Personally I would not practice assisted suicide, but I understand that legal mediation can constitute the greatest common good that is concretely possible in the conditions in which we find ourselves.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia
No small number of Church officials undoubtedly hope that the controversy Pontifical Academy for Life President Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia stirred up April 19 blows over quickly. Paglia’s remarks to Italian journalists appeared to defend at least some degree of assisted suicide legislation and generated a firestorm after they were published. Rome quickly pushed back, insisting that Paglia was misunderstood and taken out of context.
I am unconvinced by the attempt to spin Paglia’s remarks and have elsewhere published my critique of them. It’s not the first time Paglia has generated questions about how his remarks could be reconciled with Church teaching.
The Pontifical Academy for Life statement defending Paglia claims that he rejects physician-assisted suicide as a moral choice and stands by Church teaching. At the same time, it says he was highlighting peoples’ moral duty to provide “accompaniment” to the terminally ill. It insisted that, in the context of an Italian Constitutional Court decision on the removal of certain criminal penalties associated with physician-assisted suicide, Paglia was merely thinking out loud about how a pluralistic, democratic Italy might address the legal situation while recognizing that law and morality are distinct and cannot always be coterminous categories.
I suggest we take a step back from the immediate controversy to take a broader look at what’s at stake. Even if one accepts the explanations the Pontifical Academy for Life puts forward—which I do not—the issues under threat run far deeper than this simplistic spin. Let’s look at two.
Accompaniment. “Accompaniment” is a key motif of the Francis pontificate, so it’s no surprise Paglia invokes it in his talk. To “accompany” the terminally ill as they cope with the loneliness, emotions, and process of dying—especially amidst the medicalized conditions in which many people today die—is a work of mercy to be encouraged.
But “accompaniment” is notoriously undefined, its scope unclear and not—contrary to some claimants—obviously intuitive. What does it mean to “accompany” a planned suicide? Paglia is grossly imprecise.
Once upon a time, to “accompany” a suicide—at least in the way people “normally” defined suicide—made one a criminally liable accomplice. Only in the wake of efforts to promote “physician assisted suicide” (or “euthanasia,” “medical assistance in dying” or the verbal evasion du jour) have some jurisdictions removed liability for complicity when someone was present at a suicide and did not at least try to stop it.
What are Paglia’s parameters for being with someone? Dissuading them from killing themselves? Protesting it? Sitting silent and holding hands while the suicide takes his overdose? Going to the drugstore to get the non-ambulatory suicide’s lethal drugs? In 2019, Paglia said “to hold the hand of someone who is dying is, I think, a great duty every believer should promote.” Does that include holding the hand of a suicide as he kills himself?
Legal Status. The Pontifical Academy for Life tried to explain away Paglia’s musings as exploring how a “pluralist, democratic” Italy (and only Italy) should legislate on assisted suicide within the confines of recent constitutional court decisions. Paglia invokes the distinction between the moral and civil laws, recognizing that not everything covered by the former must be addressed in the latter.
While there is a distinction between the moral and civil orders, Paglia (and those who invoke this distinction, e.g., Mario Cuomo et al.) fail to discuss the other side of the coin, i.e., that the Christian should work to bridge and heal the dissonance between the two. Leaving that breach to fester often produces “personally opposed but …” politicians. God and Caesar may be separate, but they are not co-equals: neither Jew nor Christian believed that Caesar is ultimately independent from and unaccountable before God.
No one is arguing for a theocracy. But that doesn’t mean public life must be amoral or limit itself to the least common moral denominator. Society has no more basic duty than to protect the rights of its members, most basically their right to life. This is not an exclusively religious position: even atheists like Thomas Hobbes held that societies exist to keep people from killing each other amidst their relentless pursuit of self-interest. Thinkers who influenced the American founding—Locke and Jefferson, for example—insisted that governments exist to protect man’s inalienable rights which, when they fail to do so, forfeit their legitimacy and entitle people “to alter or abolish” them.
A society cannot delegate its responsibility to protect life without getting involved in a tautology: “We will protect your right to life until you don’t want it, at which point we will protect your right to death.” Inevitably, the objective value of life is replaced by the subjective: life is valuable not because it is life but only because it is wanted.
A classic example of distinguishing the moral and civil law is the question of how aggressively to punish prostitution. Would the effort required to root up every brothel be more destructive of the common good than tolerating some instances of it (recognizing that its legal status did not change its moral character)? Arguments can be made to say “no.”
That is far different from establishing a legal regime that in fact facilitates vice by giving it legal protection. An assisted suicide regime is certainly not “private.” People generally emerge from brothels; they don’t leave death sites, at least not on their own two feet. An assisted suicide regime involves the state in looking the other away from its responsibility to protect life. It often involves the state lying about the certification of the cause of death. In some countries, it involves the state in coercing others to participate in the process at least by making referrals. Given that there is no more basic common good than the social protection of life, such a society is again inherently involved in self-contradiction.
The Academy insists Paglia thinks fully with the Church and that it was all a matter of miscommunication. Whether or not it was, the stakes – in terms of society’ role and its involvement with suicide as well as how individuals would interface with a suicide are far more complicated problems than the superficial (and unsatisfying) analysis Paglia gave them.