Acton Commentary

Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo: Defender of the Family as Human Capital


A Mass was held in Rome yesterday commemorating the death of Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, one of the Church’s staunchest defenders of the family and the inestimable value of human life from the moment of conception.

In his homily at the Mass, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re remembered Trujillo as “a pastor with great personality and firm decisions,” which were sometimes criticized and opposed. “Nonetheless, one cannot deny the uprightness and great inspiration that formed the basis of his dynamism” and that made him “a true man of the Church during his entire ministry, desirous only of promoting the good,” especially with regards to the defense of the family, “which today is under threat.”

Cardinal López Trujillo, who died April 19 in Rome, served as President of the Pontifical Council for the Family from 1990. A former archbishop of Medellín, Columbia, Cardinal López Trujillo was also a dear friend of the Acton Institute, speaking at several of our conferences and greeting many of our guests when they were traveling through Rome. When I was working at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I would regularly see the Cardinal on one of his walks and he would never fail to send me a friendly wave.

Anyone who ever met the Cardinal knew how outspoken and unwavering he was. He made international headlines in 2003, when he appeared in a BBC documentary and said that relying on condoms to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS was “like playing Russian roulette.” These and similar statements made it easy to caricature the Cardinal as a dour, uncaring right-winger bent on running progressives out of the Church. Here, for example, is an excerpt from The Economist’s unsigned obituary:

He was always right, staunchly on the side of order, stability, hierarchy and God's law. The track of his life had been determined, from priest to bishop to archbishop to cardinal at 48, in one astonishing trajectory; and the direction of his ministry had been fixed on the day when, as a young priest in Colombia, he had been vouchsafed the “grace” of kissing the hands of Paul VI in the Bogotá nunciature. From that moment he took on the task of defending the “procreative mission”: the beautiful, profound, but profoundly impracticable teaching of Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, that every human sexual act must be open to the transmission of life.

Against the intrinsic disorder of the human libido he proposed to reinforce, like a fortress, the institutions of family and marriage and the virtues of fidelity and chastity. On his visits to Rome he so pleaded for a family policy, browbeating the future Pope John Paul II even as they waited in the rain for a car, that John Paul in 1990 asked him to run that pontifical office for him, not knowing it would soon become a war room.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico responded to the Economist with this letter:

The Economist, despite its intelligent commentary on economics and business, unfortunately demonstrates that it – like much of the rest of the British press – simply does not understand religion. Rather than informing itself about religion, The Economist consistently publishes articles that reflect a woeful ignorance of religion – especially Catholicism - and parodies of religion and religious people. One such parody was your recent obituary of Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo.

As someone who collaborated with Cardinal Trujillo over the years on a variety of conferences and projects at the Vatican and elsewhere and as someone who counted him as a friend, I found your obituary of him rather biased, ill informed, mean spirited and superficial.

Is it really so shocking to your author that a cardinal of the Catholic Church should actually believe in and use his varied talents to promote its teachings and disciplines? If you don’t like the teachings of the Church, argue your case. But to attempt to smuggle your problem with Catholicism into an obituary is unprofessional.

Was His Eminence crusty and aggressive? Perhaps at times, yet one cannot help but think that at least part of this was owing to the havoc being reaped against his folk by the Marxists in Christian guise while he was head of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference and the Archbishop of Medellìn, where death threats against him were common.

Yet, he was also kind and generous and was heroically dedicated to the protection of vulnerable human life. His passing is a sad moment unworthy of your vitriol.

The Economist obituary performs a public disservice by viewing the Church as if it were nothing more than a political body with “right” (i.e., defenders of marriage and the family) and “left” (i.e., advocates of social justice) perspectives and factions. In fact, Cardinal López Trujillo’s service to the Church included the promotion of the dignity of the poor in his native Columbia, the teaching of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, and serving as secretary-general of the Latin American Bishops Conference, not usually known as a bastion of conservative thought.

In his defense of the family, the Cardinal stressed its social, pre-political nature. At an Acton conference for the 15th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, he cited the works of pagan political philosophers Aristotle and Cicero, and noted that the root of the word “economics” is oikos, the Greek word for home. The family is not merely a private association, but the first school for citizens and indeed a domestic church. The state therefore has a role in recognizing, respecting and promoting healthy marriages and families.

At the same event, Cardinal López Trujillo referred to Gary Becker, the Nobel prize-winning University of Chicago economist, who recognized the importance of the family and Catholic social doctrine in the formation of human capital, without which the modern economy cannot function. The Cardinal also revealed that early drafts of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the first modern social encyclical, contained large sections on the family that were missing from the final version, further evidence that there was never meant to be a division between promotion of the family and social concern.

At his homily at the funeral mass, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the Cardinal’s episcopal motto, Veritas in Caritate, Love in Truth and added “to bring to completion the mission that Jesus entrusts to us, we must not be lazy or cowardly.” These words typified the Cardinal. Too many people oppose love and truth, charity and hard work, and it would be a fitting tribute to Cardinal López Trujillo’s life and witness if each of us strove to correct this misunderstanding in our daily lives.