Are the Church’s positions on bioethical issues changing? How should we interpret the recent book published by the Pontifical Academy for Life, which reopens the debate on contraception and assisted reproduction?
This is an interview conducted by Vida Nueva of Dr. Rodrigo Guerra, who serves as Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and is an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. They discuss some of the issues involved in the recent controversy surrounding the Pontifical Academy for Life’s new book Theological Ethics of Life (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2022).
After reflecting on this topic, Dr. Guerra remains convinced that “Latin American Catholic bioethics is called to continue the to defend of the dignity of all human life, especially the most vulnerable, as Bartolomé de las Casas did in the 16th century.
[Editor’s note: The following is an English translation of the original interview, which was conducted in Spanish. Permission was granted by Dr. Guerra.]
A moral theology that accounts for lived experience
QUESTION: A few days ago, the Pontifical Academy for Life – of which you are an ordinary member – published a book that seemed to be asking for fundamental aspects of the Catholic Church’s sexual morality to be revised. Could there be a total overhaul of Christian moral and bioethical thought during Pope Francis’s pontificate?
ANSWER: The pontificate of Pope Francis is an enormous moment of grace. And like every moment of grace, it is also a moment of purification and maturation. The Pope is helping all of us to live a revitalized understanding of the Second Vatican Council, and this undoubtedly has had an impact on the field of Christian morality. The book recently published by the Pontifical Academy for Life is the fruit of an academic meeting, nothing more. The Pope hopes it will initiate a discussion that will eventually lead to a deepening of magisterial teaching and pastoral practice. In his recent interview during his return flight from Canada, the Holy Father made an essential point, saying that “dogma, morality, is always on a path of development, but always developing in the same direction.”
Thus, the Magisterium of the Church has not changed in its foundations and in its essential certainties. In particular, the necessary unity between the unitive and procreative dimensions of the conjugal act remains. Additionally, the clear and explicit affirmation of the dignity of human life from the moment of conception has not changed. These two truths are not sustained in themselves by pontifical will, but by distinct metaphysical structures and by revealed facts that reinforce what can be found in the natural order.
In my opinion, what the Pope is asking us to do is to understand that moral theology needs to rediscover how to look closely at people’s real lives – not only at norms and formal definitions. This “relearning” is not meant to – tacitly or explicitly – introduce a type of relativism, proportionalism, or modified version of situation ethics. Pope Francis wants moral theology to recover a pastoral understanding of lived experience, which at times has become lost or blurred.
Studying the real St. Thomas
Q.- You published a response to the “dubia” that four cardinals presented to Pope Francis after the publication of Amoris Laetitia. Can Pope Francis be defended without succumbing to “situation ethics”?
A.- Amoris Laetitia is a document that pastorally develops the constant doctrine of the Church on human love, and especially on wounded love. Moreover, Amoris Laetitia is a profound invitation to rediscover some forgotten aspects of the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Years ago, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn invited Rocco Buttiglione and me to have lunch at his home in Vienna. During that conversation, the three of us agreed that some of the major contemporary works of “moral theology” inspired by Thomism seemed to reduce everything to what happens from the conscience “upwards” – that is, to reduce morality to a question about the relationship between conscience and natural law.
St. Thomas was a great master in this area. However, he also attentively explores what happens from the conscience “downward” – that is, everything concerning prudential discernment in the resolution of concrete cases. Moreover, the authentic St. Thomas – not the oversimplified one of the manualists – places significant emphasis on the important role of subjective elements that can mitigate responsibility and culpability in human acts, without modifying the essence of the moral object, of course.
Proportionalism does not help to explain the magisterium. On the contrary, it deforms it. May we all take the opportunity to study the real St. Thomas, at least a little bit. When we do, we will be surprised to find that the Angelic Doctor is not a rigorist, but instead a great theologian, saint, and pastor who can help us to understand the teaching of our current Pontiff more deeply.
Looking at the real lives of people
Q.- Are there any questions that might help those of us who are not familiar enough with Aquinas to appreciate the relevance of his theology in these areas?
A.- One of the limit-questions of the Summa Theologica is the one concerning “whether an erring conscience binds.” (Sum. Theol, I-II, q. 19, a. 5). To the surprise of those expecting a purely objectivist answer, Aquinas replies that moral conscience is always subjectively binding. This does not imply that what is evil suddenly becomes good, but that what is evil chosen with invincible ignorance excuses from all guilt.
To delve into all the elements involved in this subtle question is a pedagogical way to begin to understand not only the genius of Thomas, but also the importance of looking at the real lives of people – the lives of people who are constitutively “subjective” beings, who have limits, which sometimes makes it difficult for them to fully appreciate moral norms.
All of us have limits due to our own subjectivity! To discover them is part of that realism to which Pope Francis invites us whenever he affirms that “reality is greater than ideas.” Discovering these with humility, in our own lives, is an invitation to appreciate that truth needs to be proclaimed with mercy. When truth is asserted without mercy, rigorism emerges and “objective truth” ends up disfigured through a grotesque caricature.
Creative fidelity to the intuitions of the Second Vatican Council
Q.- Is there a paradigm shift in the moral theology of the Catholic Church?
A.- The theory of paradigms, developed by Thomas Khun, has become more a rhetorical fad than a matter of deep understanding. If we accept the fundamental premises of Khun’s theory of paradigms, an immediate consequence appears: one cannot declare a “paradigm shift” seriously when it is happening, but only when there is a certain historical distance that allows for a minimum of critical distance. In about a hundred years, to say the least, we will know whether there has been a “paradigm shift” in moral theology today.
What we might say and attempt to argue for is perhaps a “desirable paradigm” in fidelity to the reality of the person, to the reality of contemporary cultural changes, and to the reality of the ecclesial vocation of the theologian. In Veritatis Gaudium, the Pope invites us to imagine a new paradigm that responds to the “change of epoch.” This “new paradigm” will have to be born largely from a creative fidelity to the intuitions of the Second Vatican Council.
This is not the place for a long discourse. I would only dare to say that moral theology requires an improved and stronger biblical foundation; a deepening and radicalization of a non-bourgeois relational and ontologically-based personalism; and a fundamental rethinking of the real moral and pastoral experiences of people, especially the poorest, the marginalized, and those on the peripheries.
Personalism with a strong social imprint
Q.- By speaking of “the poorest,” are you trying to shift the conversation closer to Latin American issues?
A.- Yes, because that is my place of origin and my primary responsibility in the Holy See. But at the same time, no, because unfortunately, the poorest live and coexist in all parts of the world. And everywhere in the world it is true that the poor and humiliated mysteriously evangelize us.
Q.- What does it mean to “radicalize” ontologically founded and non-bourgeois personalism?
A.- To “radicalize personalism” means to deepen its theological and metaphysical foundations and its critical capacity in the face of the ideological colonization of today. Personalism was born with Emmanuel Mounier and his contemporaries as a revolutionary and reflexive commitment to the person, especially the poor. Later, personalism would mature thanks to the reflections and lived experience of an orphan who had lived in extreme poverty, who later had the difficult tasks of being Archbishop of Krakow and then Successor of Peter: St. John Paul II. When Paul Ricoeur tried to announce the “death of personalism,” this was quickly rejected by the magisterium of the Polish pope.
It is enough to read John Paul’s Magisterium on Indigenous Peoples, on the importance of developing a non-ideological Theology of Liberation, on the real presence of Jesus Christ in the poor, on the social mortgage that comes with private property, and on the body and sexuality to begin to realize that we must rediscover the true John Paul II. His social philosophy teachings given before he was elected Pope are also an uncomfortable surprise for those who wish to see him unilaterally aligned to certain movements on the right, in the context of the cold war.
This type of personalism, with a strong social imprint, is not diminished in its prophetic character by its deep metaphysical foundation, because true metaphysics is not playing in a purely formal way with the abstract concept of “being.” True metaphysics begins and ends by considering the structure of concrete and historical being as such.
Synodality is here to stay
Q.- Doesn’t “radicalizing” personalism imply dealing with new topics?
A.- “Radicalizing personalism” implies understanding something beyond the “theory of paradigms,” and closer to Imre Lakatos: the maturation of Christian thought occurs when we have an inter-generational effort from a community of persons who have learned to conduct a long-term “research program.” Working intellectually in a solitary way is never good. It is best to cultivate dialogue, encounter, and interdisciplinarity. With a community atmosphere like this, it is possible to face new issues and expand our horizons without betraying the essential.
Q.- Some voices have pointed out that in the Pontifical Academy for Life there is a need for greater dialogue and inclusiveness, especially when dealing with delicate issues such as the morality of contraception and similar matters. Do you agree?
A.- In the Pontifical Academy for Life, as in any other Vatican and ecclesial structure, an authentically synodal reform is needed. Any ecclesial space that believes that it does not need a profound reform is completely mistaken. Synodality is here to stay. It is better to begin with the awareness that we are all a bit clumsy in the delicate arts of listening, dialogue, inclusion, and learning from the other. This is essential in true scientific activity. We all need to be men and women of “incomplete thinking.”
This is what we were taught by Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, Tadeusz Styczen, Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, and so many others who have gone before us. They were not afraid to dialogue, argue, and learn. What did repel them was superficiality or pseudo-academic posturing. Surely, the Pontifical Academy for Life will have to take new steps in order to prioritize the most solid argumentation and the most rigorous discussion in order to fulfill its fundamental mission at the service of the Church and the pope.
Humanae vitae, a prophetic denunciation
Q.- Is it possible to go beyond Humanae vitae in these times?
A.- In March 2018, Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia and Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri visited the Center for Advanced Social Research (CISAV), in Mexico. Together we offered an intensive course on Amoris Laetitia, addressing all doubts and objections. I remember a conversation we had at the end about the need to “rewrite Humanae Vitae.” Not to deny its foundations and essential affirmations, but to deepen its applications and pastoral approach — in light of Amoris Laetitia, for example.
Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae was, in a certain sense, a prophetic denunciation that became clear in all its truth only many years after it was published. I always remember with admiration how Max Horkheimer, one of the fathers of the Frankfurt school of critical theory, defended this pontifical document for its sharp denunciation of the instrumental rationality that inhabits the contraceptive and abortionist mentality.
It would be very good to rewrite it today, taking into account new research. For example, it could address natural methods, the advancement of pro-abortion legislation, and the difficulties that real people have in putting the moral teaching of the Church into practice. By providing a more integral vision, the Church would certainly give new life to the truth and beauty of the use of natural methods while strongly emphasizing the crucial issue of adequate training in these methods. Likewise, in a more integral and updated encyclical, it would certainly be possible to offer renewed criteria for confessors, so that without giving up the truth, they may always announce it with charity, patience, and mercy — particularly in the challenging areas of contraception and medical care for infertile couples.
Embrace the treasure received and reproduce it
Q.- What is your opinion of the “basic text” in which the Academy for Life organized the discussion in the seminar on the theological ethics of life?
A.- Like any academic initiative produced by many hands, the so-called “basic text” is a heterogeneous writing, with some virtues and numerous limitations. The team that prepared it was made up of highly qualified colleagues according to academic standards, but all are from European “first-world” backgrounds, which is evident from the beginning to the end of the book (Casalone, Chiodi, Dell’Oro, Guenzi, Pelletier, Sequeri, Thiel, Thomasset).
That said, this phenomenon is very common. In Europe, it is often assumed that the deep thinking and reflection on theological matters takes place in European universities and institutes. The theology that comes from the Latin American pastoral experience – from being immersed in the journeys of those who defend life and the preferential option of the poor – is seen as a “minor” reality. Personalistic bioethics, with a strong social awareness – cultivated in the UCA of Argentina, in the Chilean PUC, in the CISAV of Mexico, in the John Paul II Center of Havana, and in so many other places in Latin America – is often neither appreciated nor understood in European environments.
I remember how years ago I had the experience of dialoguing with some European “specialists” in “moral theology” who interpreted the happiness of many of the poor Latin American married people and families to live their sexuality according to the teaching of the Church as a sign of underdevelopment and lack of “enlightenment.” I am convinced that there is much room for improvement in the Church’s teaching, but “improvement” involves embracing the treasure we have received and re-proposing the truth it contains in today’s cultural context.
Authentic “creative fidelity” is continuity, deepening, and broadening, without rupture and with respect to the previous Magisterium. To “improve” the Church’s teaching on bioethics requires that we are faithful, rather than seeking to be “trendy.” We must be faithful to natural and revealed truth; faithful to theological-philosophical-scientific rigor; faithful to the people from whom we learned the faith; faithful to the real Church that precedes us, surpasses us, and surprises us when we live it effectively in communion and synodality; faithful to the witness of the saints who help us interpret the theological significance of the present historical moment.
Without an adequate understanding of the substance
Q.- At the philosophical level, do you perceive limitations in the “basic text”?
A.- The basic text seems to ignore many of the questions that were resolved by Karol Wojtyla, David Wiggins, Fernando Inciarte, Mauricio Beuchot, and their disciples many years ago, and which are, among other things, necessary to interpret the Magisterium correctly. For example, I was amused by the criticisms of anthropological “essentialism” and “substantialism,” which would force us to understand personal identity without taking into account human action and how it is immersed in history.
These authors clearly make a caricature of the notion of substance as a supposedly “evident” premise, understanding it as something “immutable.” But anyone who has studied Aristotle at the most basic level knows that only that which is outside of time is immutable. The notion of substance was introduced by Aristotle precisely to indicate “that which” undergoes a change. In other words, the subject that changes is the substance, not the accident. Accidents do not change “proprie dicitur.”
This deformed caricature of substance is used to argue for the narrative dimension of personal identity, somewhat following a few ideas of Paul Ricoeur. However, it seems that the authors of the “basic text” are not entirely aware of the metaphysical problems in the solution proposed by Ricoeur. For Ricoeur, there is a sort of split between substance (idem, same, gleich) and “authentic existence” (ipse, self, selbst). To unilaterally place real personal identity in ipseity without an adequate understanding of substance has many consequences, many of which have been denounced since the time of Max Scheler. All these things require a careful, slow, and rational discussion that avoids caricatures, oversimplifications, and trivializations.
Valuing the history of the Latin American Church
Q.- What positive things does the “basic text” contribute?
A.- The basic text points out a set of real problems, such as the need to improve the arguments on “natural law,” which sometimes fall into either biologicism or a formalist rationalism. I wrote a book years ago on the need to move towards an “iuspersonalism” that overcomes inadequate approaches to our understanding of “natural” in “natural law” (R. Guerra, “Afirmar a la persona por sí misma’, CNDH, Mexico, 2003).
Unfortunately, the discussion on these matters has fallen, in my opinion, into something of a postmodern impasse. Superficiality and academic bluff abound. Ultraconservative “influencers” sow rigorism from weak thinking and stimulate liberal reactions, extremely passionate, often grotesque, but equally shallow.
Another important issue is the need for a more accurate understanding of the historical dimension of the human condition. This subject is very dear to me. The Christian contribution to the discovery of History in its greatest sense has not been sufficiently vindicated. A formalist neo-scholasticism collaborated to create a sort of ahistorical understanding of the human being and his actions that ignored the powerful intuitions of St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, Vico, and others.
History was expropriated from us by Hegelian thought and its derivations. Christian thought, both philosophical and theological, has to recover History for itself. But this recovery, again, cannot be made from ontologically weakened thought that declares a priori that the ultimate horizon of understanding is the context. That is to give up. That means to immanentize History once again. The presence of the Absolute in the relative, of the Eternal in the temporal, of the Whole in the fragment, belongs to the best of our Christian intellectual patrimony, and is also the fundamental key to positively valuing the History of the Latin American Church, its peculiarly baroque nature, and its contribution to the universal Church.
Celebrating life even in the midst of contexts of death
Q.- How can Latin America contribute to the construction of a Catholic bioethics relevant to the new global environment?
A.- Latin America is the West of the West. It is the “other” called to gradually overcome European solipsism. Being Latin American is a telluric, Marian, and relational experience – that is to say, it is an experience that is lived from deep roots, from a shared maternity, and opens us amicably to others. For Latin American Catholic bioethics this is fundamental: our identity helps us to celebrate life even in the midst of death. We maintain hope, even in the midst of injustice. We appreciate our “ethos of solidarity” even when faced with frequent attempts at ideological colonization – by the right or by the left.
In brief, there is a nourishing soil to develop a personalist and communitarian bioethics, ontologically-founded and historically situated, which values the narrative dimension of the moral conscience and the richness of the person understood as the individual subject of rational-relational nature.
Such a bioethics incorporates the best of the European personalist tradition but is critically reformulated in such a way that it can help to build a more global and social bioethics for the survival of persons, nations, and their environment. Latin American Catholic bioethics is called to continue to argue in defense of the dignity of human life, and especially that of the most vulnerable, as Bartolomé de las Casas did in the 16th century. Because, as the friar said, “of the smallest and most forgotten, God has a very vivid memory.”
Image: Pope Francis with the members of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Rodrigo Guerra López is the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
Originally from Mexico City, he graduated in philosophy from the Free Popular University of the State of Puebla, Mexico; he was then awarded a higher degree in university humanism from the Ibero-American University, Mexico, and a doctorate in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy of the Principality of Liechtenstein.
He has held the role of academic coordinator of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Mexico City and has served as professor of metaphysics, bioethics, and philosophy of law at the PanAmerican University, Mexico. In 2013 he held the Karol Wojtyla Memorial Lectures at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.
From 2004 to 2007 he directed the Observatorio Socio Pastoral of the Latin American Episcopal Council. In 2008 he founded the Centro de Investigación Social Avanzada (CISAV), of which he is professor-researcher of the Division of Philosophy and member of the Consejo de Gobierno.
He is a member of the theological commission of the Latin American Episcopal Council and of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and is the author of numerous publications in the field of anthropology, bioethics, and social philosophy.