The Pontifical Academy for Life, under the leadership of the controversial Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, produced the document, and the Vatican press office introduced it on July 22 with a title as prolix as the statement itself: “Useful information on the Document of the Pontifical Academy for Life: Humana Communitas in the age of pandemic: untimely meditations on life’s rebirth.” That title is misleading; the document provides very little hard information. But I will grant this much: it is “untimely.” There is never a good time for this sort of vapid rumination.
Even in describing the unhappy social situation arising from the pandemic, the Pontifical Academy is mawkishly sentimental (and excessively wordy):
It has deprived us of the exuberance of embraces, the kindness of hand shakings, the affection of kisses, and turned relations into fearful interactions among strangers, the neutral exchange of faceless individualities shrouded in the anonymity of protective gears.
Opening with a sketch of the damage that the pandemic has done to human community, the document observes: “Surely, we are summoned to the courage of resistance.” But nowhere does the Pontifical Academy guide us toward the source of such courageous resistance. Despite stretching to well over 4,000 words, the Vatican document does not mention God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the sacraments, prayer, or even charity; even the word “Christian” does not appear in the text. There is admittedly a call for “moral conversion,” but in context it is clearly a call for an ideological rather than religious conversion.
The Pontifical Academy for Life, you see, regards the pandemic as a condign punishment for mankind’s sins against the environment: “The Covid-19 epidemic has much to do with our depredation of the earth and the despoiling of its intrinsic value.” Obviously that is not a scientific statement. But it might be taken as a religious claim, if the religion in question is environmentalism.
From the Vatican, however, one expects a Christian message: a message of hope that is sadly lacking in this statement. Under different leadership, in a different era, the Pontifical Academy for Life might have urged us not to be paralyzed by fear of sickness and death, nor to regard any interaction with neighbors as a dangerous imposition. The document makes a weak gesture in that direction, saying that “the seeds of hope have been sown in the obscurity of small gestures, in acts of solidarity too many to count, too precious to broadcast.” But it does not catalogue the “small gestures” that Christians might make; instead it makes a grandiose call for worldwide solidarity and international cooperation, stipulating that the World Health Organization should have a “privileged place” in the campaign.
The pandemic has struck fear — often irrational fear — into millions of hearts. The Vatican should be offering reassurance and perspective, reminding the world that death is not the greatest tragedy, that life has meaning, that armed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit we can conquer our fears. That Christian perspective is sadly lacking from this document.
“The lessons of fragility, finitude, and vulnerability bring us to the threshold of a new vision,” the Pontifical Academy tells us. Yes, but only to the threshold, and this document fails to usher us across — fails even to invite us in to the life of Christ. The faithful, and the world at large, deserve better.
Published with permission from CatholicCulture.org.