ROME – Both the Italian archbishop who heads the Pontifical Academy for Life, and an Ango-Italian economist who serves on it, struck back on Monday at critics who claim their statements and views are at odds with traditional Catholic doctrine on sexual morality.

Mariana Mazzucato, a Rome-born economist who’s served as an advisor to the UN, the World Health Organization, and the governments of both Scotland and South Africa, urged people to focus on her academic work, which she insisted have nothing to do with abortion or even religion.

Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the academy’s president, likewise brushed off criticism of his views on matters such as contraception, insisting that the academy’s role should be to promote academic reflection and discussion.

Both Mazzucato and Paglia spoke at a Feb. 12 press conference on the academy’s Feb. 12-14 general assembly, which holds the theme, “Human. Meaning and Challenges.”

Mazzucato’s appointment to the academy in October 2022 generated controversy among pro-life activists because of social media postings earlier that year criticizing a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in America.

Several Catholic entities, including the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC) voiced concern over Mazzucato’s appointment, maintaining that it was inappropriate for someone who publicly expressed pro-choice views to belong to a Vatican entity tasked with promoting the Church’s moral stance on life issues.

“I’m an academic, I’m an economist, I’ve never written an op-ed, a blog, a journal article or a book that has had even the word ‘abortion’ or ‘religion’ in it,” she said, saying that she has only engaged the issues in passing.

Mazzucato noted that she once retweeted a comic she believed illustrated hypocrisy surrounding abortion debates, and “the fact that a retweet in an academic conference like this is highlighted by a journalist who should be interacting with what we’ve just said, and what our expertise is, and what we will be talking about in this conference, I find that sad.”

This week’s conference is designed to address global issues related to climate change, bioethics, the risk of new pandemics, and new emerging and converging technologies, such as artificial intelligence.

Mazzucato said she believes Pope Francis gave her the “huge honor” of being part of the academy because her work as a professor and a researcher, as well as her engagement with policy makers.

“It’s all about redesigning the economy so that it’s good for humanity, it’s good for people all over the world, not just in the global north,” she said.

Throughout the world, Mazzucato said, “about 4.5 billion people, more than half of the world population, lack full access to essential health services; over 2 billion people are still without access to safely managed water, and one child under five dies every 80 seconds from diseases caused by polluted water; and climate change is on the course to cause 80 million excess deaths by the end of this century due to rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if your paper, and all papers and all journalists in the world had real curiosity to talk to biologists, physicists, poets, economists, with urgency and said what will you do, how will you help us, not asking an economist what she thinks about abortion,” she said.

Noting that she had four children in five years, Mazzucato she doesn’t think about issues such as abortion regularly, and that her work is focused on how to make life on earth “the best it can possibly be for the most people in the world, and I’m inspired by this pope because that’s what he talks about day in and day out.”

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Pope Francis 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’s role is far from the only source of controversy surrounding the Pontifical Academy for Life.

In the summer of 2022, another front opened with the publication of a text titled Theological Ethics of Life. Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges, which is a collection of papers delivered during a conference sponsored by the academy in the previous year.

Critics took issue with 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 drew further criticism when in August of that year, two months prior to Mazzucato’s appointment, 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.

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

Previously led by conservative Italian Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the academy under Paglia 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.

Questioned about a statement he apparently made during the 2022 uproar over Humanae Vitae speculating that either Pope Francis or a future pope would issue a new encyclical on contraception, Paglia said this was not an accurate representation of his position.

“I don’t believe I said it as you did,” he said, referring to the journalist who asked the question.

Paglia noted that on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Francis had said that “it’s good to reflect on these topics,” inviting theologians to continue deepening in their reflection and analysis.

He pointed a new text published by the academy titled, “The Joy of Life,” which is the base text that the controversial volume Theological Ethics of Life is based on.

This new text, Paglia said, “attempts to recharge the teaching of ethics and morality inside the history and development of the Church’s traditions, because this has happened continuously” throughout the Church’s existence, he said.

Noting that popes have held different positions on moral issues over the centuries, Paglia said he believes the Church’s moral teachings “require continual reflection.”

“In fact, it doesn’t just involve resolving certain questions. The problem is understanding in a more clear, passionate, and stronger way the behavior in respect to the inspirations of scripture in tradition and also the magisterium,” he said.

Paglia praised Paul VI’s emphasis on generativity in Humanae Vitae, which he said was such a strong concept at the time that it was eventually no longer a source of theological, philosophical and scientific discussion and reflection.

This lack of ongoing reflection and discussion, he said, “caused problems, such as demographic problems, fewer children and more elderly.”

“For this reason, the ethical problem is not solvable like in the 800s on singular cases, there is need for a new vision that accompanies people’s lives,” he said.

In a speech Monday inaugurating the assembly, Pope Francis said reflection on “what is distinctive about the human being” is a topic of “utmost importance” in the modern world, especially amid the rise of new technologies and broad experimentation with their potential uses.

He said scientific and technological progress must be situated within a broader “horizon of meaning” and condemned attempts at human reproduction through technology, likening this approach to the folly of the Tower of Babel in the Bible.

When it comes to technology, human creativity and responsibility must go hand in hand, he said, and praised the academy’s efforts to promote dialogue and a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas on these topics.

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