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New Vatican documents on bioethics, natural law; no change on condoms, official says

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BY JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

tDespite widespread suggestions in the press, and even last April from a Vatican cardinal, that Rome might be on the brink of allowing married couples to use condoms to block HIV/AIDS, a forthcoming document on bioethics from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will not treat this question, that office's number two official has revealed.

tThe congregation is also working on a project on the subject of natural law, said Archbishop Angelo Amato, the congregation’s secretary.

tAmato said that any reconsideration on condoms would have to come from the doctrinal office, and therefore, “Opinions on these issues coming from other institutions or ecclesiastical personalities, however respectable, cannot have the authority that sometimes the mass media seems to want to suggest.”

tIn part, that appeared to be an indirect reference to comments from April 2006 by Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Health, who told reporters that his office had been asked by Pope Benedict XVI to study the use of condoms by a married couple when one spouse is HIV-positive and the other is not. Barragan made clear that he would be favorable to allowing condoms in that context, though he stressed that a final decision is up to the pope.

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tWhile church teaching bans artificial contraception, some bishops and theologians have argued that in the situation described above, the intent of condom use is not to block pregnancy but to block disease, and therefore condoms should be acceptable. The Vatican has never ruled on that question, and Amato’s comments indicate that it will not do so in the forthcoming document.

Several other cardinals, including Jean-Marie Lustiger, the former archbishop of Paris; Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan; Swiss Cardinal George Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household under John Paul II; Cardinal Godfriend Danneels of Belgium; and Cardinal Cormac Muphy-O’Connor of Westminster, England, have all supported condoms in the context of AIDS in one fashion or another.
t
tAmato described the document currently under preparation as a way to address new bioethical dilemmas, not to revisit the morality of birth control.

“The question is not a revision of moral doctrine, for example regarding whether the use of prophylactics is licit, which does not seem to me to be on the agenda,” Amato said. “Rather, it’s new challenges which are in some ways much more grave and destructive of the identity of the human person, such as an embryo which is considered a biological product rather than a human being.”

Amato said the new document is styled as a follow-up to a 1987 text from the congregation, Donum Vitae, which addressed questions just then emerging, such as artificial reproduction and research on embryos. The new text will assume the same principles but apply them to today’s ethical debates, and in that sense can be thought of as “Donum Vitae II,” he said.

tAmato, 68, an Italian Salesian, made the comments in January 28 interview with L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops.

t“This ‘Donum Vitae II’ has not been conceived in order to abolish the preceding document, but to confront the various bioethical and biotechnological questions which present themselves today, which at the time were unthinkable,” Amato said.

t“Donum Vitae conserves all of its value, and in certain ways was prophetic,” Amato said. The problem is that despite being 20 years old, it’s still little known.”

tAmato also revealed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is preparing a second document, on natural law, saying that all the Catholic universities of the world have already been consulted on the subject.

t“The response has been very encouraging,” Amato said, “even from those academies considered more ‘difficult.’”

tNatural law is a very important theme, Amato said, “among other things, because it’s the only possible foundation for fruitful inter-religious dialogue.”

tThe congregation recently issued a collection of all its documents from 1966-2005, covering the entire period following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Amato said that among other things, study of the text reveals a distinct “style” under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the office from 1981 until his election to the papacy as Benedict XVI in April 2005.

tEarlier documents from the congregation tended to be brief, Amato said, generally offering a ruling with little explanation. Under Ratzinger, he said, “there was an effort to amplify and articulate the motivations and justification of the truths of faith which were contested.”

tAmato also said the documents “demonstrate how the congregation has interpreted Vatican II in the light of the grand preceding tradition,” in contrast with “instrumental uses of the council which happened in recent decades.” Amato said such an approach is consistent with Benedict XVI’s call, in his Christmas 2005 address to the Roman Curia, for a “hermeneutic of continuity” in interpreting Vatican II.

tIn response to a question about disciplinary actions, Amato said that over the course of the forty years covered by the new collection, the congregation has published formal “notices” critical of the work of eleven theologians: Hans Küng in 1975 and 1980; Jacques Pohier in 1979; Edward Schillebeeckx in 1980, 1984 and 1986; Leonardo Boff in 1985; Charles Curran in 1986; Tissa Balasuriya in 1997; Anthony de Mello in 1998; Reinhard Messner in 2000; Jacques Dupuis and Marciano Vidal in 2001; and Roger Haight in 2004.

tIn this context, Amato criticized theologians “at times more bound to their own ideas, which can be extravagant, rather than to the living tradition of the church.”

tOn the subject of gay marriage, Amato said that a public official “may not give assent to a law which, for example, introduces matrimony between two persons of the same sex, which is against Biblical revelation, and against natural law itself.”

tAmato said that Catholic politicians can never assent to laws which violate moral principles. When such laws are already in effect, he said, they must strive to limit their effect.

tIn contrast with impressions of a top-down system, Amato said that “in general, all of our interventions are requested from below, for the most part by the ordinaries,” meaning bishops and religious superiors.

tAmato said the congregation is sometimes forced to issue documents by the need to correct misleading beliefs or practices, citing the most recent text from the congregation, a 2005 “note” confirming that the sacrament of anointing of the sick may be administered only by a bishop or priest.

t“Some had abusively proposed to have laity administer [the sacrament] as well, and this constrained us to intervene,” Amato said.

tA sidebar to the Amato interview notes that the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is an American, Cardinal William J. Levada, as is the under-secretary, Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia. The congregation’s membership includes 23 cardinals, archbishops and bishops from 14 nations. Its 37 staff members are divided into three sections: doctrinal, disciplinary, and matrimonial. In addition, the congregation also calls upon a college of 33 “consultors,” mostly professors of theology at the various pontifical universities in Rome.

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