Pope Francis overhauls the Vatican's pro-life beachhead

Pope Francis overhauls the Vatican’s pro-life beachhead

In an overhaul on Tuesday of the Pontifical Academy for Life, long the Vatican's primary beachhead for the most robustly pro-life voices in the Church, Pope Francis appeared to send a signal that while he doesn't intend to muzzle the pro-life argument, he wants a body whose membership is less inclined to be combative and to protest against its own leadership.

ROME – Pope Francis on Tuesday appointed 45 news members to the Pontifical Academy for Life, long regarded as the Vatican’s primary beachhead for the most robustly pro-life voices in the Church, signaling that while he doesn’t intend to muzzle the pro-life argument, he wants a body less inclined to be pugnacious or rambunctious.

The new members named by Francis include a mix of clergy and laity, and also feature a number of non-Catholics, including other Christians, followers of other religions, and non-believers.

All previous members of the academy had been removed from their posts in November under the terms of new statutes developed under Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the current president, leaving Pope Francis free to completely overhaul the body’s membership.

Often pontifical academies are somewhat low-profile operations, essentially think tanks without much decision-making authority. Because of the intensity of pro-life debates in many parts of the world and the key role the Church often plays in them, however, vicissitudes at the Academy for Life are closely scrutinized by Vatican-watchers.

In recent years, academy members have shown a willingness to push back when they believe the Church’s pro-life witness is being compromised.

In 2009, roughly half the members of the academy protested against the body’s president at the time, Italian Archbishop Salvatore “Rino” Fisichella, after Fisichella published an article appearing to criticize a Brazilian bishop who had said the doctors responsible for an abortion on a nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather were excommunicated.

Twenty-seven of 46 members of the academy at the time signed a letter asking Fisichella to correct what they regarded as a “mistaken” impression about the Church’s position on abortion created by the article.

In 2012, some of the same members of the academy objected to a conference on infertility in which some speakers argued in favor of in-vitro fertilization, which the Church officially opposed.

More recently, some academy members have objected to a decision by Paglia to eliminate a requirement for new members to sign a statement promising to defend life in conformity with the Church’s magisterium from the body’s statutes.

Noticeably absent in the appointments announced on Tuesday were some of the leaders of those uprisings, such as Christine de Marcellus Vollmer, a Venezuelan living in the United States, president of the Alliance for Family and of the Latin American Alliance for Family; Monsignor Michel Schooyans, a Belgian and professor emeritus of the Catholic University of Louvain; and Luke Gormally, a former research professor at Ave Maria School of Law.

Those omissions may suggest that Francis wanted to send a message that academy members are not to engage in public protest against its leadership, and that in general he wants a less combative tone from the group.

On the other hand, among the figures who were appointed on Tuesday are several that have long been regarded as champions of the pro-life cause, including Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus; Cardinal Willem Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands; Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney in Australia; and John Haas, President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in the United States.

Anderson said on Tuesday, “I look forward to working with Pope Francis and the Pontifical Academy for Life in supporting an authentic human ecology and building a culture of life based on a proper understanding of the right to life and the dignity of each person.”

(The Knights of Columbus are a principal sponsor of Crux.)

Francis also named as “members for life” five former leaders of the academy, including retired Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna in Italy, long known as one of the most forceful pro-life voices at the senior levels of the Catholic hierarchy.

Those nominations are likely to be applauded in most pro-life circles. Despite them, however, it seems probable that some former members of the Academy for Life are unlikely to be reassured by its present course.

In a recent interview with Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, Vollmer complained that under Paglia’s leadership, the vision of St. John Paul II for the academy, to resist “neutralizing” respect for life in the contemporary world, is moving towards “elimination.”

Paglia, however, said in a statement on Tuesday that the appointments offer the church and the world a “deep and wise vision in the service of human life, especially life that is weakest and most defenseless.”

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