On October 28, the Pontifical Academy for Life released a document entitled, “Position Paper of the Abrahamic Monotheistic Religions on Matters Concerning the End of Life.” The roughly ten-page document was prepared on Pope Francis’s instruction. A copy was formally presented to him after the ceremony in which it was unveiled and signed. The Grand Chancellor of the Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, signed the document, along with several cardinals. Other signatories included representatives of two Eastern Orthodox patriarchates, Constantinople and Moscow, and various Jewish and Muslim leaders. Among other issues, the position paper roundly rejected euthanasia and assisted suicide. It declared that the practices are “are inherently and consequentially morally and religiously wrong, and should be forbidden without exceptions.”
This event is significant for at least three reasons. First, it was a major interfaith event. It was not as high-profile as the debates about syncretism and inculturation surrounding the Amazon Synod, but it was a triumph of good old-fashioned interreligious dialogue. Jewish and Muslim scholars coming together to sign it was obviously noteworthy considering longstanding tensions in the Middle East. Moreover, Constantinople and Moscow are currently in schism from each other. I believe this was the first major united front that the two factions of Eastern Orthodoxy have shown since they broke communion a year ago.
Secondly, the document reaffirms the Church’s positions on euthanasia and assisted suicide after a few recent events that caused some worry about this. Jean Vanier, the devoutly Catholic disability rights activist, expressed cautious openness to the legalization of assisted suicide in his native Canada in June 2016. At all other times Vanier had wholeheartedly affirmed that life with a serious disability is still worth living. Accordingly, he walked his remark back very quickly; it seems to have been (at worst) a brief lapse of conviction near the end of his very long life. Still, the fact that he had been ambivalent on the subject at all caused jitters among some. As well, the last few years have seen the well-known cases of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, terminally ill British infants taken off life support against their parents’ wishes. The Academy for Life’s waffling on these cases gave the impression that the fire in its belly on end-of-life issues was lacking. This document should ease those concerns.
Finally, the signing of this document vindicates the selection of one of Pope Francis’s most controversial appointees to the Academy for Life. The member who spearheaded the push to produce the document was Avraham Steinberg, a Jewish rabbi from Israel. Many in the Catholic press criticized Steinberg’s appointment to the Academy because (like most Jewish scholars) he does not hold that early-term embryos have full human status. Thus, Steinberg taking it upon himself to organize an interreligious condemnation of euthanasia is notable. I consider this document to be a welcome indication that the presence in the Academy of non-Catholic members who don’t always agree with Catholic moral teachings has borne fruit by building consensus on this very important life issue.
Image: Archbishop Paglia, Rabbi Steinberg, and other Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders present Pope Francis with a copy of the position paper after the signing ceremony. From Vatican Media.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.