Catholic Perspectives in Short Supply at Vatican Health Conference

No effort was made to communicate the Church’s call for vaccines made without using abortion-derived tissues, or to present Church wisdom on a number of issues discussed at the event.

(L-R) Clinton Foundation Chair Chelsea Clinton, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the Biden administration and anthropologist Jane Goodall all took part in the Vatican's Health Conference May 6-8, 2021.
(L-R) Clinton Foundation Chair Chelsea Clinton, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the Biden administration and anthropologist Jane Goodall all took part in the Vatican's Health Conference May 6-8, 2021. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

VATICAN CITY — A three-day conference on global health co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture wrapped up last week with Pope Francis praising the online event for uniting “philosophical and theological reflection to scientific research, especially in the field of medicine.”

More than 100 speakers, including eminent doctors and medical experts and the CEOs of COVID vaccine manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer, took part, as did such well-known figures as the Biden administration’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chelsea Clinton, supermodel Cindy Crawford and conservationist Jane Goodall. 

Each shared their brief reflections at the May 6-8 conference — the fifth of its kind to be hosted by the Pontifical Council — dedicated this year to the theme “Exploring the Mind, Body & Soul: How Innovation and Novel Delivery Systems Improve Human Health.” The reflections were on video and for the most part pre-recorded, so there wasn’t an opportunity for questions from the media.

Discussions relevant to the medical community took place. Among these were on the advantages of new technologies, discovering better methods of collaboration and finding the best ways to deal with modern-day challenges such as the COVID-19 crisis. Topics also ranged from mental health disorders and obesity to eliminating health disparities and making cancer care affordable. 

As with the fourth such conference in 2018, the 2021 edition, which one of the co-hosts called the “Davos of health care” conference, looked set to give prominence to the concerns of large biotech and pharmaceutical companies and give platforms to speakers with views diametrically opposed to Church teaching. This led to concerns that the Church’s perspective might be marginalized as a result.  

But the Vatican offered reassurances before the conference that the meeting would be an opportunity for the Church to “challenge” these participants and ask them “difficult questions.” 

Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, head of the science and faith department at the Pontifical Council for Culture and one of the event’s key organizers, told the Register in April that the meeting was important “to try to understand them and challenge them to understand us and our point of view.” 

So did that happen, and was the Church’s teaching clearly and forcefully articulated in a Vatican setting?

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, opened the conference by speaking about the relevance of what he called “three stars” of the conference: the Incarnation, ancient Greek philosophers and the complexities of the mind. Half a dozen religious-themed segments followed over the three days, but each was much shorter than those on health and other topics, and the Catholic faith was only vaguely mentioned.

The first was titled “Religion and the Pandemic,” during which Cardinal Ravasi was joined by Rabbi Elie Abadie, a medical doctor in the United Arab Emirates, Dale Renlund, an elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon church), and Shaykh Asim Yusuf, a British imam and psychiatrist. Cardinal Ravasi spoke of the challenges of finding meaning in suffering and its arbitrary nature — questions, he said, that philosophy and theology have been asking for years “without finding a definitive response.” 

Renlund, Abadie and Yusuf later discussed “religious dietary practices and health” but no Catholic or Orthodox Church members were present to share any health benefits of fasting. Another segment on whether “love is finite or unlimited” also featured the same three speakers, but no Catholic. Cardinal Ravasi joined them again to discuss “Religion, Spirituality and Health: The Importance of Dialogue,” during which they noted humanity is a “bridge uniting us” and the need to be “trans-disciplinary.” Yusuf commented that “religion and the Islamic religion particularly … can be fundamentally reduced to one concept, which is harmony.” 

The four religious leaders appeared again for a very short segment entitled, “How Do You Define the Soul?” Cardinal Ravasi said that, “from a scientific point of view, a demonstration of a transcendental reality is obviously not possible.” 

Abadie and Yusuf, along with Holy Cross Father Terrence Ehrman, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, would appear again in another very short session on “Humanity and Humility,” during which they discussed the “brotherhood of humanity” and the “power of compassion toward all, regardless of religion, race or other differences that supposedly separate us.” In his very brief remarks, Father Ehrman spoke about ecology and the need to respect creation “in accord with that logic with which it's created.”

A roundtable on “human enhancement” offered arguably the most significant opportunity to challenge those present with the Church’s teaching on ethics and science. Msgr. Trafny, one of its four presenters, brought up the ethical problems of transhumanism and challenged the scientists present not to “destroy who we are” and not “introduce irreversible changes in our genome.” 

Mostly, however, the floor was given over to discussions about health matters with roundtables and discussions on such themes as “Shaping the Future of Health Care for a Healthier World,” “Are We What We Eat?” and “Disrupting Health Care Through Technology and Innovation.” 

When subjects besides ethical issues were covered about which Catholic priests, religious or laity could have shared their expertise, such as empathy and compassion, music, beauty, caregiving, the “loneliness epidemic,” mental health or aging with dignity and purpose, they were absent along with the Church’s wisdom on such topics. 

Much attention was also focused on COVID-19, its vaccines, and overcoming vaccine hesitancy but with no comprehensive articulation of the Church’s view on them. 

Jesuit-educated Fauci, a Catholic who describes himself as a humanist and not religious, discussed science and faith in generic terms and wasn’t challenged about abortion-tainted vaccines or the ethics of vaccines. This failure to raise the matter occurred despite the Vatican stating last year that although the use of vaccines manufactured and/or tested with abortion-derived tissues is “morally licit” due to their remoteness to the evil of abortion, it is also a “moral imperative” to pressure pharmaceutical companies to produce “ethically acceptable” vaccines that have no association at all with abortions.

Fauci was also not challenged with a 2005 Vatican statement that taught it is a “grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines” different to those deriving in some way from abortion and to exert “pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available.” 

Indeed, throughout the conference, no discussion took place regarding abortion-tainted vaccines, the concerns that many vaccines have an experimental nature, or the right to refuse them on grounds of conscience for these or other ethical reasons. Instead, Fauci and other speakers spoke a great deal about overcoming vaccine hesitancy, saying a “deeply religious person who will listen to their clergy [is] different than me with a suit, going into an area, telling people to do something.” 

Chelsea Clinton of the Clinton Foundation, who is not a Catholic and believes it is “un-Christian to ban abortion,” similarly pushed the vaccines during a panel session on “Building a More Equitable Health System for All.” Clinton advised that the foundation was doing “everything and anything we can” to make people feel comfortable having the jab, and that more regulation is needed of social media to prohibit “anti-vaccine content.” No Catholic was present on the panel to challenge her about ethical questions over the vaccines.  

A segment on how to improve the medical response and build on cooperation following COVID-19 featured Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. Cooperation between vaccine manufacturers was highlighted, as again was overcoming vaccine hesitancy, and an uncritical appraisal of the mRNA technology used in many of the COVID vaccines, which has yet to receive full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  

Meanwhile, the conference awarded a “Pontifical Hero Award” for inspiration and leadership to several participants including the CEO of COVID vaccine manufacturer Moderna, Stephane Bancel, and his team. Msgr. Trafny told the Register May 10 that the Vatican wanted to acknowledge their “wonderful work and strong commitment.”

A number of speakers also promoted ideas at odds with Church teaching that went uncorrected, such as Deepak Chopra, an alternative medicine advocate, who spoke of “universal consciousness which religions might call God,” that “there’s one field of consciousness which is universal,” and that “it’s differentiating into species-specific modes of knowing that we call souls.” 

Conservationist and population-control advocate Jane Goodall spoke on the topic of “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” but no one was present to discuss her views or articulate the Church’s teaching on safeguarding creation. 

Speaking to the Register after the conference, Msgr. Trafny wondered what a “strong way” of articulating the Church’s teaching would be when it included messages from “important representatives from the Church,” such as Pope Francis, Cardinal Ravasi and Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. “We are trying to create a center for dialogue, for getting people together to work towards certain topics and discuss certain issues,” he said. 

On inviting Chelsea Clinton to the conference, Msgr. Trafny said she was not there to talk about abortion. 

“We invited her to take the floor about other things,” he said, and asked, “How many people are Catholics and maybe even went through an abortion but no one knows about that? They are glorified; they’re giving speeches; they are public figures, and everyone is okay with them. She’s not Catholic. And this is her private opinion.”

Asked why the Vatican didn’t take the opportunity to raise the issue of abortion-tainted vaccines as the CDF recommends, or other Church teachings related to health, Msgr. Trafny said those representatives from pharmaceutical companies at the conference “perfectly know” that such research is not acceptable and that “everyone knows that we don’t accept contraception, we don’t accept research made on an induced abortion, or things like that.”

“We are trying to do important work to show that [the] Church can be a part of this discussion, that the Church can help people to be more sensitive,” he added. “So, if we only blame others and condemn others, what can we really achieve? No one cares today about our condemnations.” 

He also disagreed that awarding a Pontifical Hero Award to Moderna’s CEO undermined the Church’s position. “We awarded him because they reacted to the emergency without thinking first about the money and who will be the owner of the license,” he said. 

“There will always be someone unsatisfied,” Msgr. Trafny argued, “and unfortunately today even among us Catholics, [people] are so divided on certain topics, certain ideas.” 

“There’ll always be some weak side to complain about — no one is perfect; we make mistakes every day —and we know that,” he said, “but if we only focus on the weak points, when will the light come to shine in the end?”