ROME – Over the past few months the Pontifical Academy for Life has made headlines several times over controversial publications and statements, and its social media activity, with the latest fracas surrounding a new member who holds pro-choice views on abortion.

On Oct. 15, the Vatican and the academy announced 14 new ordinary members, including Professor Mariana Mazzucato, an economist with dual Italian-US citizenship who teaches in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London and is founding director of the university’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.

Almost immediately when the names were released, debate erupted over the appointment of Mazzucato, who has been unshy about her atheism and support of abortion.

Best known for her advocacy in favor of broader state involvement in the private sector when it comes to driving innovation, Mazzucato in a June Tweet took issue with the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, responding “so good” to a piece of commentary criticizing pro-life Christians for “dictating” her reproductive rights.

Mazzucato also praised Pope Francis for comments he made that appeared critical of US President Donald Trump and condemning the global banking system, saying in a 2016 Tweet that “As an atheist, never thought I would love a Pope this much. What a star!”

She has been consulted by several prominent politicians around the world and has also collaborated with NASA in developing an analysis on an emerging space economy.

Pope Francis in March 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, praised Mazzucato’s 2018 book, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, saying her vision for the economy “can help to think about the future.”

Mazzucato was also among the speakers at conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences last year.

In a statement on Mazzucato’s appointment, the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC) voiced its concern, saying she has expressed views “favorable to procured abortion openly in the (social) media.”

They referred to the academy’s new statutes implemented in 2016, noting that “academicians are selected, without regard for their religion” but are chosen based on their “academic qualifications, proven professional integrity, professional expertise and faithful service in the defense and promotion of the right to life of every human person.”

The body said they wanted to remind the academy that per its own statutes, members are required “to conform with Church teaching,” and quoted a section of the statutes that insists members “promote and defend the principles regarding the value of life and dignity of the human person, interpreted in a way that conforms to the Magisterium of the Church.”

According to the statutes, an academy member can have their membership revoked “in the case of a public and deliberate action or statement manifestly contrary to [said] principles, or seriously offensive to the dignity and credibility of the Catholic Church and the Academy itself.”

The statement, signed by FIAMC’s president, two vice presidents, secretary general, and treasurer, says nothing further, but leaves the statutes to speak for themselves.

In a statement in response to the appointments, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the academy’s president, and its chancellor Monsignor Renzo Pegoraro, praised the appointments, saying “it is important that the Pontifical Academy for Life include women and men with expertise in various disciplines and from different backgrounds, for a constant and fruitful interdisciplinary, intercultural and interreligious dialogue.”

In response to critics arguing that a pro-choice atheist has no place on the Vatican’s Academy for Life, the academy’s spokesman, Fabrizio Mastrofini, issued a statement in which he echoed Paglia’s remark, saying, “this is why among the academics there are also non-Catholic people.”

These non-Catholic members, he said, include two Jewish rabbis, a member of the Shinto religion, several Muslims, and an Anglican.

He stressed that the appointment of all ordinary academics are made by the pope himself, “therefore, before being nominated, the names proposed or reported go through a procedure that foresees consultation with the apostolic nuncio and the episcopal conference of the countries where the academics work and live.”

Mastrofini said that also happened in this case, “and there were no problems.”

The academy is primarily “a study and research body. So, the debate and dialogue take place between people of different backgrounds,” he said, insisting that the academics chosen are all selected “from among scientists and experts of absolute importance,” which he said was something emphasized by Pope Francis in his 2019 letter to the academy, Humana Communitas.

Alluding to controversy that erupted after the publication of a volume by the academy this summer, Mastrofini said all documents the academy publishes are sent to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith before being published, and are therefore vetted for problematic content.

The volume in question is titled Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges, which is a collection of papers delivered during a conference sponsored by the Academy for Life last year.

Critics of the work took issue with the contributions from some theologians arguing for a distinction between moral norms, such as the church’s condemnation of artificial birth control, and the pastoral application of those norms in concrete circumstances, basically suggesting that in some limited circumstances, couples might be justified in choosing contraception.

A similar case was made on artificial reproduction, drawing sharp criticism from theologians and even other academy members who argued that these positions were incompatible with the academy’s mandate.

The academy also got into hot water in August after the academy’s official Twitter account dispatched a tweet arguing that St. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – which reinforced the church’s teachings on marriage and upheld its condemnation of artificial contraception – was not covered by the doctrine of papal infallibility, meaning it can be subject to change.

One of the Catholic Church’s most controversial doctrines, papal infallibility insists that the pope, in speaking ex cathedra, is preserved from error when he teaches on matters of faith and morals.

In their tweet, the academy argued that Humanae Vitae, and therefore its teachings, do not fall under papal infallibility, and that this was affirmed by Archbishop Ferdinando Lambruschini during the July 29, 1968, news conference presenting the encyclical to the press. Lambruschini was a moral theologian who taught at the Pontifical Lateran University.

The academy defended this position amid a wave of backlash, particularly on social media, but their response statement that the tweet containing it were later deleted.

Another point of contention for critics of the academy and its recent activity is the academy’s social media use, specifically its decision to shoot back at complaints directly from the academy’s formal account, raising the question about when a Vatican entity ought to engage criticism, and when it should let go.

Previously led by conservative Italian Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the academy under Paglia and with its new members and statutes has shifted toward a more progressive, pastorally oriented line in keeping with Pope Francis’s vision and priorities, meaning most of its critics come from the Catholic right.

Yet regardless of who is criticizing them and why, it is undeniable that the Pontifical Academy for Life – the most high-profile of the 11 pontifical academies given its dealings with sensitive issues in Catholic moral teaching – is increasingly becoming a lightening rod in the Francis papacy.

Whether this is for better or for worse depends on each person and where they stand, however, as long as they are it’s likely the academy will continue to generate noise for some time to come.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen