Moral Theologian Criticizes ‘Vague’ Pontifical Academy COVID-19 Document

Father George Woodall highlighted several aspects of the document, including what he called its ‘rambling’ text and ‘vague, superficial and generic’ moral principles.

(photo: 3ltvlive/YouTube screenshot)

VATICAN CITY — A former director of the secretariat of the Pontifical Academy for Life has criticized a document the academy issued on the coronavirus last month, saying that although some of its considerations were important, he wondered why it was published and what it was supposed to achieve.

Father George Woodall told the Register the moral principles highlighted in the document Humana Communitas in the age of pandemic: untimely meditations on life’s rebirth published on July 22 were “vague, superficial and generic” and that the text was “rambling, excessively long and verbose.”

A number of commentators have also criticized the document, describing it as “embarrassing” and more closely resembling a work of sociology than anything distinctly Christian.

Father Woodall, a moral theologian who teaches at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, welcomed some aspects of the document, namely “the nature of the virus, the need for focused, careful research to find a suitable vaccine” and the call for greater justice, including equitable allocation of medical resources.

But he said he would have preferred the lengthy reflection to have shared scientific developments since the academy’s last reflection on COVID-19 was issued in March, a brief comparison with earlier pandemics, and an “objective statement on the proper role” of government and health authorities, including a “careful examination of the application of subsidiarity and of solidarity” and the limits of the state in such times.

Father Woodall said he also would have liked to have seen a “clearly Christian perspective” in the document.

In its 4,000-word reflection, the Pontifical Academy for Life drew attention to the “hard reality of lessons learned” from the crisis including that COVID-19 has highlighted how fragile man is, and that its cause “has much to do with our depredation of the earth and the despoiling of its intrinsic value.”

The academy also blamed the pandemic on other causes, such as “financial greed, the self-indulgence of life styles defined by consumption indulgence and excess.” The pandemic, it said, is a call to “reconsider our relation to the natural habitat, to recognize that we dwell on this earth as stewards, not as masters and lords.”

The document argued that poor countries in the global south face a greater predicament than the richer north, unable to “afford the requirements of safety.” Although rich and poor are vulnerable to the virus, it said the latter are “bound to pay the highest price and to bear the long-term consequences of lack of cooperation.”

It went on to call for solidarity with especially the elderly and those most at risk, the need for “moral conversion,” to become “mindful, once more, of the goodness of life that offers itself to us.” A pandemic, it added, “urges all of us to address and reshape structural dimensions of our global community that are oppressive and unjust, those that a faith understanding refers to as ‘structures of sin.’”

The document then argued further for “global efforts and international cooperation,” saying a “privileged place belongs to the World Health Organization” and that “narrow mindedness and national self-interests” had led to policies of “independence and isolation from the rest of the world, as if the pandemic could be faced without a coordinated global strategy” — comments no doubt directed at the Trump administration, which has formally withdrawn from its relationship with the WHO.

The document ended with a call for ethics centered on the principle of solidarity and an “attitude of hope” that resists two opposing temptations: passive resignation and nostalgia for the past. “Instead, it is time to imagine and implement a project of human coexistence that allows a better future for each and every one,” the document concluded, and it recalled the “dream recently envisaged for the Amazon region” which, it said, “might become a universal dream” for the whole planet.

Father Woodall’s criticisms follow others, notably Philip Lawler of Catholic Culture and professor Stefano Fontana, director of the Cardinal Van Thuan Observatory on the Social Doctrine of the Church, who both noted that the document fails to mention God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the sacraments, prayer or even charity. The document, Fontana wrote, appeared to be written by an “anonymous institute of sociological studies.” 

The academy’s spokesman Fabrizio Mastrofini, responded to the criticism, saying in a statement that the academy was doing the work of “constant discernment” of the “faith, the Gospel, the passion for humanity” within the context of the “events of our time.”

He added that the two documents written on the pandemic need to be read together with Pope Francis’ letter to the academy in 2019 entitled Humana Communitaswhich, he said, “illustrate the challenges to life in today’s context.”

Mastrofini said he did not know whether an “accounting” of how many times key words were used in the text was “useful” but rather it is important “to enter into human situations, reading them in the light of faith, and in a way that speaks to the widest possible audience, to believers and non-believers, to all men and women ‘of good will.’” 

Led by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia since 2016, the Pontifical Academy for Life has received other criticisms in recent years for departing from its remit given by John Paul II to defend and promote the Church’s consistent life ethic. Since taking the helm, Archbishop Paglia has replaced many long-serving members, and in new statutes issued in 2017, removed a requirement for new members to sign a statement promising to defend life in conformity with the Church’s magisterium. He also appointed some controversial new members of the academy, including a supporter of abortion up to 18 weeks.


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Brief Reflections on the Pontifical Academy for Life document Humana Communitas in the age of pandemic: untimely meditations on life’s rebirth by Father George Woodall, professor of moral theology and bioethics at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university and a former director of the secretariat of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The point made by the Press Office of the Academy that it is to be read in the light of the earlier documents mentioned can be accepted, but that does not answer the question as to why this further document was issued or what in particular it was supposed to achieve.

The criticism that it does not mention Jesus, faith, religion, etc., might have been answered by saying that it is necessary to use a natural moral law in the sense of offering rational considerations which might be accessible also to those not belonging to the Christian community. The text makes no express reference to natural law, but it might be thought that the considerations offered fall broadly into that category. Apart from references to Ps. 8, to Laudato Si', to moral conversion, there is very little in it that would suggest that it had either a Christian origin or a Christian perspective. Indeed, the sentence "Too late do we learn consent to the darkness from which we came, and to which we finally return" seems impossible to reconcile with the resurrection and with Christian hope. Someone reading the document without knowing that it had been produced by the Pontifical Academy for Life could be forgiven for thinking that it was the product of some politically motivated group of ecologists.

Many of the 'moral principles' noted are vague, superficial and generic. The text is rambling, excessively long and verbose; the language and style used in it are flowery and would be largely inaccessible to many readers even in the Global North. 

Some of the considerations raised are important: the nature of the virus, the need for focused, careful research to find a suitable vaccine, the more requirement of justice, including that of the common good, demanding that this be made accessible to all those who may need it, the question of the existence or otherwise of adequate medical resources to confront the crisis provoked by the pandemic and that of the  allocation of resources, the inter-relationship between the principles of subsidiarity and of solidarity.

From the Pontifical Academy for Life a text with substance and yet succinct would have been preferable, one which presented more carefully:

  1. What scientific data have become available since the last document as to the origin, the nature, the variants or mutations of the virus, would have been welcome. Highly qualified scientific members from across the world could have been asked for up-dated data and qualified assessments.
  2. A brief comparison of current knowledge about the virus with that known of earlier pandemics (the plague, smallpox, cholera, the Spanish flu) and a brief up-date on what is known so far of factors fostering the spread of the virus and those restraining it (again from expert members and qualified sources).
  3. An objective statement of the proper role of government, especially of public health authorities in the case of a current or an imminent threat to public health (including legitimate restrictions to democratic procedure through a clear distinction between ius and usus iuris, the need for clear, precise and justifiable police and judicial regulations to be established by government through transparent procedures, how they are to be followed and enforced), which must include the effective control of frontiers (since travel, whether business, leisure or migratory is objectively a risk factor of importance in given countries at specific times). Here a careful examination of the application of subsidiarity and of solidarity, of the authority of the State and of its limits even in such times, would have been helpful. In this context, for example, the following could have been analysed, mostly to show how they could help to contain and overcome this and other possible pandemics: the curtailing of public health services in many countries over recent decades, the closure of isolation hospitals, the lack of barrier-nursing techniques; circumstances which would justify and demand strict quarantine (isolation in medical facilities), precautionary quarantine for contacts of those tested positive or at high risk through a specific instance; the need to prevent access to very vulnerable groups (which, whom, why, in what way, for how long?), including those in hospital for other reasons, those needing to see a doctor, those in residential and or care homes, the care of medical staff themselves.
  4. A clearly Christian perspective on all of this. It is lamentable that the Academy did not use here the keystones of Evangelium vitae in the twenty-fifth jubilee year of that stupendous encyclical on the Gospel of life: the meaning of life, suffering, death, eternal life, as well as the service of the good of health, and of the proper but limited role of public authorities in its regard. Even if other documents have been issued, still this encyclical, long, but full of sound content, solid moral argumentation and Christian hope, would have provided what is missing from this text.

G.J. Woodall
31st July, 2020