Pontifical Academy Addresses the Science and Ethics of Aging

They will discuss finding an ethical solution to the issues associated with a decline at the end of life, especially in the face of a culture that tends to discriminate against or marginalize the elderly and dependent.

(photo: CNA/Marea Howse)

VATICAN CITY — As the global number of elderly increases, one Vatican advisory group is meeting this week to discuss the many challenges associated with aging and its often accompanying disabilities.

The Pontifical Academy for Life’s general assembly will consider issues surrounding “the scientific, the medical ... and ethical issues concerning these specific problems coming from the situation of many elderly people [who] become disabled,” explained the group’s chancellor, Father Pegoraro Renzo.

“Of course … in the Western world, the problem is more relevant and urgent, because there is a [larger] percentage of people that is older,” he told CNA on Feb. 18. “But also in developing countries, especially in South America, or parts of Asia, it’s becoming a problem, because life is prolonging; also in that context ... to manage, to care, to cure, to care, to offer support and facilities for these people, it is a problem also there. So we try to offer an international overview of the situation.”

“It is a challenge for the patients, for the people, for the family, [and also] for the entire society and the Church,” he added.

The academy’s workshop, today and tomorrow at the Pontifical Augustinianum University, just down the street from the Vatican, will have both theoretical and practical elements. Participants will “try to understand the scientific and medical aspect of aging and disability, (and) which causes, effects are important [in order] to prevent or to manage this issue.”

However, “the more specific focus is on the concrete impact on the life, on the lives of the people and the families and the communities and the Church,” noted Father Renzo.

The group hopes to find “an ethical solution” to the many problems concerned with a decline at the end of life, especially in the face of a culture that tends to discriminate against or marginalize the elderly and dependent.

Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland. In the United States, Oregon, Washington and Vermont have all legalized assisted suicide.

Culturally, “there’s the idea that they [the elderly] are a problem — only a problem for society,” due to the “cost of social care,” the chancellor observed.

The Pontifical Academy for Life, which was established in 1994 by Blessed John Paul II to be a kind of institute for studying the fields of “biology, medicine and ethical issues,” seeks to offer a response to what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture,” which fails to recognize the inherent dignity of every human life.

The Vatican academy is not interested in merely opposing “a culture of death,” clarified Father Renzo, but, rather, seeks to positively “encourage and improve a culture of life.”

“The first message” of the Feb. 20-21 workshop is to convey “a culture of respect and dignity for elderly people,” said Father Renzo. “The second is an ethical issue: in which way to offer this respect.”

For instance, the academy will consider questions such as “What is the criteria of proportionate treatment” for an illness like dementia which will “guarantee respect” for those afflicted?

“In the Catholic Church, we have a long tradition of institutions, hospitals, nursing homes — with the very important work of charity and solidarity [in order] to offer good care and good companionship to all these patients,” Father Renzo observed.

The role of the academy, in this case, is to consider “the ethical issues” as well as “the social, economical, [and] organizational aspects” of caring for the elderly, in order to offer “good answers, good structures, institutions and the facilities for these patients and their families.”

Alan Holdren contributed to this report.