By Dr. Jeff Mirus | Aug 28, 2020
Since Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia was named President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, it seems to have become impossible for the Academy to shed light on any particular threat to life in our world. One need look no further to establish the Academy’s vacuity than its amorphous, secularized observations on the Coronavirus back in July (Humana Communitas in the Age of Pandemic: Untimely Meditations on Life’s Rebirth). Now, in an interview with Crux, Archbishop Paglia has further poisoned the teeming pool of life by arguing, in effect, that the politicization of life issues must always be avoided as seriously harmful.
The interview was deliberately framed partly against the backdrop of the American Presidential campaign, so it is fair to read Paglia’s comments in that context. In truth, though, his comments are extremely disorienting in any context at all. In fact, Paglia essentially resorts to the “seamless garment” tactic, which takes the truth that all problems adversely affecting the human person are issues of “human life”, and then emphasizes that very marginal insight to the point where it becomes immoral to prioritize these issues. Thus is our moral energy dissipated, preventing us from producing any positive effect at all.
While Paglia does not use the term “seamless garment”, he clearly articulates that ineffective theme. To quote the Crux story:
[Paglia] said Christian churches in the U.S. ought to feel “a universal responsibility” toward life, and called for greater engagement on the life issue “in all its dimensions… That is, a perspective of global bioethics, one that engages all the major topics that touch on life, of the individual and of the human family.”
This is a tall order indeed—an order so tall that, in practical terms, it can accomplish absolutely nothing beyond a pallid approval of whatever the dominant culture is emphasizing as good at the moment. When we are taught that everything demands our attention all of the time, we become inert, taking credit for floating along on the winds of change.
Thus, as recounted with quotations by Crux, Paglia magnanimously warned against:
turning the pro-life cause into an ideological weapon, saying making the protection of life a political football risks doing “great harm”… [and] … “It would do great harm,” he said, “if some topic of bioethics is extracted from its general context and put toward ideological strategies. It would do great harm.”
This can only be interpreted as a dismissal of pro-life political commitment as “ideology”, and it is an enormous misdirection. For what can this warning against “ideological strategies” possibly mean in the context of the need to seek just governance and laws that restrict the scope of evil and promote the common good—which is precisely the purpose of politics?
In contrast, let us consider these two realities: (a) Priority must clearly and emphatically be placed on the right to life itself, without which no other human good can be sought at all; and (b) Around the world in our lifetimes, politics has been used, through laws, court decisions and regulations, to attack the right to life. If this is so, how can any Catholic leader deliberately seek to dissipate the energy and commitment that all men and women of good will ought to apply precisely to politics, in order to redress such stupendous wrongs? Such action is rooted in the natural law; it is the very opposite of ideology. Indeed, one wonders when and where any pro-life assertion has ever been either the product or the servant of ideology!
Recently I have seen several indications of the confusion created by such amorphous semi-ecclesiastical guidance. (I call it “semi-ecclesiastical”, for Archbishop Paglia has no teaching authority at all as President of the Pontifical Academy for Life.) First, there is our recent news story on the remarks of Msgr. Paul Garrity of Boston, who confidently asserts that it is possible to be pro-life and still support abortion. To his credit, Garrity’s bishop (Cardinal O’Malley) has issued a contrary statement. But this is not the first time Garrity has publicly contradicted the Catholic Faith and, so far, he remains a priest in good standing.
Second, in responding to messages from those who are registered on CatholicCulture.org, we occasionally find Catholics who will refuse any further correspondence because we point out the inherent contradictions of Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s claim to be a Catholic. On two occasions in the past month, readers have cancelled their registrations with us because they intend to support Biden. Both have regarded Donald Trump as a racist, as opposed to what they apparently consider to be Biden’s more acceptable views.
In vain does one remonstrate that Trump’s alleged “racism” cannot be proven by any policies he has advocated or implemented that are race-specific, whereas Biden has advocated and continues to advocate policies which snuff out the lives of people of all races, in addition to defying the natural law in ways that seriously undermine the family and, therefore, the entire social order. I am the first to admit that President Trump refuses to undertake (or is incapable of undertaking) any statesman-like speech or behavior that might win more people to his side, and that he is very foolish indeed to fail to take more seriously the deep concerns of Blacks and Hispanics, especially in a dominant liberal culture which constantly demonizes more conservative political and religious leaders precisely in order to make them unpopular with those groups.
But there is no moral comparison between insensitive rhetoric and the advocacy and implementation of laws and policies which directly snuff out human lives.
Lost in a maze
Such is our world! Effective moral action, whether private or political, is made far harder by Catholic leaders who rant on about the totality of human good in such a way that no particular good can ever be prioritized. When Catholics are constantly rebuked for insisting that the greatest and most directly-willed evils of our time must be addressed first, they can feel perfectly justified in falling back on whatever tiny shred of rhetorical justification can be found in culturally-dominant causes, even when these causes are, in their essential character and direct effects, objectively and singularly evil.
And so we become lost in a maze. For the finite human person, a constant emphasis on total responsibility always becomes an excuse for taking no real responsibility at all. In view of all the causes on offer, one can always justify doing nothing to correct a particularly serious evil, or even contributing to it. Thus Paglia: “[E]verything that doesn’t respect the human person…is a sin against the Gospel of life.” This unnecessary assertion leads inexorably to the closing words of the Crux report on the interview:
“For the first time we are living together with four generations,” [Paglia] said, adding that to promote a “Gospel of life” means fostering dialogue among the generations and to support one another as humanity navigates the complex task of learning to guide technology and the market, rather than being guided by them. “It’s an enormous task,” he said, and urged Christians to engage in “an attentive dialogue in every sense, the humanist and the technological.”
That advice is remarkably high-sounding. But nobody can follow it without moral paralysis.
Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org.