Though for Americans it may be overshadowed by the appointment of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell to run the Vatican’s new mega-department for laity, family and life issues, Pope Francis made another key personnel move Wednesday by tapping Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as head of two bodies devoted to the pro-life cause.

Paglia was put in charge of both the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Both are considered primary Vatican agencies for engaging what Americans know as the “life issues,” including abortion, contraception and euthanasia.

The choice of Paglia, therefore,  offers an important signal about how Pope Francis wants the Church’s pro-life activity to develop.

Paglia, 71, has served as President of the Pontifical Council for the Family since 2012. That office has been folded into the new department to be led by Farrell.

Generally speaking, popes don’t issue explicit marching orders when they name someone to a job. Francis, however, did precisely that on Wednesday, publishing a “chirograph,” usually meaning a papal document whose circulation is restricted to the Roman Curia.

The pontiff opened the letter by saying he wants the activity of Vatican offices dedicated to marriage, family and life issues to be “ever more clearly inscribed within the horizon of mercy.”

After citing his two recent Synods of Bishops on the family and his own document, Amoris Laetitia, drawing conclusions from those gatherings, Francis told Paglia that even “in theological study, a pastoral perspective and attention to the wounds of humanity should never be missing.”

Francis then ticked off several issues he wants Paglia to focus on in his new assignments.

  • “Care for the dignity of the human person in different ages of existence.”
  • “Reciprocal respect between the sexes and among the generations.”
  • “Defense of the dignity of every single human being.”
  • “Promotion of the quality of human life that integrates material and spiritual values.”
  • An “authentic human ecology,” which can help restore “the original balance of creation between the human person and the entire universe.”

“To kneel before the wounds of the human person, in order to understand them, care for them and heal them, is the duty of a Church that trusts in the light and the strength of the risen Christ,” Francis wrote.

That will be a Church, he added, “capable of facing places of tension and conflict like a ‘field hospital,’ where it lives, announces and realizes its mission of salvation and healing, precisely in the lives of individuals most threatened by the new culture of competition and disposal.”

Francis ended by saying that he expects Paglia to carry out his tasks in collaboration both with Farrell’s new department, and also a separate one being created for charity, justice and peace, which will also absorb a preexisting office for health care.

Created in 1994 under St. Pope John Paul II, the Pontifical Academy for Life is devoted to research and study on bioethical issues including IVF, stem cell research, euthanasia and abortion.

The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family was created by the late pope himself in 1981. Its original setting was Rome’s Lateran University, which remains its headquarters, but today it also has campuses in the United States, Benin, Brazil, India, Mexico, Spain, Australia and the Philippines.

Paglia is a longtime leader in the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic movement founded in Rome in 1968 and dedicated to ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue and conflict resolution. As an expression of that spirit, Paglia is the postulator, or official in charge, of the sainthood cause for Blessed Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was seen as a champion of the poor and oppressed.

In political terms, Paglia is generally viewed as center-left and not associated with a forceful, aggressive style of confronting pro-life matters.

Although Paglia holds degrees in theology, philosophy and pedagogy, he has not engaged in much professional scholarship, which is considered a bit unusual for the head of a pontifical academy. He also doesn’t have a specialized background in either science or bioethics, which make up the lion’s share of the work of both the institute and the academy.

Vatican observers take that to mean Francis wanted someone with Paglia’s broad outlook in these positions, and detailed qualifications were deemed secondary.