Pope Hints at New CDF Document on End-of-Life Issues

It is likely that coming months will see the release of a document on this subject.

Pope Francis at the “Maria Theotokos” shrine in Loppiano, Italy on May 10, 2018.
Pope Francis at the “Maria Theotokos” shrine in Loppiano, Italy on May 10, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Not a lot of people are aware of it, but the pope periodically meets with and gives a speech to the different departments at the Holy See.

Every January, for example, he gives an address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Roman Rota (one of the major legal courts at the Vatican).

He also gives periodic speeches to groups associated with the Holy See, like the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission.

This is not something new with Pope Francis. It’s been going on for years, including other recent popes, like John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

I watch for these speeches, because they frequently contain indicators both of the pope’s thought on issues and about what’s going to happen in the future.

When he speaks to a group, the pope often mentions the work that they have been doing and the projects that they have been pursuing. This can give us an early glimpse of what documents are forthcoming.

For example, the pope’s meeting with the CDF occurs at the end of its “plenary session”—that is, the session in which all of its members get together in Rome for discussions—and the pope will make mention of the work they have just been doing.

In his January 2018 address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Francis mentioned three subjects they had been discussing, two of which have already resulted in CDF documents.


“Pelagianism” and “Gnosticism”

First, Pope Francis said:

I therefore appreciate the study you have undertaken on some aspects of Christian salvation, in order to reaffirm the meaning of redemption, in reference to the current neo-Pelagian and neo-gnostic tendencies. These tendencies are expressions of an individualism that relies on its own forces to save itself. We, on the other hand, believe that salvation consists in communion with the risen Christ Who, thanks to the gift of His Spirit, has introduced us into a new order of relations with the Father and among men. Thus we can unite ourselves to the Father as sons in the Son and become a sole body in He Who is “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).

The study Pope Francis referred to resulted in a letter called Placuit Deo, which the CDF issued on Feb. 22.

It was an explanatory note to help people understand the way Pope Francis sometimes uses the terms “Pelagianism” and “Gnosticism.”

In his pontificate, he’s been employing these terms, in rather novel ways, to refer to tendencies in modern thought that have similarities to the ancient heresies bearing the same names.

He was also planning on releasing the apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, which came out March 19 and which heavily uses both terms.

The CDF thus released Placuit Deo as a way of explaining existing statements by Pope Francis and preparing for the release of Gaudete et Exsultate.

But his January address to the Congregation gave us the hint that this would be happening.


The Economic-Financial Document

Second, Pope Francis told the Congregation:

How can I fail to mention, then, the studies you are performing in relation to the ethical implications of an adequate anthropology also in the economic-financial field? Only a vision of man as a person, that is, as an essentially relational subject and connoted by a specific and broad rationality, is able to act in conformity with the objective order of morality. In this regard, the Magisterium of the Church has always clearly stated that “economic activity is to be carried on according to its own methods and laws within the limits of the moral order” (Vatican Ecumenical Council II), Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 64).

These studies resulted in the publication of a document on May 17 called Oeconomicae et Pecuniariae Quaestiones. It was released jointly by the CDF and the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and it offered “considerations for an ethical discernment regarding some aspects of the present economic-financial system.”

It not only goes into general ethical principles regarding the economy, it also delves into details like “credit default swaps,” “subprime mortgages,” and the “shadow banking system”!

But, once again, it was mentioned right there in the pope’s January address.

So what’s left on the agenda?


End-of-Life Issues and Euthanasia

Third, Pope Francis said:

During this Plenary Session, you have also studied some sensitive issues regarding the accompaniment of terminally ill patients. In this regard, the process of secularization, by rendering absolute the concepts of self-determination and autonomy, has led to the growth of the demand for euthanasia in many countries as an ideological affirmation of man’s will to power over life. This has also led to considering the voluntary interruption of human existence as a choice of “civilization.” It is clear that where life is valid not for its dignity, but for its efficiency and productivity, all this becomes possible. In this scenario it must be reiterated that human life, from conception to its natural end, has a dignity that makes it intangible.

Pain, suffering, the meaning of life and death are realities that contemporary mentality struggles to face with a look full of hope. And yet, without a trustworthy hope to help him confront pain and death, man cannot live well and maintain a confident perspective before his future. This is one of the services that the Church is called to make to contemporary man.

In this sense, your mission assumes an eminently pastoral face. Authentic pastors are those who do not abandon man to himself, nor leave him in the grip of his disorientation and his errors, but with truth and mercy bring him back to find his true face in goodness. Therefore every action aimed at taking the man by the hand, when he has lost the sense of his dignity and his destiny, to lead him trustfully to rediscover the loving paternity of God, his good destiny and the ways to build a more humane world, is authentically pastoral. This is the great task that awaits your Congregation and every other pastoral institution of the Church.

This reveals that the CDF has undertaken a study of end-of-life issues and euthanasia that has reached an advanced stage (otherwise the pope would not have mentioned it).

While there is no guarantee, it is highly likely that coming months will see the release of a document on this subject.

If—or, more likely, when—the document does appear, it may simply repeat established principles. But it is also likely to offer new insights that have not previously been explored in a document that carries papal approval, as the documents of the CDF regularly do.

Here’s hoping we get valuable new insights for helping navigate the end-of-life scenarios that we, and our loved ones, must eventually confront!