The present rift between the United States and Europe on the war in Iraq has overshadowed widening divergences in other realms.  One of these is the attitude toward crucial life issues; whereas the Bush administration is often reprimanded by antilife groups for such initiatives as the ban on partial-birth abortion, the European Union is busy trying to fund abortion in the Third World under the guise of aid for “reproductive rights.”

Ironically, Pope John Paul II himself tirelessly calls upon Catholics and non-Catholics alike to foster what he describes as “the culture of life,” but he appears to give little recognition to U.S. efforts in this regard.

These papal appeals to “crusade” for life and family values often result in international symposia such as a recent one in Rome: “On the Threshold of Life: Science, Morals and Law Facing One Another,” sponsored by Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Roma and organized by Rome-based Associazione Fiducia and Associazione Famiglia Domani under the aegis of the presidency of the Council of Ministers; and the “International Catholic Symposium on Creation,” arranged by the U.S.-based Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation.

Speakers at these events included Jo-seph Seifert (rector of the International Academy for Philosophy in Lichtenstein), Francesco D’Agostino (president of Italy’s Union of Catholic Jurists), Robert Spaemann (professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Munich), Philippe Schepens (secretary-general of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life), Guy Berthault (Ecole Polytechnique de France), Robert V. Gentry (University of Florida), Fr. Gonzalo Miranda (the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome), Fr. Brian Harrison (Pontifical Athenaeum of the Holy Cross in Rome), and Fr. Lino Ciccone (University of Lugano, Switzerland).

While there was consensus regarding the fact that life begins at the moment of conception, problems arose when participants attempted to define the moment of death.  Among Catholics, there are two schools of thought: those who still uphold the traditional criterion of cardio-respiratory death, and those who are in favor of the more recent and innovative criterion of “brain death”—namely, the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity.  This debate is not purely abstract and academic; it involves matters of life and death, both physical and spiritual: organ donation, transplantation, and euthanasia.

During the panel discussion at the end of “On the Threshold of Life,” Fathers Ciccone and Miranda upheld the concept of brain death in the framework of a “culture of donation,” while Seifert, Schepens, and Spaemann—all members of the Pontifical Academy for Life—opposed what they termed a merely utilitarian criterion, imposed by law, which favors organ transplantations as if they were a simple matter of parceling out spare parts.

The brain-death advocates refer to the Pope’s August 29, 2000, address to the International Congress of the Transplantation Society to bolster their case.  But Mercedes Wilson, a prominent U.S. pro-life leader, president and founder of the Family of the Americas Foundation, and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, forcefully denies that the Pope ever sanctioned the “plundering” of organs from languishing patients.  In her experience, some doctors keep their patients alive only to remove their organs successfully.  (You cannot harvest a healthy heart for transplantation unless you get it from a living person.)  In her opinion, if the heart still beats, however weakly, the patient may not be considered dead.  On this sensitive issue, Mercedes Wilson and many of the above-named scientists joined hundreds of other experts from around the world in early 2001 in signing a petition to the Holy Father that was promoted by Earl Appleby, Jr., the director of the U.S.-based Citizens United Resisting Euthanasia (CURE).

The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, a U.K.-based research institute whose trustees include the Catholic arch-bishops of England and Wales, argues that “brain death” protocols are 

insufficient for establishing the death of the body: we have become increasingly convinced by evidence suggesting that integrated bodily activity can continue after “brain death” has been diagnosed.


 A document published on January 16 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“Doctrinal note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in public life”) did not fully address the brain-death criterion but, instead, restated the general principle that the Christian legislator is called to promote laws “which must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death.”

The traditional criterion of cardio-respiratory death may not yet be thoroughly phased out, however.  Msgr. Elio Sgreccia, dean of the bioethics faculty at the Catholic University of Rome and deputy president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in Corriere della Sera (December 12, 2002) that death is to be determined by a person’s cardio-respiratory functions when the concept of brain death is inapplicable.  He was referring to the recent case of a couple determined not to abort their seriously handicapped twins for transplantation purposes.  Why, then, should the cardio-respiratory criterion not be applied to all other cases as well?

Abortion was an equally divisive issue, particularly with regard to the attitude of Catholic legislators vis-à-vis “imperfect” bills—those aimed at reducing abortions instead of eliminating them altogether.

This rift came to the fore last September 6, when the Italian edition of Osservatore Romano ran an article by professor Angel Rodrìguez Luño, ordinary of moral theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, on the moral licitness under specific conditions of Christian MPs “propos[ing] a new law on abortion, which is more restrictive than the one currently in force.”  This article, which subsequently appeared in the English version of Osservatore Romano as well as in the weekly editions in other foreign languages, caused turmoil in Catholic circles.  Mercedes Wilson spoke of a “trap,” which may unnerve any real will to promote a sound legislation safeguarding life from the moment of conception.

On this specific point, in the aforementioned doctrinal note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recalled what the Church has traditionally taught: 

Those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose” any law that attacks human life.  For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.  Regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely [sic] repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, “an elected official could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences.”  In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.  The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine.

Father Luño’s argument has an illustrious precedent, recalled by Dr. Colin Harte of the Linacre Centre.  In 2000, the then-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, presented a paper at a meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life (“Catholics and Pluralist Society: ‘Imperfect Laws’ and the Responsibility of Legislators”) in which he noted that “it would be morally licit to become promoters of a new law on abortion that is more restrictive than the one in force, but that legalizes or depenalizes some cases of abortion.”  In a subsequent article, “Inconsistent Papal Approaches Towards Problems of Conscience?”  (National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Spring 2002), Harte, who is convinced that the aforementioned article by Professor Luño takes a similar view to that of Bertone, critiqued some of Archbishop Bertone’s article, notably his support for “imperfect” legislation as a “lesser evil.”

The basic moral principle remains: It is never lawful to do evil that good may come of it; therefore, any authentic pro-lifer should never propose, let alone vote for, a bill that condones some abortion, no matter how restrictive it may be.  What a serious pro-life legislator can and should do is to seek ways to repeal as many pro-abortion clauses as possible from a pro-abortion law by adding amendments or “proposals” (to borrow the language used in the Vatican’s doctrinal note) if it is not possible to promote a full ban on abortion.

Abortion-ending legislation, however, must always be pursued, according to Vatican theologian Gino Concetti, who noted in Osservatore Romano (December 20, 2002) that it is not enough “to question abortion legislation in order to limit its consequences, but it’s to be abolished altogether.”

Years ago, several prominent U.S. pro-lifers called upon the Catholic hierarchy to excommunicate those Catholic politicians who, though claiming to be personally against abortion, said that they had to vote to support it to accommodate a pluralist electorate.  The Vatican’s doctrinal note, however, leaves no loophole:  

No Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements.

Unless Catholics overcome these divisions, the culture of life will be confined to lofty, principled statements, instead of translating into concrete bills that might help reverse the culture of death.  What is badly needed at this stage is for competent moral and religious authorities to persist in making their voices heard.