Why Are So Many New Pontifical Academy for Life Members at Odds With Church Teaching on Life and Sexuality?
Four recent appointees to the academy have broken with the Church on the immorality of abortion and/or artificial contraception.
VATICAN CITY — So far it has emerged that two academics recently appointed full members of the Pontifical Academy for Life have expressed their public support for legalized abortion, another has advocated universal abortion access and use of artificial contraception among the poor, and a fourth new member, a Jesuit moral theology professor, has made it clear he supports artificial contraception in some cases.
Pope Francis also appointed to the academy’s governing council a French theologian and head of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, who has appeared to similarly promote contraception and approved of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples under certain conditions.
The Pope’s appointments, announced Oct. 15, have caused consternation among moral theologians, lawyers and Catholic doctors who have firmly reproved the choices as antithetical to the academy’s primary purpose. Pope St. John Paul II set up the institution in 1994 in “defense and promotion of the value of human life and of the dignity of the person.”
Critics have also argued that choosing such members runs contrary to the academy’s own statutes, revised in 2016, which mandate that each ordinary member (the highest rank of academy member) be chosen for, among other attributes, their “faithful service in the defense and promotion of the right to life of every human person.”
New academicians, the statutes add, must also “commit themselves to promoting and defending the principles regarding the value of life and the dignity of the human person, interpreted in a way consonant with the Church’s magisterium.” However, a requirement for new members to sign a statement promising to defend life in conformity with the Church’s magisterium was removed in 2017.
Moral theologian Father George Woodall, a former coordinating secretary at the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Register Oct. 26 that by appointing these new members, including a lecturer at a Pontifical University who seems to represent the proportionalist school of moral theology that sees choosing between the lesser of two evils as morally acceptable, the appointments had “provoked anxiety and dismay.”
“The intrinsic immorality, not of all killing of human life, but of the deliberate, direct killing of innocent human life, as taught across the centuries, was expressed authoritatively in [Pope St. John Paul II’s] 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae,” Father Woodall said. “That point of departure and of constant reference seems to be in danger of being undermined by these appointments.”
The Academy’s Response
The academy has defended its choice of new members, approved by Pope Francis for five-year terms, saying their backgrounds will help provide “a constant and fruitful interdisciplinary, intercultural, and interreligious dialogue.”
In a later Oct. 19 statement, the academy stressed that as a “body of study and research,” it was proper for “debate and dialogue take place among people from different backgrounds.” It also tried to offer reassurance, saying the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith must in any case approve all of its documents, and that all members are vetted through the apostolic nuncio and the bishops’ conference of the countries where they live and work.
Pope Francis, on receiving Pontifical Academy for Life President Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia on Saturday, reportedly had only praise for the Vatican body and expressed his “full appreciation” for its upcoming plans.
The most publicized of the controversial new ordinary members has been Mariana Mazzucato, an influential professor of the economics of innovation and public value at University College London, who published comments on Twitter around the time of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade that showed her support for abortion “rights.”
As well as tweeting the comment “so good!” in response to a rant by liberal commentator who derided Christians for “dictating” how she should live her life when it comes to abortion and contraception, Mazzucato also retweeted a number of other comments that were unmistakably in support of abortion rights.
They included her retweeting comments by Nicola Sturgeon, the head of the Scottish National Party, who tweeted on the day of the Dobbs decision that it was “one of the darkest days for women’s rights in my lifetime” and that “obviously the immediate consequences will be suffered by women in the US — but this will embolden anti-abortion & anti-women forces in other countries too. Solidarity doesn’t feel enough right now — but it is necessary.”
On the same day, Mazzucato retweeted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, who tweeted that “safe abortion is health care” because it “saves lives” and that “restricting it drives women and girls towards unsafe abortions, resulting in complications, even death. The evidence is irrefutable.” She also praised U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts that day, calling her tweet in reaction to the Dobbs decision “excellent.” On July 3, Mazzucato retweeted a tweet by Robert Reich, a former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, in which he said: “Call me a radical lefty, but I think it should be easier to get a life-saving abortion than an assault rifle.”
Archbishop Paglia defended appointing the economist, telling Catholic News Service last week that all the members, including Mazzucato, “have at heart the value of human life in their area of expertise” and “defend life in its entirety.”
He said the academy was “definitely against abortion” but the reason for including her was to “address attacks on life that come from inequality.” He also said the academy recognizes that in some situations, people of good will can support laws and public policy designed to reduce recourse to abortion while allowing the procedure in some cases. He added that according to their vetting, in Mazzucato’s “scientific work” she had “never taken a position against life” and her “deepest convictions” cannot be judged by four tweets, which may have been “pro-choice” but they were not “pro-abortion.”
Other New Appointees
But Mazzucato was not the only problematic selection: Roberto Dell’Oro, a bioethicist and theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles — and also made a full member of the Pontifical Academy for Life on Oct. 15 — attacked the Dobbs decision during an Oct. 12 panel discussion. As the Register reported last week, Dell’Oro said the decision failed to uphold democracy and he publicly urged support for legal abortion prior to the possibility of fetal pain.
“I submit that the ability of the fetus to feel pain represents the point at which the legal right to choose ought to end,” said Dell’Oro, who billed this language as a “compromise.” Until that moment, he contended, the freedom, autonomy and dignity of women call for a legal right to abortion.
A member of the audience criticized the event’s organizers, who included Dell’Oro, saying they did not include one voice that represented the Church’s teaching, which authoritatively affirms “the moral evil of every procured abortion” and is teaching that “has not changed and remains unchangeable” (No. 2271 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).
Dell’Oro acknowledged that “views were left out” and suggested another forum would be forthcoming.
The director of the Bioethics Institute at the Jesuit-run university, Dell’Oro had been a “corresponding member” of the Pontifical Academy for Life since 2015 before being promoted to being a full member, or “ordinary member,” on Oct. 15.
In addition to Mazzucato and Dell’Oro, the academy also appointed to full member this month Sheila Dinotshe Tlou, a nursing professor who is a former health minister in Botswana and a leader in HIV/AIDS prevention and other health causes, who has a history of advocating artificial contraception and abortion, including universal abortion access.
The website Catholic Arena discovered a number of tweets Tlou published over the past six years, including one issued in April 2016 in which she wrote: “There is no way we can end illegal abortions if we don’t set this one right and ensure that every woman has access.”
In September 2017, she retweeted a comment from the WHO that said “worldwide, an estimated 25 million unsafe abortions occur each year.” She commented: “Yes, with access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, we can end unsafe abortions that kill millions of women every day.”
A common theme in Tlou's tweets are calls for “sexual and reproductive rights for all” — that is, legalized abortions. She also contended in a tweet from November 2017 that without such “rights,” it will be “hard to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.” In 2019, Catholic Arena highlighted that Tlou was part of a WHO group on sexual and reproductive health and rights that stated: “To the full extent of the law, safe abortion services should be readily available and affordable to all women.”
CNA sought comment and clarification from Tlou about her abortion views but she declined to comment until after February 2023 when the Pontifical Academy for Life is set to hold its next inaugural meeting. In its Oct. 15, the academy said the appointments were made with that meeting in mind which will be on the theme “Converging on the Person. Emerging Technologies for the Common Good.”
Father Yáñez and Msgr. Bordeyne
A fourth new full ordinary member, Argentinian Jesuit Father Humberto Miguel Yáñez, has in the past promoted the use of artificial contraception in some cases within marriage. The director of the department of moral theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Father Yáñez was one of the chief organizers of a controversial series of 2017 talks at the university to mark 50 years since Humanae Vitae, Pope St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth.
In one of those talks, Italian moral theologian Father Maurizio Chiodi drew particular controversy after he drew on Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia to justify the use of contraception in some cases. Father Chiodi, whom Pope Francis had appointed an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2017, argued that where “natural methods are impossible or unfeasible,” it would be an act of “responsibility” to use artificial contraception. Critics said Father Chiodi’s thesis was contrary to Humanae Vitae, Veritatis Splendor (Pope St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical) and the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church.
Father Yáñez also participated in a secretive meeting at the Gregorian in 2015 to explore various “pastoral innovations” ahead of the Synod on the Family that year, and reflect on a new “theology of love” that critics warned — prophetically it turned out — would pave the way for recognition of same-sex relationships by some Church leaders. Other meeting participants went on to become full members of the academy: Jesuit Father Alain Thomasset, professor of moral theology at Centre Sèvres, France, and Anne-Marie Pelletier, biblicist at the European Institute of Science of Religions.
Pope Francis also appointed new people to the governing council of the Pontifical Academy for Life. They include Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, dean of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, who in 2015 also appeared to dissent from Humanae Vitae’s teaching on artificial contraception, saying “it would be reasonable to leave the discernment on birth control methods to the wisdom of couples,” although he later claimed he had been misinterpreted.
Last year, Msgr. Bordeyne wrote that he approved of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples “when they solicit the Church’s prayer to accompany their love, their union,” albeit with the double precaution of blessing them “preferably” in a liturgical form “of a private nature” and with a personal blessing for each member of the couple, “in order to mark the difference with the nuptial blessing prayers.”
Key Doctrines Shouldn’t Be Denied
In his reflections on the recent appointments to the Register, Father Woodall noted that the academy has “contributed enormously” to presentations of the Church’s moral doctrine in the past, especially in documents “on human cloning and stem cells over many years.” He also agreed that the academy needs to attend to new scientific developments not always limited to Catholic circles, and that the contributions of “renowned scientists, doctors, philosophers and theologians” have been “a great strength” over the years.
But he said experts without the faith could be brought in only as long as they “did not deny, attack or undermine key tenets of moral doctrine in bioethics and related areas.” And he stressed that given the weight of moral teaching of the pope, of the college of bishops, of the authentic magisterium, what is deemed “intrinsically immoral” (always sinful) such as abortion, contraception and same-sex acts, “cannot be objectively justified under any circumstances or for any good intention.” This “centuries-old doctrine,” Father Woodall said, was plainly laid out in Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae.