Vatican academy mulls how pro-life is pro-life enough

In the normally tranquil world of the Vatican, where keeping up at least the appearance of unity is a fine art, the Pontifical Academy for Life has long been something of an outlier. There, internal tensions have a habit of erupting into full public view.

The latest such row, featuring a public call from academy members for its papally appointed leadership to resign, pivots in part on the question of just how “pro-life” is pro-life enough to faithfully represent Catholic teaching.

Also at stake is whether affording a Vatican platform to people who don’t completely share Catholic positions risks blurring the church’s message — or whether refusal to engage in such dialogue betrays, as one Vatican cardinal has asserted, an insecure, “fundamentalist” position.

Founded by Pope John Paul II in 1994, the Pontifical Academy for Life is essentially a Vatican think tank composed of roughly 70 academics, medical experts and activists. It’s led by a bishop appointed by the pope, along with a small staff of Vatican personnel, and coordinated by a six-member governing council.

The recent controversy went public in early May, when Austrian Catholic philosopher and academy member Josef Seifert wrote a six-page open letter to Spanish Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, an Opus Dei member and president of the academy, to report “enormous concern” that the academy is losing “its full and pure commitment to truth.” The letter was released to the media.

Seifert cited two recent conferences held under the academy’s aegis as problematic: one last February on infertility, and another that had been scheduled for April on stem cell research. In both cases, Seifert charged, organizers had invited speakers who hold public positions contrary to Catholic teaching.

Seifert suggested that the academy’s leadership should step down.

Other academy members voicing complaints have included Belgian Msgr. Michel Schooyans, a retired professor at the Catholic University of Louvain; Mercedes Arzú Wilson, a Guatemalan natural family planning advocate; Christine de Vollmer, a Venezuelan who serves as president of the Latin American Alliance for the Family; and American Thomas Hilgers, founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction in Omaha, Neb.


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