Moral Theology Background Serves Him Well as Life, Family Advocate

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Moral theology, Auxiliary Bishop John Bonnici believes, “is a wonderful discipline and study; it really touches people at very personal moments in their lives—from the moment of conception until natural death, and every point in between.”

The challenge in 2022, he explained, “is a lot of the presuppositions that support an understanding of moral theology simply don’t exist today.” He cited as examples “an understanding and appreciation of natural law, or that there’s some objective order that transcends and remains constant for all peoples. That’s not really taught today, especially in higher education or even lower.”

Another challenge, he recognized, is that society today is based “very much on feeling as opposed to objective truth.”

“If you ask somebody how they feel about a particular issue or teaching of the Church, if they have a personal experience with that or they themself are struggling with that, they might have a negative response. But that negative response is not based in the teaching itself but in their feeling on how they respond to it.”

Feelings, he said, “are neither right nor wrong,” and feelings change “rather regularly.”

A “spirit of increased individualism” and “narcissism” are also obstacles, he said.

“There are a lot of things that moral theology addresses but you first have to help people understand what the teaching of the Church is based on, help them appreciate what that means.

“Don’t assume that their rejection or their questions are just mean-spirited. They just don’t have the full picture.”

He concedes that requires “a lot of work, but if you start, and equal the playing field, and say this is what the principles are philosophically, then you start building up. Then they start understanding and appreciating what you’re saying a lot more.

“And of course, God has a way of reaching people.”

Practicing the faith, including attending Mass and receiving the sacraments, are basic but crucial steps for Catholics to live a good, moral life, Bishop Bonnici advises.

“Grace builds on itself,” Bishop Bonnici said. “The more grace we receive, the stronger we are to not only understand the teaching, but to live it out in our daily lives.”

Ordained in 1991 after studying for the priesthood at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Bishop Bonnici earned a doctorate in moral theology and a licentiate in sacred theology from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family at Lateran University in Rome.

He served as director of the archdiocese’s Family Life/Respect Life Office, 1996-2002, and before that was assistant director for a year.

He was also an adjunct professor of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.

The day after then-Father Bonnici defended his doctorate in moral theology, he began his assignment as assistant director at the Family Life/Respect Life Office at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan.

“It was a challenging time back then, too,” he recalled. “There were a lot of issues, especially on the moral front, particularly with education—it’s like things don’t change.”

Among his duties as director was writing responses to queries for New York’s archbishop at the time, Cardinal John O’Connor.

“Anything that had to do with marriage, sex, divorce, cloning, you name it, came to our desks.” He also participated in public hearings, made press appearances on matters related to those topics and assisted with fund-raising for respect life causes.

In Albany, he served on the public policy committee with the New York State Catholic Conference.

“I had a great team of people,” he said of his staff at the Family Life/Respect Life office.

Among them, he noted, was Vera Galeas, whom he hired as coordinator for Hispanic family ministry and respect life.

“He’s the real thing,” said Mrs. Galeas, who also later worked with him as a pastoral associate and director of religious education when he was pastor of St. Philip Neri parish, the Bronx, and St. Columba parish, Chester.

He defined as their mission and vision at the Family Life/Respect Life Office “to reach out to each and every family of New York, especially our Hispanic community,” she said. “And it really hit me, because he wasn’t a Spanish priest.”

“Working with him was amazing,” Mrs. Galeas said, acknowledging his good-natured humor and gift as a natural leader. “We did so, so much. It was awesome. He was merciful and loving and taught us different ways of how to go to the community to talk to them about life.”

She also recalled his dedication and devotion through the years in advocating for life causes in Albany and Washington, D.C., speaking with elected officials and attending the National March for Life.

“He is an open book—a humble, joyful, prayerful, connected-to-the-people priest. He will be the bishop for the people.”

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