put into practice the service of theology, which is necessary for the Church and for the lives of all believers.”
Organizers of the conference voiced hope that the discussion would provide “a service to the Church and to Catholic scholars who are a facing the same doctrinal, moral, and social issues examined in Etica teologica.”
They also quoted Pope Francis, who during his return flight from Canada to Rome July 29 said that the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection,” and insisted that it is the duty of theologians to discuss various “hypothesis” on relevant issues, while also respecting the authority of the papal magisterium in deciding whether certain proposals have perhaps gone too far.
This week’s conference, they said, “seeks to respond to some of the important questions raised in Etica teologica, especially those connected with sexual morality, objective moral norms, and conscience.”
Specific questions that will be addressed, they said, will be what is meant by the “radical paradigm change” called for by Paglia in his presentation of Etica teologica, as well as Pope Francis in his 2018 constitution ecclesiastic universities and faculties, Veritatis Gaudium.
“Is this a change in educational orientation, in light of cultural changes—as Pope Francis indicates—or is it a change in moral methodology and doctrine?” conference organizers asked.
Another question that will be addresses is the doctrinal status of the Catholic Church’s position against contraception, with reference to relevant portions of Humanae Vitae.
On this point, the question that will be asked, organizers said, is whether current church norms can ever allow for “artificial methods” of regulating birth.
“This raises the question of the irreformable status of the teaching of Humanae Vitae,” the flyer said.
To this end, it quoted Pope John Paul II’s remarks at a study seminar on “responsible procreation” in 1987, in which he said that, “What is taught by the Church on contraception does not belong to material freely debatable among theologians. To teach otherwise amounts to leading the moral conscience of couples into error.”
Other topics that will be addressed include the relation between sexual morality and the question of “intrinsic evil,” as well as the understanding of “conscience and discernment” in regard to actions considered to be “intrinsically disordered.”
Support for Catholic teaching on contraception in scripture, Christian anthropology, and natural law will also be discussed, as well as the relation of this teaching to the practice of chastity, human dignity, and “respect for nature.”
Finally, organizers said the conference will also explore the relation of Catholic moral theology to issues such as contraception, the right to life, and gender ideology, including homosexuality and transgenderism.
“Would a change in Catholic teaching on contraception signal possible changes on these other issues? What are the legal challenges faced by Catholics who wish to uphold Catholic teachings on marriage, sexuality, and the right to life of the unborn?” organizers asked.
Speakers at the conference include a variety of theologians, academics, and experts in the relevant fields from around the world, including prominent Italian theologian Monsignor Livio Melina; Australian philosopher John Finnis; American author and teacher Deborah Savage; American Deacon James Keating; and Spanish Father José Granados, vice president and professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies.