Archbishop Paglia’s Ambiguous Comments on Assisted Suicide Raise Questions

COMMENTARY: Are certain Church leaders engaged in strategic ambiguity, including word games of revealing and concealing, altering, and maintaining with a view to changing Church teachings?

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, shown in 2015 at the Vatica, has served as president of the Pontifical Council for the Family since 2012.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, shown in 2015 at the Vatica, has served as president of the Pontifical Council for the Family since 2012. (photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images)

On April 19, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL), gave a presentation on Italian television in which argued that an Italian law allowing for the decriminalization of physician-assisted suicide was “feasible.”. 

Because of the outcry from various Catholic sources, the PAL issued a statement that said that Archbishop Paglia, “in full conformity with the Church’s Magisterium, reaffirms his ‘No’ to euthanasia and assisted suicide.” Some, though, have questioned whether this clarification was adequate. If the Church can accept a law that, in effect, decriminalizes physician-assisted suicide, how is she witnessing to the truth that euthanasia is “a grave violation of the law of God” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 65)? 

It is true that the Church must work for the common good in a pluralistic society, but what John Paul II taught in 1995 must be emphasized:

“Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection” (Evangelium Vitae, 73). 

To his credit, Archbishop Paglia, in January of 2020, made it clear that the Church must say “No” to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. We wonder, though, whether his comments of April 19, 2023, weaken that emphatic “No.”

Apart from Archbishop Paglia’s comments about the feasibility of an Italian law decriminalizing physician-assisted suicide, the more serious issue might be his statement that the Catholic Church “does not have a package of ready-made truth, pre-packaged as if she were a distributor of truth pills.” The Church, though, does have certain moral truths grounded in Sacred Scripture, the natural law, and Tradition that are definitive and infallible. 

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed this with regard to the grave immorality of the direct killing of the innocent, abortion, and euthanasia (57, 62 and 65). These truths should not be described as “pre-packaged pills” ready to distribute. Instead, they are irreformable truths that the Church must uphold in fidelity to divine law.

Archbishop Paglia is correct that the Church’s moral teachings mature and evolve over time, and he gives the example of the development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. There are some teachings that are subject to maturation and development and some that are not. Regarding the death penalty, Pope Francis notes that “from the earliest centuries of the Church, some were clearly opposed to capital punishment” — including Church Fathers and Pope St. Nicholas I (Fratelli Tutti, 265). There are not, however, Church Fathers and popes who have supported euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. It’s very important to distinguish between objective moral norms that are definitive and infallible and those that are subject to maturation and development.

We are grateful to Archbishop Paglia for his witness to the human dignity of the poor and the vulnerable through the Sant’Egidio Community. We are likewise grateful for his opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. We are, however, concerned, whether his comments of April 19 manifest a coherent commitment to the Church’s recognition of objective moral norms. These norms are not pre-packaged “truth pills.” They are manifestations of the divine law grounded in Scripture, the natural law, and infallible Catholic teaching. 

We need to recall that this is not the first time that ambiguities concerning objective moral norms have been promoted by certain Church leaders, which, in turn, have provoked outcry. There seems to be a pattern. A Church leader makes a statement calling into question an objective moral norm, members of the faithful respond, he denies specific interpretations as taken out of context, reaffirms the perennial teaching of the Church, but ambiguities remain, and the damage has been done. Consider the following responses from members of the faithful, for example, to the appointment of advisers to the PAL who promote abortion, here and here; to the PAL’s endorsement of priests to be present during assisted suicide, here; and to the controversial PAL publication: Etica Teologica della Vita: Scrittura, tradizione, sfide pratiche, here. It is beyond the scope of this article to review the statements of Church leaders pertaining to the acceptance of homosexual acts as something good.

To understand why Church leaders are making statements at odds with Church teaching on life issues, Father Raymond J. de Souza queried whether the PAL is engaging in political pragmaticism over prophetic witness, when Archbishop Paglia firstly considers the political situation, and only later, considers how the Gospel and Tradition apply. Father de Souza explains that when one views the issue from a political perspective, confusion ensues. He summarizes what he believes to be the erroneous reasoning:

“The political consensus is against the death penalty in Italy, and Catholic teaching affirms that; so, if the political consensus in Italy permits abortion and may favor euthanasia, then it might be feasible for Catholic teaching to accommodate that.”  

Father de Souza’s point brings to mind the thought of Pope Benedict XVI when he underlined that Truth builds consensus, consensus does not build Truth. 

Might there be another reason why leaders are making statements challenging the magisterium? Eric Eisenberg, in the 1984 article “Ambiguity as Strategy in Organizational Communication,” explains how ambiguity can be used purposefully to facilitate change in organizations through promotion of multiple viewpoints on a given issue, where there was once consensus, while denying the change to maintain positions of privilege during the gradual weakening of the status quo. 

The specific “organization” in this case would be the Catholic Church. The positions of privilege would relate to those Church leaders who use the strategy of ambiguity with impunity while maintaining their positions of authority as they, in the words of Eisenberg, “build the cohesiveness of an in-group,” who has “access to the ‘correct’ interpretation” (that is, those seeking changes in the Church), while “purposefully mystifying or alienating others” (that is, those who maintain that certain moral truths grounded in Sacred Scripture, the natural law, and Tradition are definitive and infallible). 

Are certain Church leaders engaged in strategic ambiguity, including word games of revealing and concealing, altering, and maintaining with a view to changing Church teachings? If so, for what reason: to conform to certain political or ideological platforms (e.g., DIE — diversity, inclusion, and equity)? We sincerely hope this is not the case, but only time will tell.

In the end, we need to pray for our leaders (the successors of the apostles) and ask for the intervention of Our Lord Jesus Christ so that they heed his own words: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). The beautiful words of Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate are relevant here:

“Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity…To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, ‘rejoices in the truth’” (1 Cor 13:6).


Jane F. Adolphe is professor of law at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida; adjunct professor, University of Notre Dame School of Law, Sydney, Australia; and a former official with the Papal Secretariat of State, section for relations with states.

Robert Fastiggi is professor of dogmatic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit.