Archbishop Paglia Lays Out His Vision for the Pontifical Academy for Life

The archbishop also fields some ‘hardball’ questions related to criticisms of some of his actions.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia at a press briefing about the next World Meeting of Families, to be held in 2018 in Dublin, Ireland.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia at a press briefing about the next World Meeting of Families, to be held in 2018 in Dublin, Ireland. (photo: Walter Breitenmoser / Catholic News Agency)

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who has served as president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and of the John Paul II Institute since last August, isn’t reluctant to answer tough questions.

Replying to email questions from Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin asking him to outline his vision for his new Vatican assignment and his response to a number of concerns raised by observers about his leadership of the academy as well as previous matters, Archbishop Paglia prefaced his replies by noting, “I have come to see more and more clearly how important the United States is in all discussions of Life, Holy Matrimony and the Family. For that reason, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the National Catholic Register, a leading American Catholic paper, about my mission.”

Added the archbishop, “I am particularly happy that Mr. Pentin has not only asked about my vision for my new assignment but has also raised a number of ‘hardball’ questions that have been asked about the Academy and me since the Holy Father announced my appointment last August. I know that to be a credible preacher of the Gospel of Life-Marriage-Family, I have to be able to answer tough questions, and I am sure that Mr. Pentin’s questions reflect his commitment, and that of his paper, to the Gospel and his hope for the fruitfulness of my mission.”


Your Excellency, how have you found being president of the academy over the past nine months? What have been the challenges for you?

My appointment to the Academy and the John Paul II Institute was made in the context of the Holy Father’s general reorganization of the Roman Curia. Thus, at a strategic level I have had to reflect on how to take two already-existing, and complex, institutions and make them able to cooperate with each other on a broader range of issues related to Life, Holy Matrimony and Family, and to work closely with the other Curia bodies, particularly the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. At the same time, I have had to deal with logistical questions of staffing, budgets, scheduling and corporate communications across a wide variety of cultural and linguistic contexts. Fortunately, I am blessed with a staff that, while small, is extraordinarily capable and extraordinarily committed to their mission and to the Gospel.

The Academy’s greatest challenge is, and always will be, helping the world to understand the meaning of life and its spiritual destiny. As the world becomes more globalized and as varying, and sometimes opposing, visions of life struggle for global recognition and supremacy, the Academy must be able to express clearly what it means to be human and must present an attractive vision of human love and solidarity that can guide individuals and communities to choose rightly as they deal with situations over which they often have little control. Our task is a difficult one, but I am confident as I remember that the Church has a great treasury of human and Gospel wisdom that can inspire all cultures to a new and fruitful humanism.


What are your own hopes and plans for the academy? What is your overall vision?

My great initial hope for the Academy is that we will be able to present to the Church such a compelling, positive vision of the value and beauty of life that believers will be able to overcome the differences, and sometimes the suspicions, that prevent them, as persons of unquestioned goodwill, from cooperating with each other on life-related questions that are supremely important but on which reasonable and good persons may differ. Related to that is my hope that, when the Holy Father announces the new and renewed membership of the Academy, the Membership will be seen as not only talented and accomplished, but also as truly representative of all who value life at all its stages, who understand life’s joys, sorrows, challenges and satisfactions, and who are committed to the realization of the great purposes for which our Lord God has brought life itself into the world.

My vision for the Academy is for it to have a sense of urgency and purpose as it addresses the broad range of issues that today affect life at its most basic level. We must examine in depth the questions, the ideas and the opposition that society raises to the Christian understanding of life. We must free our discussions from simplistic assumptions. We must be passionate in our love for objective truth. We will work for a culture that is able to gather and add value to all those traditions that speak with truth and love about the human condition, and to promote concrete positive action wherever the meaning and value of life is put at risk or questioned.


How important is the academy to the life of the Church?

Pope Francis, in Article I of the new Statutes of the Academy, mandates it to defend and promote human life through scientific research, the formation and education of believers, and broad-based communication about life-related questions within the Church and to the world at large. I believe that this mandate makes it possible for the whole Church to derive great benefit from the work of this body of committed and talented scientists and scholars who have a positive influence in their professional communities. In today’s world, thanks to the seed planted centuries ago by Christian learning and service to humanity, the values of individual freedom and personal dignity have flowered and brought great good to our lives, our marriages and our families, but that good must be protected from the dangers presented by the selfishness and relativism that we see as real and growing threats all around our globalized world today. If the Church and the world are to continue to enjoy the benefit that life itself produces, they must be able to look to institutions like the Academy for guidance and support in the face of the perils that more and more surround them.


Many are concerned about your dismissal of all [Academy for Life] members. Why did you dismiss them — also, according to reports — without any notification?

The Academy’s new Statutes, promulgated last November by Pope Francis, based on draft proposals submitted to the Holy See by my predecessor, contain a term-limits provision that was not in the prior statutes, and we needed to find a way to reconcile the new limits with the essentially lifelong appointments of existing Ordinary Members, and to deal with other changes in the membership provisions. We thought that the fairest way to proceed was to have all memberships be subject to the same rules, and that the most efficient way to implement that principle was to have all existing terms expire at the end of 2016, subject to reappointment, as the Holy Father determines, under the new Statutes, which became effective on Jan. 1, 2017. As a point of interpretation, I wouldn’t use the word “dismissal” to describe those expirations, since I believe that “dismissal” connotes a judgment as to the fitness of a Member, which was not the case.

As to notification to the Members, the reports you refer to are incorrect. Upon the promulgation of the Statutes on Nov. 6, 2016, I sent a letter to all Members describing the new Statutes and informing them that all memberships would expire on the last day of 2016. For fuller information, I am attaching to this email a copy of the text of that letter.


By changing the statutes to allow members who do not have to sign a declaration of fidelity to the Church’s pro-life teachings, critics say you are effectively neutering the academy — that it will lose its raison d’être and wither. Why did you change the statutes, and what do you say to the critics of the move?

With respect, I would ask the critics you mention to read and compare the old and new versions of the Statutes more carefully. I think they will find that the new Statutes require a stronger commitment on the part of Members to the Church’s pro-life teaching than do the old. The new statutes themselves require Members to promote and defend the principles of the value of life and the dignity of the person, interpreted in conformity with the Magisterium of the Church. The old Statutes contained only an invitation, not a requirement, to sign a separate document referring to those principles. I intend no criticism of the drafters of the old Statutes. I am sure their hearts were in the right place, but I want to confirm to all who are committed to the protection of life, and I want them to understand, that the new statutes reflect a commitment to life on the part of the Church and the Holy Father that is every bit as strong as that of the great founders of the Academy for Life, and that after very careful consideration, we believe that the new Statutes are drafted in a way that expresses that commitment more clearly and more strongly than did the old version. In that context, however, I also want to point out that the Academy’s absolute fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium in no way means that we are unable to undertake joint initiatives or enter into dialogue with persons who do not share our Catholic belief and commitment.


What do you say to criticism that you are merely following a worldly zeitgeist that has disregard for human life and betraying the purpose of the [Academy for Life] as envisioned by Pope St. John Paul II?

That is a broad criticism, but I would first ask them to read what I have said and written about Life, Holy Matrimony and the Family (much of which is available in English) and what the Academy has published and done in the months since I took office. Second, I would invite you or them to let me know what specific things they think justify that criticism. I would be happy to try to answer them. Many of my various speeches and lectures can be found on the following website:

On a personal note, with respect to Pope St. John Paul II and his vision for the Academy, I am honored to let the critics you mention know that it was based on my long association, and friendship, with him that, during his process for Beatification, I was chosen to testify as to his sanctity and worthiness.


Some argue that a homosexual lobby is behind these changes and that you are part of it. Is any of this true?



Why did you support a sex-education program, “The Meeting Point: Project for Affective and Sexual Formation,” which critics described as “immoral,” “inappropriate” and “tragic”?

The Program was created in Spain by the Spanish Bishops’ Conference. Those involved in its formulation were a group, led by Bishop Mario Iceta of Bilbao, who were experts in the field, and many of whom studied at the John Paul II Institute. At the suggestion of a number of experts of unquestioned doctrinal integrity, the Pontifical Council for the Family accepted the Program and promoted it during the 2016 World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. The Program is completely faithful to the Church’s Magisterium in matters of sexual morality, but in order to more effectively present to young people the beauty of the Christian vision of sexuality, it did make use of ways that young people communicate with each other in today’s world. Criticisms that have arisen about the Program, based principally on certain pictures that were used and on a number of translation mistakes, show that programs intended for worldwide distribution have to be adapted to varying cultural contexts and sensibilities, especially in this delicate area. I agree that this aspect of the Program should have been dealt with more thoughtfully and professionally. I’m already in my 70s, but it’s never too late to acknowledge that “you live and learn.”


Why did you have the mural painted in Terni cathedral? What do you say to criticism that it is blasphemous, that to depict Jesus Christ in a homoerotic mural in the presence of the tabernacle is “demonic”?

The heavily industrialized Terni area was among the most de-Christianized areas in Italy when Pope St. John Paul II appointed me Bishop there at the turn of the Millennium. The extent of the anti-Church feeling there was revealed to me by the almost-humorous situation where city authorities had arranged the pattern of one-way streets in a way that made it impossible to reach the Cathedral by car. One great theme of my preaching in such circumstances was reliance on God’s mercy to deliver us from eternal punishment, and in that context I was presented with a project for a mural that would show the risen Christ gathering into nets all of wounded and suffering humanity and, as their Redeemer, bringing them with him as he ascended to Heaven and the Father. In the mural, humanity is shown naked to express its radical poverty, and I too am included in the mural as one who needs redemption no less than anyone else. It has been in the Cathedral for more than 10 years with no objection from the local Catholic community, and I believe it is seen by the community as a part, perhaps to some a too fleshy part, of an overall evangelizing commitment. Current discussion about it seems to have originated from an interview given recently in London by the artist, where I’m informed it has been the object of serious artistic study. The mural is not and was not intended to be erotic in any way, including homoerotic, but I am aware that artistic standards of modesty and appropriateness vary widely even in Western and Western-origin cultures, and that seems to be the case here. While I want to make my answer to this question useful, and am sensitive to the concerns raised in it, I don’t think that specifically addressing the hyperbolic, and inaccurate, adjectives “blasphemous” and “demonic” is productive. Parenthetically, my mission in Terni was not an easy one, but by the time I left, it was finally possible to get to the Cathedral by car.


Why did you praise the late Marco Pannella, given his key role in legalizing abortion in Italy and support for divorce and same-sex “marriage”?

Marco Pannella was a radical left-wing Italian political figure well-known in his home country, but little-known elsewhere. He and I had many serious conversations toward the end of his life, each of us being clear about our own beliefs and positions. Sadly, I got to know him only as he grew older, and thus did not have a chance to discuss with him his many political battles. Like many Italian anticlericals, he was a person of great kindness, but one who always stood firm for his ideals. At his request, I accompanied him in his last days and can confirm that he derived great spiritual comfort simply from clinging to the pectoral cross of the martyr Archbishop Blessed Oscar Romero that I placed in his hands whenever I visited him. After his death, I did indeed praise his humanity and his innate but sadly misguided goodness because he deserved that measure of praise, but no one who heard me would ever conclude that I or the Church condoned the terrible evils that he unfortunately considered acceptable. I hope that in death he finds the mercy and forgiveness that the Lord has promised to those who trust in Him.


You were involved in allegations of a financial scandal in Terni, concerning embezzlement and the sale of a castle. Has that been resolved?

Yes. The 2014-15 failed real estate transaction you refer to, leaving aside its local partisan and anti-Church political aspects, did involve two diocesan employees; and as part of the necessary preliminary investigations, I, as Bishop, was informed that any possible involvement on my part would be examined. The matter received media attention in Italy, and, since preparations were underway in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families that I was responsible for, it received significant attention in the Philadelphia secular and Archdiocesan media as well. The preliminary investigations took their normal course, and in September 2015, precisely during the celebration of the World Meeting, the court having jurisdiction dismissed me from the matter and issued a complete exoneration in my regard. The fact that the question of my possible involvement still seems open today is perhaps explainable by the fact that none of the media that had originally disseminated the matter so widely, including the Philadelphia secular and Archdiocesan media, covered the dismissal and exoneration at a level proportionate with the attention they gave to the original story. [To back up his case, the archbishop also sent a press release his office issued at the time.]