The chorus of criticism from former members of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) at the new appointees to the pope’s advisory board on life issues illustrates perfectly why the makeover was necessary.
Their fire has been directed, above all, at Rev. Nigel Biggar, an Anglican clergyman and moral theologian who is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christchurch College, Oxford, and director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. He is one of a handful of non-Catholics among the 45 new members from 27 countries announced last week.
Former members, notably the British bioethicist Luke Gormally and Christine Vollmer, president of the Latin-American Alliance for the Family, have described Biggar’s appointment as a “scandal” and “shocking” because the theologian once gave an interview in which he said he could imagine abortion being morally permissible up to 18 weeks from conception (a more conservative position, given that British law allows for abortion up to 24 weeks).
That is not, obviously, the Catholic Church’s stance, which as PAV’s new president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia points out, is “at the service of and in defense of life from the first moment of conception up to the final breath.”
But it is a classically Anglican position: one that avoids absolutism and seeks to engage with the mainstream views through a kind of via media.
That, of course, is why Biggar was invited to be a member: Not because he agrees with the Catholic position on everything, but because he is a leading Anglican pro-life voice who has written extensively against the legalization of euthanasia. He was recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked by Paglia to nominate a leading ethicist.
Biggar is one of a handful of appointees aimed at broadening out PAV’s membership, in order to build pro-life consensus, wherever possible, across the religious divides.
Other nominations include two Jews – Rabbi Fernando Szlajen, an Argentine rabbi with an extensive background in bioethics, and Avraham Steinberg, a Jewish director of the Medical Ethics Unit of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem – as well as a Muslim, Professor Mohamed Haddad, professor of Arab civilization and comparative religion at the University of Carthage in Tunisia. It is unlikely that they, too, agree with all of Catholic pro-life teaching.
But their inclusion is “a sign that the protection and promotion of human life knows no divisions and can be assured only through common endeavor,” Paglia says. In other words, the purpose of the Academy is to be in dialogue, helping to build pro-life consensus.
In this way, Paglia is bringing the PAV into line with other Vatican think-tanks such as the Academy for Science, which includes non-believers as members, and the Academy for Social Science, which includes materialists.
They are there not because they agree with the Catholic Church but because they share certain values, and it helps the cause to be in dialogue with them.
The idea that the PAV — created in 1994 by St. John Paul II — had to be an enclave for the ideologically pure was an aberration that led, in practice, to endless problems. The veteran vaticanista Sandro Magister once dubbed the PAV ‘the Pontifical Academy of Non-Stop Fighting’ because a hardcore group of members — including Gormally and Vollmer — regularly lambasted Vatican officials and even popes for failing to demonstrate their grade of ideological rigor.
There are countless examples, but it is hard to forget the way Benedict XVI was hounded by them after suggesting, in his 2012 interview book Light of the World, that a prostitute using a condom to prevent transmitting HIV/AIDS could be at the start of a moral journey. Gormally and Vollmer among others not only claimed that the pope was wrong, but was theologically incompetent and self-indulgent in choosing even to raise the issue.
In fact, the pope was gently settling an argument in favor of the Opus Dei ethicist and CDF consultor, Father Martin Rhonheimer, who had long argued against those members’ claims about what constituted Catholic teaching in such circumstances.
When Pope Francis re-wrote the PAV’s statutes and appointed Paglia to head the Academy, he wanted to avoid precisely the kind of situation where people of deeply conservative views could create a kind of counter-magisterium, sowing confusion about what the Church teaches.
The new PAV membership is packed with impressive Catholics known for their pro-life witness and fidelity to Catholic doctrine, as well as experts — among them a Nobel Prize in Medicine — who will bring great credibility, as well as intellectual heft, to the PAV. They represent, says Paglia, the academy’s “passion for human life.”
But they also represent an attempt by Francis and Paglia to break free of the stranglehold of a pro-life activism closely tied to traditionalist and conservative family-values politics, which has undermined the PAV’s credibility and hindered its pro-life witness. (Gormally, for example, is one of a number of traditionalist signatories to a letter claiming that Amoris Laetitia contains “dangers to Catholic faith and morals”).
In its new statutes, Francis broadens out the pro-life stance away from a narrow focus on bioethics and sexuality, calling for “the promotion of a quality of human life that integrates spiritual and material values, with a view to an authentic ‘human ecology,’ which may help to recover the original balance of creation between the human person and the entire universe.”
Among the outstanding new appointments is the Mexican Catholic philosopher and ethicist Rodrigo Guerra López, who interprets Francis’s brief as meaning broadening bioethics to take into account wider social developments.
Unless the pro-life stance includes compassion towards the poor and mercy to those who have failed, Guerra says in a recent interview, it will produce “distortions that turn the pro-life cause into just another ideology.” That is precisely what happened under the old PAV.
As he clarified in an email to Crux, Biggar was appointed because of his strong advocacy against the legalization of assisted suicide, such as this well-argued piece in Standpoint, rather than his views on abortion, about which he has written almost nothing.
The opinion he gave in response to a question in an interview six years ago was in the context of a concern “to maintain a general social commitment to upholding hindered human life” and “to draw the line much more conservatively” than attitudes and the law currently do, he told Crux.
In February 2015, Biggar wrote an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics which argued from reason for greater pro-life restrictions in the law before asking, rhetorically, how his faith influenced his views.
He described the way his Christian monotheism leads him to see all as creatures of one divine Father, his following of Christ leads him to accept that obligations to others can be costly, his view of the prophetic tradition of the Bible leads him to be sensitive to the plight of the weak and vulnerable, while as an “Augustinian Christian” he says he “may have to admit that it is not clear at what point a developing human being becomes a person deserving of the civil right not to be harmed under normal circumstances.”
Far better, he says, “that we admit the uncertainty that attends the status of the fetus than that we pretend that it is not an important consideration at all.”
He concludes by noting that “the roots of human wrongdoing reach far deeper than mere ignorance or social malformation” and lie in “loving the wrong things or loving the right things wrongly.” The danger that faces a liberal society that emphasizes individual freedom “is that it creates a society whose citizens are psychically incapable of seeing beyond their own inflated appetites and paying due attention to the rightful needs of others.”
Such a society, he says, “grows citizens who are disposed to be careless of others, and especially careless of fetal others, who can barely kick back.”
With all due respect to some of our Catholic bioethicists, it seems to me that this kind of reasoning from Christian principles has been all too lacking in some of our pro-life witness.
Rather than the ungracious language of “shocking” and “scandalous,” we should be welcoming the non-Catholic experts such as Biggar, and saying: “thank you for giving your time to the PAV; we — and the pro-life cause — will greatly benefit from your presence.”