Several former members of the Vatican’s official Pontifical Academy of Life have formed a new independent academy, nearly a year after Pope Francis issued new statutes for the institution founded by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994.
Austrian Josef Seifert, a professor of philosophy, announced the new “John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family” on Oct. 28 at a Rome conference on Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical by Blessed Pope Paul VI which reaffirmed the Church’s prohibition against artificial contraception.
Francis issued new statutes for the pontifical academy in November 2016 to widen the scope of its activity and research on life issues, while at the same time terminating the academy’s membership.
The new statutes said the defense of life must include “the care of the dignity of the human person at different stages of life,” as well as “the promotion of a quality of human life that integrates its material and spiritual value with a view to an authentic ‘human ecology’ that helps recover the original balance of creation between the human person and the entire universe.”
In June, Francis named new members to the academy, who would serve five-year, renewable terms.
For the first time, non-Catholics were appointed, and critics complained that some of the members held views contrary to Catholic teaching on certain issues, such as euthanasia.
Seifert, who taught at the University of Dallas in the 1970s and is the founding Rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, was one of several life-members of the academy not re-appointed to the body.
In announcing his new academy, Siefert said the former members of the Academy for Life had “made a commitment” to support the goals intended by John Paul.
He also said the new institution would be a “lay nongovernmental organization that will remain independent of civil and religious organizations.”
The Austrian professor was considered the leader of the most conservative wing of the pontifical academy, and drew controversy for his strong opposition to Amoris Laetitia, Francis’s document on marriage and the family.
Even during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Seifert was seen as a firebrand. He opposed the statement of the academy’s then-president, Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, criticizing a Brazilian bishop for declaring excommunications for the mother and doctors of a 9-year-old girl who had an abortion following sexual abuse by her stepfather.
(Fisichella now heads the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.)
In 2012, Seifert led the opposition to two conferences – one on infertility and the other on stem cells – which were to be sponsored by the academy.
Seifert wrote an open letter to Spanish Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, who was head of the academy at the time, accusing the institution of losing “its full and pure commitment to truth.”
For years, Vatican insiders said the Academy for Life had become ineffectual because of the faction led by Seifert, with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi even speaking of the influence of “fundamentalists” within the body.
Seifert always insisted he was following the vision laid down by John Paul.
Seifert said the new John Paul II Academy would work “against all social or historical pressures of the spirit of our time that wants us to water down or to deny entirely the truth that there are intrinsically evil acts.”
“These voices pretend that the times of the old rigid moral rules are over, we cannot claim anymore that adultery, homosexual relations, contraception, abortion or euthanasia are intrinsically wrong under all circumstances,” he explained.
Seifert said they would “never compromise the truth by adapting our moral judgments to the ethical opinions dominant today,” but only “seek new ways to make men understand and live the same old, nay eternal truths, that can never change.”
In addition to former members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Seifert said the new John Paul II Academy will include a former Professor of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, which Francis re-founded as the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in September.
Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who serves as both the current president of the Academy for Life and the Grand Chancellor of the new theological institute, told Crux at the time, “I won’t allow anyone to be more ‘pro-life’ than me.”