God for Us

Reflections on the Doctrine of the Trinity and Voluntary Assisted Dying

By Dr Margaret Campbell, Panel Member Growing in Faith

Making conversation during a regular appointment a few years ago, my doctor asked me about my doctoral thesis which was in its early stages. I explained that I was studying an American theologian called Catherine LaCugna, and particularly her book God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life written in the 1990s. I based the remainder of my response on the book’s opening sentence: “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.”[i]  My doctor was not the first person to have raised their eyebrows on hearing the word “practical” in a sentence beginning with the words “the doctrine of the Trinity.” She made the observation that there are different ways of understanding the word “practical.”

I later reflected on her response, comparing the significant practical assistance I’d received from the medication she had prescribed for me (and the radical consequences of this medication for my quality of life) with LaCugna’s understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as practical. The medical application of the word “practical” was tangible and life-changing. For me at that time, the theological application was difficult to articulate and proving to be of little comfort.

Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

In November 2017, the Victorian Parliament passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill. The legislation will come into effect in June this year following an 18-month implementation period. Much has been written on voluntary assisted dying and Uniting Church members have contributed to the conversation.[ii] I wonder what LaCugna’s approach to trinitarian doctrine can offer to this complex and emotive discussion. More specifically, I wonder what the doctrine of the Trinity, as presented by LaCugna, might offer the appointed members of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania who will meet in July to decide how “relevant UCA institutions and staff should be asked to respond” to Victoria’s VAD legislation.[iii]

In a recent article by Jason Goroncy entitled “Euthanasia: Some Theological Considerations for Living Responsibly.”[iv], he outlines six arguments for and six against legalising voluntary assisted dying, and explores these from a theological perspective. He claims, convincingly in my view, that there are legitimate theological positions which support the arguments both for and against euthanasia as envisaged by the Victorian Parliament’s Legal and Social Issues Committee.

The Easing of Suffering in Life and Death

While the topic of euthanasia has never been raised with me by a terminally ill relative or friend, my late father’s journey with motor neurone disease 20 years ago has given me an insight into the grief and distress that can accompany a loved-one’s final months of life. It has also given me cause to consider issues around voluntary assisted dying. What resonates directlywith my own personal experience of illness (chronic, not terminal) in Goroncy’s article, however, is a question he poses on the use of medication to alleviate pain not associated with a terminal illness: “Can those who, impatient with providence, turn to medication to ease their suffering condemn those who so turn in order to end their suffering?”[v] Goroncy notes, quoting Paul Badham, it could be argued that “it is precisely because modern medicine has made it possible to choose to resist death that it should also be allowed to help us choose when to abandon that resistance.”[vi]

Where do I as a Christian and as a beneficiary of modern medicine look for answers to Goroncy’s question? The Bible perhaps? Administering medicine in New Testament times was considered to be a form of witchery. Goroncy cites Galatians 5:20 (with particular reference to the word pharmakeia translated in the NRSV as “sorcery”) to illustrate his point that “when it comes to medical ethics, Christian beliefs are not absolute and unchanging.”[vii] In view of the now widespread use of medication to relieve many types of pain, what degree of authority can be attributed to Galatians 5:20? The way Scripture is understood and applied in 21st century social and ethical debates is an important and contentious subject within and beyond the Uniting Church. Rather than engaging directly with biblical hermeneutics, however, I will move to an explanation of LaCugna’s understanding of Trinitarian doctrine as practical.

Radical Consequences for Human Life?

LaCugna considered the doctrine of the Trinity to be “a teaching not about the abstract nature of God, nor about God in isolation from everything other than God, but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other.”[viii]  Her emphasis was on God in relationship with humanity and, indeed, with creation.  LaCugna’s strong aversion to speaking about “God in Godself” with no reference to creation stemmed partly from the way people have inappropriately applied their concept of the immanent Trinity (God in Godself) to solve human dilemmas, whether they be social, ethical, liturgical, political, or a combination of these. She was adamant that the practical nature of the doctrine of the Trinity does not mean that it is “a pragmatic principle that furnishes an easy solution to war or violence, or yields the blueprint for a catechetical program, or settles vexing disagreements about the church’s public prayer.”[ix]

It should come as no surprise, then, that LaCugna was critical of theologians who have been tempted to “use” the doctrine of the immanent Trinity to find a remedy to some of the great problems of our day. She gave an example of the unequal distribution of resources in the world. Almost sarcastically she explained that it is not a matter of applied mathematics. Some people, she observed, turn to the doctrine for answers “as if the goal is to ‘figure out’ the immanent Trinity – the number of persons, relations and processions and how they are configured – and then project this ‘intradivine’ structure onto human community, or vice versa.”[x] According to LaCugna, there are no easy answers: “When we try to apply (the doctrine) to concrete situations, the sands start to shift.”[xi]

Some commentators have become frustrated by her talk of shifting sands. They seriously question the purpose of saying something is practical if it can’t provide unequivocal solutions. This, I suspect, was the criticism hovering behind my doctor’s response. Theologian and ethicist David Cunningham is one such commentator. “LaCugna’s comments on ‘living trinitarian faith’ do nothing to help us think through concrete questions that the church faces today,” he complains. Cunningham argues that by failing to address any issues concretely, LaCugna “perpetuates a fairly high level of theological abstraction about the Trinity.”[xii]

If LaCugna said that “practical” does not mean theology produced in the fast-food line, what did she think it meant?[xiii] She turned to the French Jesuit priest Henri de Lubac to support her position which aligns itself more closely with slow cooking than fast food. De Lubac wrote that the Trinity “seems to be a sealed mystery. We do not always know how to embrace the most pregnant truth, which must slowly produce its fruit within us. Impatient as we are, we would like to understand immediately, or rather, in our shortsighted pragmatism, if we are not shown practical applications for it right away, we declare it to be abstract, unassimilable, ‘unrealistic,’ an ‘empty shell,’ a hollow theory with which there would be no point in burdening ourselves.”[xiv]

Sharing in the life of God through Christ in the Spirit

“The doctrine of the Trinity,” according to LaCugna, “is a way of contemplating the mystery of God and of ourselves in relation to God, or a heuristic framework for thinking correctly about God and about ourselves in relation to God.”[xv] Not only does the doctrine offer us a framework for our thoughts, it envisages a way for humanity to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit. This human participation in the divine life cannot be set forth in a set of logical step-by-step instructions. A former colleague of LaCugna’s, Mary Catherine Hilkert, has observed that, although LaCugna valued rigorous philosophical argument, “theology’s starting point and norm were located not in philosophical first principles or adherence to strict logical coherence, but in fidelity to ‘God's logic’ as disclosed in the history of salvation—pre-eminently in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit in the ongoing life of the Christian community.”[xvi]

For LaCugna, relationality was at the heart of the doctrine of God. She considered the personal and communal dimensions of Christian faith to be inseparable: “The heart of Christian faith is the encounter with the God of Jesus Christ who makes possible both our union with God and communion with each other. In this encounter God invites people to share in divine life and grace through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; at the same time, we are called to live in new relationship with one other, as we are gathered together by the Spirit into the body of Christ.”[xvii]

Our Bond with Others is Anchored in Divine Life

LaCugna was an award-winning teacher and an award-winning author. Her students appreciated her emphasis on a relational theology. Rather than devoting weeks of lectures to the intricacies of fourth century theological debates, she created a visual representation of the triune God’s relationship with creation and creation’s relationship with the triune God.[xviii]  She referred to the “shape” of salvation history as that described in the liturgical hymn of thanksgiving from Ephesians 1:3-14. A parabolic shape serves as a model for the trinitarian expression of God’s plan of salvation. The downward then upward swoop of the parabola with the arrow at its right-hand end symbolises life in communion and the movement toward eternity. This movement is to be understood as “the path of God’s own personal exodus and return through history” and our way back to God.[xix]

LaCugna sought to convey that there is no hidden deity remote from the living God revealed in the biblical narrative. The model expresses visually a trinitarian formula cited by the Fathers of the early church. Cyril of Alexandria (412-444), for example, often wrote that “everything is from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.”[xx] The living God is for us and with us as we come into the world, throughout our earthly lives and at our departing.

LaCugna’s writing on divine and human personhood is rich and profound. Below is a passage from God for Us in which she explores her approach to Christian ethics and “persons in communion” in the context of her theological model of exodus and return.

we are in right relationship to other persons when we see them not as a means to an end, nor as creatures designed to meet our relational needs, but persons in their own right who share the same destiny of glory. The mutuality of persons is located not in the face-to-face of persons who relate to each other out of equal strength, equal talent, equal ability to contribute to the relationship; mutuality refers to the common ground of every person in the origin of personhood, God (Father), and the common telos of glorifying God and eternal union with God. When we approach other persons in their sacred inviolability as icons of God, images of the highest and most perfect exemplification of what it means to be a person, then our attitude toward others becomes active benevolence. We do all in our power to help them realize (or at least not stand in the way of) their vocation to glory. Our bond with others is anchored in divine life. Our communion with other persons is an aspect of our communion with God.[xxi]

Learning from Catherine LaCugna

Having now had some years to reflect on the ways in which both a successful medical intervention and the doctrine of the Trinity can be considered practical, I have come to a place of greater integration. The skill of my doctor and the efficacy of the medication she prescribes exist within a network of relationships, rights, opportunities and responsibilities, all centred on the one relational God who has become one of us in Christ, and who sustains us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. I have greater awareness of the fragility of life. My approach to health is more holistic and I am learning to be content with my various weaknesses. I know more than ever that I am fortunate to be living in a country which has a Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. At the same time, I know that many people in this country, and internationally, do not have access to anywhere near the quality of medical attention I enjoy. That I have a responsibility to help address these and other injustices is undeniable, and I offer my gratitude, gifts and energy, along with an openness to guidance, to the living God. After 20 years of intentional discernment, my journey continues.

What most inspires me about Catherine LaCugna is the wisdom she brought to her theological writing on integrating mind, body, spirit and community to the greater glory of God. She recommended that the theologian “be engaged with God affectively as well as cognitively, imaginatively as well as discursively, silently as well as expressively, doxologically as well as academically.”[xxii] Catherine died of cancer at the age of forty-four in 1997. I have read several tributes to her life and work. Evidently, LaCugna’s way of living was congruent with the passion for God and for social justice she conveyed in her academic output. One of her doctoral students, Nancy Dallavalle, commended not only the “directness of her engagement with the reality of God” in her writings but the “combination of fearlessness and utter humility” with which she lived out her faith. Dallavalle observed that LaCugna’s “formidable intellect and deep sense of pastoral compassion were not complementary powers but the fruits of a single-minded focus on the Holy.” Most importantly, for Catherine, “the movement of creation from God and to God (exitus-reditus) was no mere model, but a deeply held conviction about the origin and end of the world and its creatures, herself included.”[xxiii]

Entering Another Person’s Predicament: Discerning at Synod

And so, I return to my earlier “wondering.” What might the doctrine of the Trinity, as presented by LaCugna, offer members of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania as they meet in July to discuss the Victorian Parliament’s VAD legislation? The main focus of the doctrine of the Trinity, according to LaCugna, is the communion between the triune God and humanity (and all of creation). The distinctiveness of Christian ethics lies in its christological and pneumatological basis: “christological because in baptism we undertake to live as Jesus lived, pneumatological because the Spirit acts in us, conforming us to the person of Christ and engrafting us into the life of God.”[xxiv] LaCugna advocated that the right response to the living God consists of “everything that supports and promotes the flourishing of persons (and) whatever signifies that we are living out the promises of baptism and the hope of the Eucharist.”[xxv] Conversely, she warns that everything that “reduces persons to the conditions of impersonal existence – a cog in the machine; the annihilation of uniqueness; confinement by conditions of necessity – impedes moral life.”[xxvi]

Courage will be required of those discerning a way forward, as will an awareness of their unknowing in the face of the mystery of death. LaCugna’s department head at Notre Dame University, Lawrence Cunningham wrote of a lecture she gave seven months prior to her death: “Catherine LaCugna said that the true teacher, like the true theologian, embraces unknowing. From that unknowing comes the habit of intellectual compassion, a compassion that allows us to enter another person’s predicament.”[xxvii] The contribution of all members at Synod, of biblical scholars, systematic theologians, lawyers, ethicists, chaplains and doctors will, of course, be greatly valued in the decision-making process. Like Catherine LaCugna, though, we acknowledge that as creatures we “know only in part,” and so the guidance and communion of the Holy Spirit will be sought as the Synod formulates its response.

As I write this, I can’t help ask myself again, isn’t there something more tangible and precise I can say here? But we worship a God who spoke the world into being and yet passes by in the sound of sheer silence, who wept for a friend and yet who vanishes from sight when recognised, and who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts but we know that God created us, God loves us and God is for us – and so we follow.

The doctrine of the Trinity is “a signpost pointing beyond itself” to the relational, triune God;[xxviii] it is a lens to look through as we endeavour to meet the demands of the Gospel. At the VIC/TAS Synod Meeting in July, Uniting Church members will have the opportunity to exercise intellectual compassion and to humbly and “practically” participate in the divine life. The radical consequences for human life which LaCugna promises those who live trinitarian faith include a reconciled world in which the dignity of each person “in their sacred inviolability as icons of God” is realised in community. 

[i] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 1. 

[ii] See, for example, Robyn Whitaker and Jason Goroncy, “Voluntary Assisted Dying is Not a Black-and-White Issue for Christians - They Can, in Good Faith, Support It,” The Conversation, August 1, 2017, accessed January 24, 2019, https://theconversation.com/voluntary-assisted-dying-is-not-a-black-and-white-issue-for-christians-they-can-in-good-faith-support-it-81671. Rev. Dr Robyn Whitaker is Coordinator of Studies – New Testament at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity and member of the Uniting Church in Australia’s VicTas Synod’s Ethics Committee.

[iii] Quoted from the 2017 Meeting of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania’s Resolution by Consensus (

[iv] Jason Goroncy, “Euthanasia: Some Theological Considerations for Living Responsibly,” Pacifica 29, no. 3 (2016): 221–43. Rev. Dr Jason Goroncy is Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Whitley College, University of Divinity and member of the Uniting Church in Australia’s VicTas Synod’s Ethics Committee.

[v] Goroncy, "Euthanasia,” 235. Goroncy’s emphasis.

[vi] Goroncy, “Euthanasia,” 235, quoting Paul Badham, “A Theological Examination of the Case for Euthanasia,” in Facing Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach, ed. Paul Badham and Paul Ballard (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996), 113.

[vii] Goroncy, "Euthanasia,” 239.

[viii] LaCugna, God for Us, 1

[ix] LaCugna, God for Us, 379.

[x] LaCugna, God for Us, 379.

[xi] LaCugna, God for Us, 379.

[xii] David Cunningham, These Three are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 42-43.

[xiii] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “Can Liturgy Ever Become a Source for Theology?”  Studia Liturgica, 19, no. 1 (1989): 11.

[xiv] Henri de Lubac, The Christian Faith: An Essay on the Structure of the Apostles’ Creed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 11-12, quoted in LaCugna, God for Us, 379.

[xv] LaCugna, God for Us, 379.

[xvi] Mary Catherine Hilkert, “The Mystery of Persons in Communion: The Trinitarian Theology of Catherine Mowry LaCugna,” Word and World 18, no. 3 (1998): 341.

[xvii] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “The Practical Trinity,” The Christian Century, 109, no. 22 (1992): 679.

[xviii] LaCugna, God for Us, 223. Please note: LaCugna didn’t say it was the only possible model. This model has attracted much criticism and I have defended it at some length in my thesis, “A Study of the Trinitarian Theology of Catherine Mowry LaCugna with Particular Reference to Her Understanding of God as Transcendent” (PhD diss, University of Divinity, 2017), accessed January 24, 2019, https://repository.divinity.edu.au/3086/.

[xix] Catherine Mowry LaCugna and Kilian McDonnell, “Returning from ‘The Far Country’: Theses for a

Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 41, no. 2 (1988): 195.

[xx] LaCugna, God for Us, 25.

[xxi] LaCugna, God for Us, 347.

[xxii] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “Reconceiving the Trinity as the Mystery of Salvation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 38(1985): 22.

[xxiii] Nancy A. Dallavalle, “In Memory of Catherine Mowry LaCugna, 1952-1997,” Horizons 24, no. 2 (1997): 265. 

[xxiv] LaCugna, God for Us, 408.

[xxv] LaCugna, God for Us, 408. For more detail, read God for Us, chapter 10, “Living Trinitarian Faith.”

[xxvi] LaCugna, God for Us, 408.

[xxvii] Lawrence S. Cunningham, “God is For Us,” America 176, no, 19 (1997): 6.

[xxviii] LaCugna, God for Us, 321.